Desert Solitaire Summary

Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

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Desert Solitaire Summary

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This book is an autobiographical work based on Edward Abbey’s time working as a park ranger in the Arches National Monument area in the 1950s. Similar to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the book is written as a series of vignettes that explore Abbey’s time in the desert, including vivid descriptions of the plants and animals around the Colorado Plateau, Abbey’s exploration of the river area, philosophical treatises on the role of people in their environment, and Abbey’s interactions with other park and governmental authorities.

The book grew from notes Abbey kept during a series of six-month stints as a park ranger. It included detailed observation and sketches, thanks, in part, to the relatively low number of visitors the park received during this time, owing to its lack of development and basic road and camping facilities.

Abbey’s observations include analysis of declining numbers of some species of animals and plants, declines he attributes to the increasing presence of human developments in the area. Abbey is particularly concerned about the impact Department of Agriculture policies have had on the numbers of large desert predators like bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, and wildcats. The lowering of the numbers of these animals has allowed the population of other prey animals, like rabbits and deer, to explode, disrupting the delicate balance of the desert ecosystem.

Abbey spends time in his book describing the unique geological formations found in the park, especially the Delicate Arch and Double Arch formations. He notes that the formations’ shapes look different, depending on physical and mental points of view. They can even look like wedding bands, when viewed from the proper angles.

Several chapters consider the roles that people have played in the landscape around him. Abbey discusses lead, uranium, silver, and zinc mining in the area. The contrast between success and failure fascinates him. Some people came to the desert and left as millionaires, while others literally died searching for treasure in the harsh desert conditions. All around are signs and evidence of human greed: roads, old mineshafts, abandoned buildings and equipment.

To combat the boredom of his isolation, Abbey assists a local rancher during his spring cattle roundup. He tries to capture one of the rancher’s horses, a wild gelding named Old Moon-Eye on account of its one bad, milky eye.

Abbey recounts several of his other adventures in the area including and outside of the park’s lands. He stays for five weeks in Havasu, a settlement of Native Americans in a canyon near the Grand Canyon. He also embarks on a rafting trip through the Glen Canyon before the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam floods it. The books describes the natural wonders now covered by Lake Powell. Abbey nearly dies during one of these adventures, and that serves to highlight just how powerful and unforgiving nature can be in the desert.

Another section of the book describes Abbey’s search for the body of a dead tourist in the Grand Canyon. He assists other authorities in finding the deceased person, a sixty-year-old man who’s died from exposure.

At one point, he climbs Mount Tukuhnikivatz, and explores a section of canyons called The Maze.

Abbey ends his book with an extended section that considers the damage people are doing to the natural landscape around him, either through greed or ignorance. In one section, Abbey is deeply critical of the policies of the National Park Service that he feels have been made without considering what’s best for the environment. Specifically, Abbey disagrees with the development of roads and other amenities that he sees are designed to make it easier for lazy Americans to experience nature without understanding or appreciating it properly.

The book ends, and Abbey returns to New York; his time as a ranger is over. He has mixed feelings about this. Though he appreciates and desires the community and human interaction that come with his return from the desert, he misses the connection and spirituality that came from his time in the park. He struggles to find the words to describe his experience.

Like most of Abbey’s work, Desert Solitaire explores the importance and beauty of the natural world. As a work of mostly non-fiction, Abbey takes the time to specifically offer his views and philosophy.

Desert Solitaire is considered one of the most important works of nature writing, and Abbey is considered a founder of the modern environmentalist movement. His works have inspired environmental groups who look upon his writing as both justification and a road map for their activities.

Abbey’s work has been favorably compared to activist works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and more observational and philosophical work like the writing of Annie Dillard.

The landscape Abbey describes in this book, for example the Glen Canyon Dam, appears in his other work.