Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside. Edward Abbey. 1984. ISBN 978-0805008203
If you desire to know, feel and live the desert, as opposed to only looking at it as tourists and art critics do, you’ve got to arise from your bottom end and walk upright like a human being, alone or with a friend, into the ancient blood-thrilling primeval freedom of those vast and democratic vistas. You will never understand the secret essence of the world freedom until you do.
I do not hold with those who find in geometry the essence of elegance; what Euclid and his successors fell in love with was not the world out there but the world inside – structures of the human mind. They were admiring an aspect of themselves, like Narcissus doting on his image in the pool.
Beyond the hill is the auburn-colored desolation of the desert: stony hills, lean peaks, narrow bands of olive-drab shrubbery winding along the waterless drainages and in the distance, on all horizons, from fifty to sixty miles away, the farther ranges of blue, magenta and purple mountains, where nothing human lives or ever did. I find this a cheery, even exhilarating prospect. The world of nature is faithful and never disappoints.
I have now walked seventy-five miles plus side trips. Only fifty to go. Five days so far in the open, without roof, without walls. An emotion old as the human race, essence without name, flows through my heart and mind.
… the birds will gather the fruit, eat the flesh, scatter the seeds on the barren ground. But not utterly barren, even here. A few will germinate, sprout, take root, resume the endless, pointless, beautiful cycle, again and again and again. For what purpose? Only the weary and the foolish insist on a purpose. Let being be. To make shade for a titmouse, that is the purpose.
Seated once more on my rear end, like everybody else in the modern world, I slump with relief back into the delights of the civilization I love to despise. My feet are even happier than I am. Within minutes my 115-mile walk through the desert hills becomes a thing apart, a disjunct reality on the far side of a bottomless abyss, immediately beyond physical recollection. But it’s all still there in my heart and soul. The walk, the hills, the sky, the solitary pain and pleasure – they will grow larger, sweeter, lovelier in the days and years to come, like a treasure found and then, voluntarily, surrendered. Returned to the mountains with my blessing. It leaves a golden glowing in the mind.
We were desert mystics, my few friends and I, the kind who read maps as others read their holy books. I once sat on the rim of a mesa above the Rio Grande for three days and nights, trying to have a vision. I got hungry and saw God in the form of a beef pie.
But why, the questioner insists, why do people like you pretend to love uninhabited country so much? Why this cult of wilderness? Why the surly hatred of progress and development, the churlish resistance to all popular improvements? Very well, a fair question, but it’s been asked and answered a thousand times already; enough books to drive a man stark naked mad have dealt in detail with this question. There are many answers, all good, each sufficient. Peace is often mentioned; beauty; spiritual refreshment, whatever than means; re-creation for the soul, whatever that it; escape; novelty, the delight of something different; truth and understanding and wisdom – commendable virtues in any many, anytime; ecology and all that, meaning the salvation of variety, diversity, possibility and potentiality, the preservation of the genetic reservoir, the answers to questions that we have not yet even learned to ask, a connection to the origin of things, an opening into the future, a source of sanity for the present – all true, all wonderful, all more than enough to answer such a dumb dead degrading question as “Why wilderness”? To which, nevertheless, I shall append on further answer anyway: because we like the taste of freedom; because we like the smell of danger.
We topped out on a small rise and there ahead lay the red wasteland again – red dust, red sand, the dark smoldering purple reds of ancient rocks, Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi, the old Triassic formations full of radium, dinosaurs, petrified wood, arsenic and selenium, fatal evil monstrous things, beautiful, beautiful. Miles of it, leagues of it, glittering under the radiant light, swimming beneath waves of heat, a great vast aching vacancy of pure space, waiting. Waiting for what? Why, waiting for us.
There was a middle-aged fellow sitting outside the store, on a bench in the shade, drinking beer. He had about a month’s growth of whiskers on what passed for a face. I bought him another can of Coors and tried to draw him into conversation. He was taciturn. Would not reveal his name. When I asked him what he did around there, he looked up at the clouds and over at the river and down at the ground between his boots, thinking hard, and finally said: “Nothing.” A good and sufficient answer. Taking that hint, I went away from there, leaving him in peace. My own ambition, my deepest and truest ambition, is to find within myself someday, somehow, the ability to do likewise, to do nothing – and find it enough.
The river tugged at our bodies with a gentle but insistent urge: Come with me, the river said, close your eyes and quiet your limbs and float with me into the wonder and mystery of the canyons, see the unknown and the little known, look upon the stone gods face to face, see Medusa, drink my waters, hear my song, feel my power, come along and drift with me toward the distant, ultimate and legendary sea … Sweet and subtle song. Perhaps I should have surrendered. I almost did. But didn’t.
The shimmer of heat waves, hanging like a scrim across the horizon, is enough in itself to confuse the senses, puzzle the mind. The mountains float like ships on the waves of superheated air, drifting away from one another, then returning, merging, inverting themselves, assuming shapes out of fantasy. The madness of mirage.
In the Dream Time, say the wise old men of the outback, we made our beginning; from the Dream Time we come; into the Dream Time, after death, we shall return. The dream is the real; waking life is only a dream within a greater dream.
What does the desert mean? It means what it is. It is there, it will be there when we are gone. But for a while we are living things – men, women, birds, that coyote howling far off on yonder stony ridge – we were a part of it all. That should be enough.
Buzzards circled overhead – there always seem to be more buzzards in the sky on the Mexican side of the border. Why? Because both life and death are more abundant down in Mexico. It’s the kind of country buzzards love. A candid country, harsh and bare, which is no doubt why it strikes us overcivilized Americans as crude, vulgar and dangerous.
I thought of the wilderness we had left behind us, open to sea and sky, joyous in its plentitude and simplicity, perfect yet vulnerable, unaware of what is coming, defended by nothing, guarded by no one.
Which is more likely? asked Mark Twain (I paraphrase): that the unicorn exists or that men tell lies?
I am aware of the argument that hunting and fishing can lead a man into an intense, intimate engagement with the natural world unknown to the casual hiker. When the hunting or fishing is based on hunger, on need, I know that this is true. But sport, in the end, is only sport – divertissement. A diversion, that is, from the game of life. Which is – what? Let’s not go into that.
Yet I know that even the mosquito has a function – you might say a purpose – in the great web of life. Their larvae help feed fingerlings, for example. Certain of their women help spread the parasitic protozoa that give us dengue, breakbone fever, yellow fever and malaria, for example, keeping in control the human population of places like Borneo, Angola, Italy and Mississippi. No organism can be condemned as totally useless.
The top of the world. But of course, the giddy, dizzying truth is that the words “top” and “bottom”, from a planetary point of view, have no meaning. From out here in deep space, where I am orbiting, there is no top, there is no bottom, no floor, no ceiling, to anything. We spin through an infinite void, following our curving path around the sun, which is as bewildered as we are. True, the infinite is incomprehensible – but the finite is absurd. Einstein claimed otherwise, I know, but Einstein was only a mortal like us. No ceiling, no floor, no walls …
What can I say except confess that I have seen but little of the real North, and of that little understood less. The planet is bigger than we ever imagined. The world is colder, more ancient, more strange and more mysterious than we had dreamed. And we puny human creatures with our many tools and toys and fears and hopes make only one small leaf on the great efflorescing tree of life. Too much. No equation however organic, no prose however royally purple, can bracket our world within the boundaries of mind.
There are two mountains on which the weather is bright and clear, the mountain of the animals and the mountain of the gods. But between lies the shadowy valley of men.