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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

In his forthcoming book Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis (May 2021, Torrey House Press), David Gessner looks to Thoreau for guidance through turbulent times. Today, Gessner invites two acclaimed writers of the West to a desert party. You’re invited, too.


Desert Synthesis:

Welcome to the Party

Come join me by the fire. Have a seat. And a drink. Or not. We have been sheltering in place alone for months now but tonight we will shelter together. Sleeping bags six feet apart of course. There are lots of us here, all mixed up—kind of like that album cover of Joan Armatrading’s Whatever’s For Us, which I’m picturing in my head right now after my second beer. And speaking of whatever, which appears to be our theme, do whatever you feel like doing tonight. Say what you feel like saying. Laugh along with us or monologue or keep quiet if that’s your thing. Remember you are welcome here, and no one is going to un-friend you. The desert night is cold, the stars clear and distant, the fire warm and close.

You are no doubt, like me, starved for real and Zoom-less social contact. And tonight, as we drink and toast and talk and sing, I’d like to say a word for unity not division, for synthesis not separation.

We have built our fire in a beautiful spot near a dry creek bed where a cottonwood umbrellas over us, though not so close as to block out the glittering firmament. Things are going well around the fire, stories being told, but you may start to question whether my openhearted invitation was a tad disingenuous when I introduce my next guests. I have invited Ed Abbey to sit and drink with us, along with a few of his old friends. I’ve also invited Amy Irvine and a few of hers. Not long ago, Amy wrote a book called Desert Cabal, which is a kind of response to Abbey’s own book, Desert Solitaire, and in that book she takes Ed to task for some of his bad behavior. Part of that bad behavior, the book suggests, was not allowing others with different skin color or with more than one X chromosome to sit around the fire. Amy wanted more people, and more types of people, to be able to enjoy the flames and the desert night.

As it turns out a bunch of grumpy old men, a demographic I am part of, took offense at this. They didn’t like seeing this young whippersnapper messing with good old Ed. And, to a certain extent, I saw their point. Too much of our current literature seems, in the name of opening up, to really be about tearing down. Every week some website tells us we should repent for enjoying reading On the Road when we were sixteen because it was written by a white guy. So I get the cries of outrage. But I also find them a little silly. Did Ed’s outraged friends actually read the book? Can’t they see that Amy really loves Ed, and that she, like me, like so many of us, fell under the spell that Ed cast, a spell that made us see the desert landscape—even for someone who grew up here like Amy—in a new way?

I read Amy’s book with pleasure. And I read some of the attacks with empathy. Why can’t we leave our heroes alone? Why do we have to always drag them down? Well, there is an answer to that. These are ghosts we talk to but the dialogue is not dead. Though they are done with their time on earth they can still talk back. And in our dialogues with them we are not just redefining them but redefining ourselves. The best of our efforts right now involve inviting more people to the party. The worst are attempts to kick people out, and that includes kicking out great writers who suffered from the curse of living in a different time. The dream is that we will slowly shuck our minds open so that we can see, and read, all sides.

* * *

The fire crackles and the heat tightens the skin of our faces. We stare, transfixed. A burst of wind brushes through the nearby tamarisk and the bush hisses. (Both native and non-native species are welcome tonight.) Above us is a long dune-like hill that leads up past an ancient granary and toward the great stone portal that you must pass through to enter a mythic landscape of rock, following the dirt road that leads north and west to building-sized stone needles spouting upward in the desert. We stare up at the dark silhouettes of a massive rock wall, its ramparts of stone like twisting gorgons and mushrooms. Earlier there was a changing of the guard and the swallows retired as the bats took over, and now they slice and carve down from those hills, chasing night insects.

There’s another reason I think the outrage of the grumpy Abbey defenders is silly: they are selling their hero short. His toughness and durability. Don’t they think that Ed, who threw so many punches, can take a punch or two? He sure could dish it out; maybe he can take it a little. The truth is that the “historical empathy” defense doesn’t exactly work here. Ed was offensive enough even in his own time. These days, if you are a certain type of reader, he seems practically built to offend you. Trumpian in his border politics, openly salacious, enjoying making people uncomfortable, he is not the man for our hour.

And yet he kind of is. I have become convinced, as I watch us squabble our way toward doom in a world of crises, that our biggest prejudice of all is anthropocentrism. That our inability to see beyond our human grid and human needs is our most damning sin. And Edward Abbey, for all his open and obvious flaws, pointed more people toward the land, the earth, the biosphere than any writer this side of Thoreau. It has become almost a cliché of life in the American West. When did you read Desert Solitaire? When did you change? When did you see the light? Whatever the crazy stew of that beautiful, inspiring, sometimes-befuddling, sometimes-boring book, it held a charge of conversion somewhere just shy of the Bible. People read it and did things. People still read it and do things. And part of the reason they did and do things is that their tour guide beyond the human was so clearly human. The guy who sang in exalted prose and then threw a rock at a rabbit. That is why so many of us old farts were outraged by Irvine—get your hands off my precious conversion experience. I don’t want to sound like a fanboy but when it comes to Abbey some of us still are, even when we are closing in on late middle age, if not senility. The vital lesson he teaches isn’t to be like Ed. The lesson is to be emphatically yourself. It turns out this remains a pretty attractive combination: being fully human while laughing at how small humans really are and pointing beyond us.

So was inviting both of these groups a bad move on my part? Have I shattered the sense of peace and fun around the fire? Have I ruined the party? Is an argument brewing? Well, first of all, a healthy argument is okay. Not an MSNBC or Fox argument where the fix is in, but a real lively debate. That will only spice up the night.

Second of all, I am happy to see that, after a drink or two, some of Ed’s crew are hanging with some of Amy’s around the fire. They circle each other a little at first—it’s a bit of a West Side Story vibe—but then they mingle. I’m not really surprised. I knew they had more in common than not. This beautiful place for instance. The desert. They have all been drawn to it. They all know it better than most. Common ground.

It has been my own experience, traveling around the country to report and write mostly environmental journalism, that the people I meet are not like those portrayed on the news shows, that the differences, the split, is not as dramatic as we are told. It’s also been my experience, working inside of the oh-so-sensitive political milieu of a graduate program in the academy, that people still have, despite the dystopian world we find ourselves in, a sense of humor and a sense of fun. True, sometimes misspeaking is like stepping on a landmine that blows off your leg. But I think of my relationship with one particular colleague as a nice model. I am the department chair and she is the graduate coordinator. Her feminist credentials are fully in order (though not quite edgy enough for her college-aged daughter), while I am a cliché of privilege, white and otherwise, but we have a fine time making our way together through the mess of the academic swamp. Since she grew up with less money than I did she teases me about having gone to a yacht club and owned a little pony. We laugh. Sometimes we have serious talks about where we are in our political dialogue and our own impediments to true communication. The enemy is not just prejudice, I say, it’s dogmatism. Yes, she says, but sometimes it’s just prejudice. Come to think of it why didn’t I invite her tonight?

The point is that when you are sitting around the fire and feeling fully like yourself, you converse in ways that are quite different than the hysterical accusatory gotcha world of the internet. Is that who we really want to be? So, for lack of a better word, ungrounded? These attenuated avatars of ourselves? Connected sure, but to what? Wouldn’t we rather fully inhabit our bodies, our laughing, farting, yelling, singing, crying bags of flesh, and fully let our feet touch the actual earth in an actual place? Wouldn’t it be a better world if you could both disagree with someone and laugh with them?

Enough philosophizing, as Ed might say. Time for a drink. I’m pleased to see that tonight’s guest list is diverse not just in our skin color or background but in our quirks and personalities. And I’m not surprised that Ed is now holding court. Even those most offended have to admit that they like sitting around a campfire with him and having a glass of wine or beer or shot of whiskey. And even if you find the man deplorable, you can’t say his ideas and his thoughts don’t range freely, and you can’t say that he doesn’t combine a kind of barbarism with intellectuality in a way few thinkers ever have.

So, yes, overall I’m pleased with how it’s going. There is a pride in throwing a good party and I take a moment to pat myself on my privileged back. And since this is a fantasy let’s eliminate the social distancing. Let’s let people sit close and maybe throw their arms around each other while they sing—though of course they will ask permission before doing the arm-throwing thing. The best of both worlds. The night is growing cold and later we will shiver in our tents. But for now, we are warm and full and enjoying being with each other. Tomorrow we can go back to our habitual squabbling. Tonight, briefly, we are one.


David Gessner is the author of Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness and the New York Times–bestselling All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West. Chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and founder and editor-in-chief of Ecotone, Gessner lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, the novelist Nina de Gramont, and their daughter, Hadley.

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