Abbey's American West

January 29: Edward Abbey, the American essayist, novelist, and environmentalist, was born on this day in 1927. Larry McMurtry's description of Abbey as "the Thoreau of the American West" alludes to the prickly manner in which Abbey spoke out on the disappearance and commercialization of public lands, or on our dwindling concern over this process. There was no cabin reclusion in Abbey's life, but his time as a Park Ranger in what is now Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah, produced Desert Solitaire, often described as his Walden book:

There are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch. Depending on your preconceptions you may see the eroded remnant of a sandstone fin, a giant engagement ring cemented in rock, a bow-legged pair of petrified cowboy chaps, a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical geological freak, a happening—a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again, a frame more significant than its picture, a simple monolith eaten away by weather and time and soon to disintegrate into a chaos of falling rock.... There are the inevitable pious Midwesterners who climb a mile and a half under the desert sun to view Delicate Arch and find only God ("Goldangit Katherine, where's my light meter, this glare is turrible"), and the equally inevitable students of geology who look at the arch and see only Lyell and the uniformity of nature. You may therefore find proof for or against His existence. Suit yourself.... If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of its ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder.

Abbey took on pedestrian topics as well. The following is from "Walking," one of the essays in The Journey Home:

Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who's always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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