Down the River
© 1982 Edward Abbey
In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey collected contemplative pieces he had written while a park ranger in the high desert, putting his passion for the wilderness into action by working to conserve it. The volume mixed poetic descriptions of the wild beauty of the desert with reflection on the value of wilderness; not as an avenue of resources yet-to-be-exploited, but as a place for reflection and the realization of an authentic life. Down the River follows the same course, though the pieces here are connected not to a season living as a park ranger, but to various adventures Abbey embarked upon while exploring the rivers of the American Southwest. Abbey simultaneously recounts his journeys with friends with the thinking the landscape inspired, and since often he made a journey to find something out, those thoughts are not as random as might be supposed. In one essay Abbey explores an area that will soon be off limits to him, for it will be shut to the public to protect an incoming missile installation. Here his descriptions of what is seen combine with condemnation of the military-industrial complex and thoughts on Cold War geopolitics in general. This at least has a happy ending, for Abbey’s kindred spirits in the region were able to rouse enough local protest to prompt President Reagan to put off building the complex. This is certainly a happier piece than the similar essay in Desert Solitaire which saw him exploring Glen Canyon River shortly before it was dammed up. There are a few odds and ends, like his faux-review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from the perspective of a Hells Angel who critiqued the book on its mechanical advice. This is presented in all seriousness.
Although not quite on the level of Desert Solitaire, Down the River is worth reading purely for its opening essay, “Down the River with Henry David Thoreau”. Abbey is a modern Thoreau, in that their works see them retreating into Nature in search of a more authentic life; they find solace and fullness in the wilderness, and distantly removed from ‘civilization’ they can reflect both on its merits and flaws more objectively. The principle difference is that while Thoreau is a gentle Puritan from the forest; Abbey a cantankerous free spirit in the desert. Thoreau ruminates, Abbey complains, but while Thoreau is a lonely sage of the wilderness, Abbey is almost never alone and always in the middle of a good time. Whether he’s touring with cowboys in Desert Solitaire or swapping jibes with boatmen here in Down the River, Abbey is plainly enjoying the wilderness. Regardless of the sheer animal pleasure Abbey takes in the wild, he is thoughtful, as well. Thoreau appears through the volume, for in Abbey’s words his is a spirit which has only grown larger through the ages as we continue to replace the wild with lifelessness. In addition to again defending the virtues of the wilderness — both for its own sake, in its beauty, and for the practical importance the wild has as a place of refuge or comparison for the civilized man — Abbey continues his grousing against the 20th century’s fondness for size and complexity, in abandoning small, resilience farms run by homesteaders for massive agribusinesses run by men in suits whose every solution is even more energy- and system-dependent.
Again I owe a debt of gratitude to the commenter who suggested I might like Abbey a few years ago.