[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] President Trump, Please Read ‘Desert Solitaire’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 28 10:11:45 MST 2018

(This is a nice tribute to Edward Abbey but I doubt that anything read 
by Trump or Zinke would make a difference. It would be like urging 
Hitler to read Franz Boas.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review
President Trump, Please Read ‘Desert Solitaire’

In a 1973 TV spot, the United States Forest Service sage Smokey Bear 
admonished that “one careless second with a match and America the 
beautiful becomes America the ugly.” So what would Smokey say now when a 
few careless seconds with a pen allowed President Trump and Interior 
Secretary Ryan Zinke to remove protections from two million acres of 
precious American wilderness? If courts uphold Trump’s executive orders 
of last December, they would reduce southern Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand 
Staircase-Escalante monuments by 85 and 46 percent, respectively, 
constituting the biggest rollback of federally protected land in 
American history.

But fear not, lovers of the Utah canyon country, for the ghost of 
free-spirited eco-warrior Edward Abbey once again gallops to the rescue 
via his eloquent and funny memoir “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the 
Wilderness,” first published 50 years ago this month and reviewed by The 
Times on this exact day in 1968. Set among the very Colorado Plateau 
ecosystem targeted by Trump’s executive orders, every gleaming page of 
Abbey’s autobiography virtually shouts out the necessity of protecting 
our public lands from desecration, and sings the nobility of wilderness 
defenders whose intrinsic value system rejects the “sweating scramble 
for profit and domination.” While at various junctures Abbey delineates 
on John Wesley Powell’s Geographic Expedition of 1869, the history of 
Mormonism and the night life at bars from Moab to Mexican Hat, it’s his 
fierce stewardship of the desert environment that continues to shine 

When “Desert Solitaire” first appeared in 1968, its prose galvanized 
environmentalists toward bold action to save the American Southwest from 
the maw of hyper-industrialism. Only Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County 
Almanac” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” equal “Desert Solitaire” in 
transforming the genre of naturalist studies into manifestoes for social 
change. Paradoxically gruff and tender, starkly Darwinian in scientific 
exactitude yet brimming with mystical flourishes, Abbey’s enlivening 
nonfiction storytelling — anchored around his two compressed seasons as 
a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument during the late Eisenhower 
era — is a perfectly rendered hybrid of transcendental joy, coyote 
humor, in-your-face wrath, field science detail, philosophical 
righteousness, and moral clarity. Half a century after its debut, it 
retains its potency as a motivational weapon of resistance, a polemic 
against despoilers and a reasoned paean to biological diversity, 
priceless petroglyphs and the heavenly solitude of wilderness. Facing 
Trump’s short-term vision of America’s public lands, it takes little 
imagination to read Abbey’s masterpiece today as a prescient 
counter-statement for defending not only Bears Ears and Grand 
Staircase–Escalante, but the entire slickrock Colorado Plateau.

Raised in the Alleghenies of western Pennsylvania, Abbey was rugged and 
self-assured, with the scraggly beard of an Old West prospector and the 
iconoclastic poise of a bohemian Yosemite Sam. In “Desert Solitaire,” he 
anoints the 76,000-acre Arches National Monument (now a national park) 
the “most beautiful place on earth.” Basking in the ethereal vastness, 
he eloquently describes the burned cliffs, corroded monoliths, natural 
bridges and talus slopes of this hard-edge cloud country. “Everything is 
lovely and wild, with a virginal sweetness,” he rhapsodizes. “The arches 
themselves, strange, impressive, grotesque, form but a small and 
inessential part of the general beauty of this country. When we think of 
rock we usually think of stones, broken rock, buried under soil and 
plant life, but here all is exposed and naked, dominated by the 
monolithic formations of sandstone which stand above the surface of the 
ground and extend for miles, sometimes level, sometimes tilted or warped 
by pressures from below, carved by erosion and weathering into an 
intricate maze of glens, grottoes, fissures, passageways and deep narrow 

Abbey’s detailed journals and notes from his time in the unfenced Utah 
backcountry formed the basis of “Desert Solitaire.” When out-and-about 
as a ranger he felt intoxicated, as if time were suspended. Awed by the 
eternal beauty all around him, mirthful and full of delight, he melted 
into the landscape, living in rustic simplicity and natural fellowship 
with the desert’s wildlife while developing a firm foundation in desert 
ecology. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s dictum “Resist much, obey little,” 
Abbey became an aggressive watchdog of Arches and the surrounding Utah 
canyonlands held sacred by the Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Pueblo of Zuni 
tribes. Patrolling in a Park Service pickup, often in uniform, he came 
to revile the bulldozers, dams, paved roads and industrial tourism that 
define Southwest development, and to channel that revulsion into 
ferocious, and at times anarchistic, prose.

In “Desert Solitaire” he denounces the mere thought of large-scale 
uranium mining in Utah’s howling salmon-pink tableland, and he reminds a 
cynical and distrustful public — both a half-century ago and today — 
that the mission of the Park Service, from its 1916 establishment 
onward, is to preserve our treasured landscapes in an “unimpaired” 
fashion. “Wilderness preservation, like a hundred other good causes, 
will be forgotten under the overwhelming pressure of a struggle for mere 
survival and sanity in a completely urbanized, completely 
industrialized, even more crowded environment,” he warned. “For my own 
part I would rather take my chances in a thermonuclear war than live in 
such a world.”

There is a fine set-piece in “Desert Solitaire” where Abbey tacks a 
scarlet bandanna to a ridgepole outside his government-issued trailer 
house, then hangs Chinese wind-bells to chime in the dry breeze — a 
ritual of “poetry and revolution before breakfast.” Then Abbey, the 
ranger, dutifully hoists Old Glory up the flagpole at Arches’ entrance 
station, as mandated by the Park Service. Wishing “good swill” to all 
nations in a kind of off-handed prayer, he savages “swinish politics” 
for wrecking his beloved Southwestern landscapes. When he was writing, 
the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversaw decades of real 
improvement in protecting American lands and scrubbing pollutants from 
our air and water, still did not exist. It’s a reminder both of how 
activism can break over dark times, and how, after notching victories, 
it can again get darker still. Were Abbey alive to see Trump’s proposal 
to slash the agency’s budget by a third in 2018, he would be apoplectic.

It’s not too late for salvation. If Zinke would read “Desert Solitaire,” 
hike Comb Ridge in the Grand Staircase–Escalante as Abbey regularly did, 
run the awesome San Juan River around Slickhorn Canyon, or camp under 
the lonely sky of Cedar Mesa, he might undergo a miraculous awakening 
and push Trump to rescind his reckless executive orders — but that, of 
course, is unlikely. Instead, Zinke behaves like an errand boy for the 
coal and petroleum industries, a faux cowboy who made his showboat debut 
as interior secretary by riding a horse to his first day in office, 
where he got right to work ransacking national monuments and pillaging 
Native American shrines, all to further the president’s war on America’s 
natural legacy and ingratiate himself to Utah’s quick-dollar Senator 
Orrin Hatch.

Facing the most egregious rape of Western lands since the Glen Canyon 
Dam bisected the swift-flowing Colorado River, environmental crusaders 
are already fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve Bears Ears and Grand 
Staircase–Escalante. Within hours of Trump’s executive orders, the Grand 
Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and others filed 
suit. As these conservation heroes go to bat for us all, they’d do well 
to keep “Desert Solitaire” in their back pockets, providing a call to 
action or, at the least, uplifting smelling salts to boost their resolve.

Abbey’s voice, like that of Thomas Paine in “Common Sense,” never fades 
away. When confronted by industrial tyranny he would fume like a geyser 
basin. Outdoor recreation was his rebellion against the decaying and 
overcrowded cities. In the 1980s, as a succession of Reagan-era 
appointees sought to weaken protection of federal lands, “Desert 
Solitaire” became a must-read for environmentalists and Abbey found 
himself speaking to crowds of hundreds, denouncing money-grubbers who 
willy-nilly looted the public domain. His death in 1989 silenced his 
outraged voice, but no one will ever be able to silence the power of 
“Desert Solitaire,” his wild-goat cry to leave it as it was. “A 
civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, 
the original,” Abbey warned, “is cutting itself off from its origins.”

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and author 
of “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”

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