Planet Earth

The Trouble with Monuments

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 27, 2010 1:47 PM


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That's the title of this counterintuitive post from Jonathan Thompson, the editor-in-chief of an environmental magazine. He riffs off a brewing controversy over spectacular places in the Southwest that might soon be nominated as National Monuments. Except it's not some off-the-cuff riff. Thompson writes a poignant meditation on the complicated feelings he has about a quintessentially Western issue. It's so pitch perfect I don't even want to quote from it. I just encourage anyone with his own soulful remembrance of a landscape to read it. After you've done that, I've got something else for you to consider. So head over to Thompson's piece, then come back. Okay, if you've ever spent time hiking or camping in the Southwest, particularly southern Utah, chances are you're acquainted with a legendary nature writer, who, in the best damn book introduction I know of, reels the reader in with this kicker:

Finally a word of caution: Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place, you can't see anything from a car; youv'e got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone adn through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you'll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place, most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memoir. You're holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don't drop it on your foot--throw it at something big and glossy. What do you have to lose?

Well, if this iconic book left its mark on you, as it did with me, then you know I'm quoting from Ed Abbey's classic. And you also probably know how deeply influential that book has been since it was published in 1967. How the hordes that now descend annually on Arches National Park (and, to a lesser extent, Canyonlands), make a mockery of Abbey's mournful testimonial from four decades ago. Yet what he felt to be already lost was surely true to him. Still, where does that leave the rest of us who came after? Those of us who perhaps went there because of Desert Solitaire? I can only tell you that I keep going back, and that I now bring my own children too. And one last thing. If you're wondering about the enchanting spell of a landscape, how it sometimes takes hold in the mind, in the case of Abbey and Desert Solitaire, consider this interesting supposition from a biology professor:

When Edward Abbey signed and dated the author's introduction to Desert Solitaire, he appended the location as Nelson's Marine Bar, Hoboken. After his first term as a seasonal ranger in 1956, Abbey left Arches National Park for Hoboken, New Jersey, where his wife and son were living. On his ostensible last day at Arches, Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire: "After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue." I'm uncertain how much of Desert Solitaire was composed in Hoboken or whether any of the author's introduction was written in one of the city's bars. The earliest surviving outline of what would become Desert Solitaire dates from July 1962, when Abbey was working as a welfare caseworker in Hoboken. The possibility that Desert Solitaire, one of the most beautiful books about the Colorado Plateau, was conceived and composed in Hoboken is fascinating; it raises the question how one place influences our view of another. Abbey's longing on city streets and in Hoboken bars must have elicited a memory shadowed by distance, shifting subtly the tones of the sandstone landscape of Utah. I am curious about the desires we fulfill in prose rather than place.

That might take us into the realm of nostalgia, which is deserving of another post some other time... UPDATE: Gambler's House weighs in with a thoughtful post. Some mighty interesting recollections of attitudes towards Abbey, too.

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