Desert Solitaire depicts Abbey’s preoccupation with the deserts of the American Southwest. He describes how the desert affects society and more specifically the individual on a multifaceted, sensory level. Many of the ideas and themes drawn out in the book are paradoxical. Abbey is dogmatically opposed in various sections to modernity that alienates man from their natural environment and spoils the desert landscapes, and yet at various points relies completely on modern contrivances to explore and live in the desert. He expresses his deep and abiding respect for all forms of life in his philosophy, but describes unflinchingly his contempt for the cattle he herds in the canyons, and in another scene stones a rabbit in anger of their invasion of the desert. However Abbey deliberately highlights many of the paradoxes and comments on them in his final chapter, particularly in regards to his conception of the desert landscape itself. He introduces the desert as “the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks” and describes his initial reaction to his newfound environment and its challenges. For Abbey the desert is a symbol of strength and he is “comforted by [the] solidity and resistance” of his natural surroundings. However, he also sees the desert as “a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time – another paradox – both agonized and deeply still.” The desert represents a harsh reality unseen by the masses. It is this harshness that makes “the desert more alluring, more baffling, more fascinating” increasing the vibrancy of life.
In his narrative, Abbey is both an individual, solitary and independent, and a member of a greater ecosystem, as both predator and prey. This duality ultimately allows him the freedom to prosper as “love flowers best in openness in freedom.” Abbey’s overall entrancement with the desert, and in turn its indifference towards man, is prevalent throughout his writings. To Abbey the desert represents both the end to one life and the beginning of another:
The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert. Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelope the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas - the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after sufficient time, now matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course.
Like Thoreau's Walden and Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, Abbey adopts a style of narrative in Desert Solitaire that compresses multiple years of observations and experiences into a singular narrative that follows the timeline of a single cycle of the seasons. In this process, many of the events and characters described are often fictionalized in many key respects, and the account is not entirely true to the author's actual experiences, highlighting the importance of the philosophical and aesthetic qualities of the writing rather than its strict adherence to an autobiographical genre.
Modernity and Industrial Society
One of the dominant themes in Desert Solitaire is his disgust with mainstream culture and its effect on society. Abbey’s message is that civilization and nature both have their own culture, and it is necessary to survival that they remain separate: "The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself, to eliminate for good. I am here not only to escape for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us.
Abbey’s impression is that we are trapped by the machinations of mainstream culture. This is made apparent with quotes such as: “Yet history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies tend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible." He also believes the daily routine is meaningless, that we have created a life that we don’t even want to live in:
My God! I am thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives – the domestic routine (same old wife every night), the stupid and useless degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the business men, the tedious wars in which we kill our buddies instead of our real enemies back in the capital, the foul diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephone!
Abbey displays disdain for the way industrialization is impacting upon the American wilderness. He scolds humanity for the environmental duress caused by man’s blatant disregard for nature: “If industrial man, continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural, and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making”. Man prioritizes material items over nature, development and expansion for the sake of development:
There may be some among the readers of this book, like the earnest engineer, who believe without question that any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods, in the national parks as well as anywhere else, who virtually identify quantity with quality and therefore assume that the greater the quantity of traffic, the higher the value received. There are some who frankly and boldly advocate the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of--not man--but industry. This is a courageous view, admirable in its simplicity and power, and with the weight of all modern history behind it. It is also quite insane. I cannot attempt to deal with it here.
Another example of this for Abbey is the tragedy of the commons: “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. If industrial man continues to multiply its numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth”. He also criticizes what he sees as the dominant social paradigm, what he calls the expansionist view, and the belief that technology will solve all our problems: “Confusing life expectancy with life-span, the gullible begin to believe that medical science has accomplished a miracle—lengthened human life!” Abbey takes this theme to an extreme at various points of the narrative, concluding that: “Wilderness preservations like a hundred other good causes will be forgotten under the overwhelming pressure, or a struggle for mere survival and sanity in a completely urbanized completely industrialized, ever more crowded environment, for my own part I would rather take my chances in a thermonuclear war then live in such a world”.
Abbey states his dislike of the human agenda and presence by providing evidence of beauty that is beautiful simply because of its lack of human connection: “I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself.” There is no hidden meaning in the wilderness for Abbey - he finds it beautiful because it is untainted by human perspectives and values. He also concludes that its inherent emptiness and meaninglessness serves as the ideal canvas for human philosophy absent the distractions of human contrivances and natural complexities. As such, Abbey wonders why natural monuments like mountains and oceans are mythologized and extolled much more than deserts are. That emptiness is one of the defining aspects of the desert wildness and for Abbey one of its greatest assets - and one which humans have disturbed and harmed by their own presence:
I am almost prepared to believe that this sweet virginal primitive land would be grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourist, will breath metaphorically a collective sigh of relief - like a whisper of wind – when we are all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious, brooding consciousness of man.
Midway through the text, Abbey observes that nature is something lost since before the time of our forefathers, something that has become distant and mysterious which he believes we should all come to know better: "Suppose we say that wilderness provokes nostalgia, a justified not merely sentimental nostalgia for the lost America our forefathers knew. The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of the earth from which we all emerged." He quite firmly believes that our agenda should change, that we need to reverse our path and reconnect with that something we have lost - indeed, that mankind and civilization needs wilderness for its own edification. Abbey is not unaware, however, of the behaviour of his human kin; instead, he realizes that people have very different ideas about how to experience nature. Some like to live as much in accord with nature as possible, and others want to have both manmade comforts and a marvellous encounter with nature simultaneously: “Hard work. And risky. Too much for some, who have given up the struggle on the highways, in exchange for an entirely different kind of vacation- out in the open, on their own feet, following the quiet trail through forests and mountains, bedding down in the evening under the stars, when and where they feel like it, at a time where the Industrial Tourists are still hunting for a place to park their automobiles." His process simply suggests we do our best to be more on the side of being one with nature without the presence of objects which represent our “civilization”. Abbey also was concerned with the level of human connection to the tools of civilization. He was in favor of returning to nature and gaining the freedom that was lost with the inventions that take us places in this day and age:
A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, power lines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life go to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it is there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.
The wilderness is equal to freedom for Abbey, it is what separates him from others and allows him to have his connection with the planet. But he wants others to have the same freedom. His only request is that they cut their strings first. When Abbey is lounging in his chair in 110-degree heat at Arches and observes that the mountains are snow-capped and crystal clear, it shows what nature provides: one extreme is able to counter another. That a median can be found, and that pleasure and comfort can be found between the rocks and hard places: "The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the desert more easily bearable. Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and complete civilization."
Finally Abbey makes the statements that connect humanity to nature as a whole. He makes the acknowledgement that we came from the wilderness, we have lived by it, and we will return to it. This is an expression of loyalty: “But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see”. He continues by saying that man is rightly obsessed with Mother Nature. It is where we came from, and something we still recognize as our starting point: “Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not-at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me”. Finally, Abbey makes the statement that man needs nature to sustain humanity: “No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread."