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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 go