Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire as a
Narrative of Ecological Sustainability
Ambika Bhalla, PhD Scholar,
"A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourist can in a hundred miles."
–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
While the social and political protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s entailed a radical revision of America’s cultural constitution along the conceptual lines of race, class, and gender, resulting in the canon debates of the 1980s, the new environmental sensibility emerging in the same period made significant academic impact. The theoretical project most central to the new discipline of ecocriticism is understood as a truthful representation of ecological facts. By keeping faith with the natural environment, it is assumed, literary mimesis can bring about a biocentric reorientation of the reader. For this purpose, the arguments put forward by Edward Abbey, the leading American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues, may be taken as representative. Edward Paul (January 29,1927- March 14, 1989) was an American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental; issues and criticism of public land policies. His best- known works include the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has been cited as an inspiration by radical environmental groups, and the non- fiction work Desert solitaire. Writer Larry Mc Murtry referred to Abbey as the “Thoreau of the American West”. Abbey was included in the list of nature writers along with Thoreau, Annie Dillard and Aldo Leopold, though he had resisted it. He said that it was a title that he had not earned or wanted or enjoyed. But the fact is that Abbey is indeed a nature writer.
Nature writing is not just any writing that happens to mention the outdoors, the flora and the fauna. It is the voice born out of a relationship with nature developed during the interconnections and interrelationships with nature. And Abbey's Desert Solitaire is all this and more. Desert Solitaire is a founding text of ecocriticism that encourage the readers to reflect on the conditions that enable an ecological perspective that positions humans with nature while recognizing that the nonhuman exists in its own right. It is regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature, and has been compared to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand Country Almanac and Thoreau’s Walden. In it, Abbey vividly describes the physical landscapes of southern Utah and delights in his isolation as a backcountry park ranger, recounting adventures in the nearby canyon country and mountains. He also attacks what he terms the “industrial tourism” and resulting development in the national parks (“national parking lots”), rails against the Glen Canyon Dam, and comments on various other subjects. In this paper, I will argue that if we seek to understand how texts reshape attitudes towards nature, we should focus our attention on a text’s faithfulness to ecological facts, and also on the way in which it picks up and transforms the narratives circulating in a culture.
Critic Edward S. Twining writes, “Let it be said simply: Abbey’s writing registers major changes in the America of our time with clarity and force” (Twining 19). The environmental movement known as monkeywrenching, whose conception is credited to Abbey, had its genesis for the American public in Desert Solitaire. It succeeds by painting a portrait of earthly beauty in grave danger, then offering a solution: personal actions taken against the industrial/governmental machinery that threatens this tender landscape. Abbey wanders into the wilderness just after it has lost its status as frontier. Exploitative industry has discovered a mother lode of...
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