Somewhere under my feet on the sculptural slickrock and sand of Arches National Park are Edward Abbey’s footprints. I know this not because I see them, but because the ink marks of his pen have proven more indelible. In his classic Desert Solitaire, he speaks in detail of the trails I wander sixty years later.
Abbey was a park ranger at Arches in 1956-57, when he was often the only one on the job; when the area might not be visited on a Monday by a single tourist; when the roads were all gravel at best. He loved it that way: enough so that he writes of ripping out five miles of the government surveyors’ stakes himself, when men came to plan for pavement.
I celebrate Abbey’s wild and truthful insights about the land and our relationship to it, even if I don’t always agree with his actions. His wisdom remains unique and timeless. It’s as vigilant, steady and clear as the moon above the fragile span of Landscape Arch. And like many of us, he sees the value of celebration and joy—even when he wonders if it’s a projection. Writing of the song of frogs in desert, alive and expressive when the rains have come at last, he says:
“To human ears their music has a bleak, dismal, tragic quality, dirgelike rather than jubilant. It may nevertheless be the case that these small beings are singing not only to claim their stake in the pond, not only to attract a mate, but also out of spontaneous love and joy, a contrapuntal choral celebration of the coolness and wetness after weeks of desert fire, for love of their own existence, however brief it may be, and for joy in the common life.
“Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.”
With his frequent remembrance of the power of enjoying the beautiful earth as well as fighting to preserve it, Abbey’s words make more sense to me than those of many environmental warriors.
Still, I’m one of the ones he warned of in decrying “industrial tourism”—as is almost everyone else in the Arches visitor center. We are not true denizens of the desert. We are not wild creatures willing to risk ourselves in service to it. We are, alas, automotive travelers quickly lost without maps and air conditioning, consuming fossil fuels at a prodigious rate in our “civilized” quest for a safe semblance of adventure. We, although loving the desert and Abbey’s words—some coming here because of Abbey’s words, even—are the inevitable result of paved easy roads, exploited cheap gasoline, and a debilitating dependence upon an expectation of convenience. The wilderness is an industry. The wilderness is rarely a wilderness anymore.
Should this temper our reverence, our celebration of the majestic landscape? I think not. The celebration is too primal. And what is our call to the wilderness, anyway? On this, Abbey writes:
“Wilderness… The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit. Romance—but not to be dismissed on that account. The romantic view, while not the whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth.
“But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, 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.”
Yet we do have the eyes to see, all of us who have arrived at Arches to use them. We do have that romantic view, that loyalty, that intimate connection with present and lost earth. Most of us have come a long ways to reach here—especially judging by the plethora of foreign tongues I hear spoken—even if we have come here in a way that’s in conflict with our own environmental beliefs. Though we are the human equivalent of wildlife raised in captivity, no longer equipped to return to the wild, we still make great effort to commune with it. We seek to be in the presence of some of the Earth’s most austere and beautiful places. By doing so, we remember in our bones who we really are, and where we’ve come from. I celebrate that, without reserve or apology.
Thus I stand near Landscape Arch now, as Abbey often did. It’s a different arch now, thinner and more fragile since forty tons of rock fell from it in 1991. At some moment in future time, the arch is as sure to fall as we are. It’s a changing being too. I think of Abbey’s invisible footprints again, and wonder which grains of sand they rearranged, and how that has led to the exact way they sit now. I think of the progressions of change I see around me: mine, Abbey’s, everyone’s. Our changes are more rapid than the shifts of the arch, in turn more rapid than the shifts on the airless moon that watches over the arch, a silent and apparently serene guardian.
Of the images I make from the arch and its landscape, I find I most like the one that doesn’t show the interconnections of arch and earth. It echoes the invisibility that inspires me: not only the invisibility of Abbey’s footprints, but of the way greater spirit feels to me, its existence more implied than evident. For me, it’s more powerful that way. In mystery I find wonder more often than in hard knowledge. In mystery is that wildness within all of us, still the beautiful essence of who we are.