By "Sunday Morning" contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg.
One of the major illuminating moments of my life was reading "Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey. It literally changed my worldview, and thus my life. One of the reasons it made such a big impact is I first heard Abbey's words in a beautiful setting, around a campfire in Arches National Park.
I was on "The Great Circle Field Trip" led by my ecology and geology professors from Sam Houston State University. The "Great Circle" included the national parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah. It was 1981, and the desert southwest was not as popular with tourists as it is now. We walked all over that country.
During one early morning hike our geology professor stopped at the top of one of many mesas we climbed and broke into song: "Oh What a Beautiful Morning." We were already hot and tired and I wanted to slap him for being that perky. But he was right -- the rocks, the cactus, even the feel of the place were incredible.
One of the places we visited on that trip was Arches National Park. It was my first trip to the desert. It took me a while to appreciate its stark beauty, but once I began to learn about its amazingly well-adapted plants and animals that not only survived there, but thrived, I learned to love it all.
I already knew I loved biology, and every critter I could catch, but "Desert Solitaire" solidified my thoughts and made me realize I wasn't alone.
Abbey (who died in 1989) was a wholehearted admirer of all things natural while also being irreverent, prickly and thought-provoking. He was a ranger in Arches National Monument (now a national park) in 1956 and 1957, and much of "Desert Solitaire" came from the journals he kept during those two seasons.
One of the slightly older guys on that trip brought along a copy of "Desert Solitaire." He took it out one evening and read aloud:
"What can I tell them? Sealed in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener. Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines … lady, roll that window down! You can't see the desert if you can't smell it. Dusty? Of course it's dusty -- this is Utah! But it's good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony. Turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins … Give the kids a break too, let them out of the car, let them go scrambling over rocks hunting for rattlesnakes and scorpions and anthills -- yes sir, let them out, turn them loose; … Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk – walk -- WALK upon your sweet and blessed land!"
I was immediately hooked. I read "Desert Solitaire" and everything else Abbey wrote. He made me realize humans aren't the only organisms on this Earth and that all of the others, ants, bears, wolves, cactus, and even mosquitoes have just as much right to be here as we do. (Well, maybe even more of a right since they were here first.) We cannot continue covering their world with concrete and houses. As Abbey said "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 spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself."
I have tried to live my life as Abbey suggests: "One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am -- a reluctant enthusiast … a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it's still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards."
Much of Edward Abbey's philosophy about wilderness was probably shaped during his years as a ranger in Arches. I think I know the feeling he had for that lovely, mysterious, awesome space, and will never be able to repay him for teaching me to admire what some may think of as stark and unlovely in Arches National Park.
For more info:
- Arches National Park, Utah (National Park Service)
- "Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness" by Edward Abbey (Simon & Schuster), in Trade Paperback; Available via Amazon
Judy Lehmberg is a former college biology teacher who now shoots nature videos.
For more info: