Ben Schubert: Civilization vs. Solitude: Edward Abbey’s Paradox of Desire

“There are lonely hours. How can I deny it? There are times when solitaire becomes solitary, an entirely different game, a prison term, and the inside of the skull as confining and unbearable as the interior of house trailer on a hot day” (119)

A mistaken assumption can be made about Edward Abbey’s philosophy towards the juxtaposition of humans and nature. Prefering to contemplate and spend time in nature does not contradict the enjoyment of the opposing – or contrasting human constructed environment, as I personally have discovered in the backcountry of Eastern Utah.

On day 11 of our 12 day expedition in the Dirty Devil River Valley I realized the group’s prescribed solo day was a prime opportunity to reflect on Abbey’s presumably contradicting desires. I experienced similiar desires on this past trek, throughout this field semester, and during all other times spent away from the novelty and familiarity of cherished but too often unappreciated frontcountry amenities.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness documents Edward Abbey’s summers as a ranger in Arches National Park (then “Arches National Monument”, c. 1929-1971), outside Moab UT in a fragmented line of both personal experiences, historical anecdotes, and general reflections of place. This WRFI group’s sub-two week expeditions are not comparable to Abbey’s multiple years spent in Canyon Country – especially in solitude. Still, I pay this no mind, as my peers might agree that it takes only a brief amount of time to long for – desire –  a life left behind. “Inside the trailer, surrounded by the artifice of America, I was reminded insistently of all I had, for a season, left behind” (121).

Through these passages and the book’s whole it becomes clear that Abbey doesn’t damn civilization, he beholds it, even longs for it upon his removal from it. His apparent dilemma focuses on the cultural implications that civilization has created. Rather than condemn the existence of advancing technology and ingenuity, Abbey despises the specific application of human knowledge over its possibilities. Culture, not civilization, spawns dogmatic ignorance, often fueling the fire of human conflict.

I enjoy spending time away from developed lands, social norms, and mindless anthropocentric consumption – civilization. Similar to Abbey, I can can appreciate what is left behind in either situation. Experiencing and reconnecting with a landscape has been not only a meditation for me, but a realization in ecology. Existence is inseparable from the resource capacity of the Earth and thus humans are responsible for careful stewardship. More eloquently stated in Desert Solitaire E. Abbey explains that, “No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the space, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself” (211).

I have longed for the comforts and conveniences of our society before. The simple luxuries of my carpeted room, a sink to wash my face, a table to sit and enjoy a meal. Strangely, I miss the romantic abstraction of a city’s bright skyline against a deep night sky or the persistently chaotic sounds of activity –  fleeting sirens through the night. These items somewhat oppose natural environments, but they are not separate from life’s fluctuating processes. Constant geologic shifting, continual and more tangible hydrologic erosion, the renewal of decomposition – cycles of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic factors. Then it hits me. What I long for most of all does not lie in either realm of civilized construct or natural process. What I long for most is close friends, unconditionally supportive family, and a lover by my side. As I contemplate this true desire I am overwhelmed with gratitude by the group of people around me for their strength, respect, openness, and receptivity to our changing daily adventures. Surely they long for these relationships too, and if nothing else we have found that commonality in each other. Luckily, my ‘season in the wilderness’ is not also a season in complete solitude.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season In the Wilderness. 1968.

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