Despite the frequently militant stance of its author, Desert Solitaire clearly reflects concerns of certain essayists who have gone before him. Moreover, Abbey is not unaware of his predecessors and acknowledges his debt in a bibliographic paragraph toward the end of the work. He claims to be undertaking an original task, however, among those who write about deserts, for he wishes to discover “the peculiar quality or character of the desert that distinguishes it, in spiritual appeal, from other forms of landscape . . . if it exists at all and is not simply an illusion.” This singularity of essence tends to resolve itself as a matter of preference, for which Abbey is characteristically unapologetic. The attempt to discover transcendent truth in nature, however, is ground that has been plowed before, stretching at least as far back as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854). The landscape may differ, but the philosophical undertaking remains essentially the same. Thoreau entered the mystery through Walden and environs, whereas Abbey passes through the Arches in search of the bare bones of existence.
The themes of transcendent insight and spiritual union with the natural world are pervasive and recurrent in the works of Western naturalists. In the writings of John Muir, immersion in nature is likened to a baptism. The artificial duality between man and nature breaks down in the intensity of the experience. Yet Muir does not sacrifice science to mysticism; rather, the emotional and aesthetic experience heightens and enriches scientific inquiry. In this respect, Muir is one of Abbey’s direct antecedents. Although Abbey is not a naturalist, Desert Solitaire is filled with observations of the trained eye. Whereas Muir enriches science with personal communion, Abbey’s scientific observations serve the eloquence of his prose. He...
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