Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," 50 Years Later

Double Arch (NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank)

Double Arch in Arches National Park
Jacob W. Frank(NPS)

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Fifty years ago this month, Edward Abbey published a memoir of two seasons spent as a ranger protecting Utah's Arches National Monument — now a national park. The book served as a seminal text for environmentalists interested in protecting desert ecosystems from exploitation and abusive development, all within highly engaging nonfiction prose. 

There have been numerous thoughtful reflections on Abbey's impact on environmentalism and stewardship of desert ecosystems to mark the book's fiftieth anniversary. That initial impact, as summarized by Douglas Brinkley for the New York Times:

When “Desert Solitaire” first appeared in 1968, its prose galvanized environmentalists toward bold action to save the American Southwest from the maw of hyper-industrialism. Only Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” equal “Desert Solitaire” in transforming the genre of naturalist studies into manifestoes for social change. Paradoxically gruff and tender, starkly Darwinian in scientific exactitude yet brimming with mystical flourishes, Abbey’s enlivening nonfiction storytelling — anchored around his two compressed seasons as a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument during the late Eisenhower era — is a perfectly rendered hybrid of transcendental joy, coyote humor, in-your-face wrath, field science detail, philosophical righteousness, and moral clarity. 

The prescience of Abbey's work today is put succinctly by John Buckley for High Country News:

Fifty years ago, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was published to decent reviews but little fanfare. “Another book dropped down the bottomless well. Into oblivion,” wrote a disheartened Abbey in his journal Feb. 6, 1968.

Yet it has remained in print for a half-century and created a devoted following. As President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke carved 2 million acres out of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, both in the heart of “Abbey Country,” Desert Solitaire remains more relevant today than ever.

Steve assembled an audio profile of Edward Abbey in 2006, wherein we hear excerpts from Abbey's work and his admirers. Revisiting it seemed a fitting way to recall the impact he made with "Desert Solitaire."