"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Morning with Edward Abbey


I'm beginning Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a book that I first heard about a few years ago when listening to Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. The subject for this particular episode was “The Desert." Steve Paulson presents a fascinating portrait of Abbey. It took me a while, but now I’ve finally gotten around to obtaining a book that’s been attributed with the power of changing the way people see the desert. Sure, some of you are thinking, you haven't read that yet? What can I say? So many books so little ...

My copy is from the year I was born; its pages have taken on that antique patina of aging paper. Yet really the book is in near-perfect condition. Thank you to John W. (Wildhog3) a fellow member of Paperback Swap (do check this out), who, upon my request of the book, wrote, “I never could figure out why this one didn't get immediately snapped up. I am confident you will like it. In fact, I am throwing in another, very similar one in the hope that it will find a good new home and get read some more. Books deserve to be read. You don't necessarily need to give me anything for the other one, just read it and take good care of it.”

A perfect stranger. A reading brother. Gives you a good feeling, doesn’t it?

Back to Desert: I read these pages with my sliding door open to this June Sunday morning. My view, just beyond the small apartment parking lot, is a verdant swath of flourishing marsh flora that separates me from an invisible avenue. I read for the duration of two cups of coffee, each cup brewed separately and strong from freshly ground beans, each having a generous pour of half and half. Start the pour of coffee with the half and half already at the bottom of the mug. This is my preferred method for imbibing coffee, even the accompanying morning hour, early enough for the sensation that all is alive yet human activity is suspended.

Though the view from my ground floor apartment contains an electric high line tower and one-two-three-four SUVs side-by-side, from beyond them, from the dense dingle of bushy warrens and the birdsong cacophony, I draw out a bit of spiritual sustenance.

South-central Wisconsin is a long way from the desert of Utah, the setting of Abbey’s exploration. And for me there will be no brief but purposeful cohabitation with a gopher snake (a known foe of rattlers) as there was for Abbey in the section I just finish. Only a few pages in to the book, I realize that what Abbey sets out to do is be present to a place, be present in a way that is as unlikely for us moderns as understanding ourselves.

He writes in the introduction, “Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.”

And so I am here. Wondering about worlds I have lived in worthy of evocation. In any case, I have the good fortune of the rest of this book.