“Not a travel guide but an elegy” – Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock.

I recently finished reading Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. First published in 1968, it’s a memoir of his time spent working as a ranger in Arches National Park, Utah, in the 1950s and ’60s.

By all accounts, Abbey had a bone to pick with the development of public land in the United States, and the annual onslaught of the American public on its own National Parks.

In Desert Solitaire, he describes, in a series of enjoyably lengthy vignettes, the kinds of work he undertook as a park ranger, what life was like in that vast wilderness, and describes with masterful prose several excursions he underwent while living in this remarkable place.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo: National Park Service

We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there.

His writing includes many rants, for example about America’s beautiful scenery being wrecked by those who wish to ‘experience’ it while never leaving their gas-guzzling cars.

But he will just as quickly turn his pen to describing the subtle majesty of the world around him with a beautiful elegance I’ve rarely found in other writing. Whole paragraphs float past you like Country Diary entries from the Guardian, bordering on romantic poetry.

But while Abbey’s words could be read as romantic, he is very much a realist; his words merely do justice to the unique environment they portray.

I’ve loved reading Desert Solitaire. I’ve spent the past six months or so dipping in and out of it: I caught up with old crotchety Edward as he cleared up after another wave of irresponsible tourists; headed into the big, alien city with him to stock up on food; or trotted off with him on a multi-day hike through unnamed canyons with only pinyon nuts and raisins in our pockets.

The tourists have gone home. Most of them. A few still rumble in and ramble around in their sand-pitted dust-choked iron dinosaurs but the great majority, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moonrise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations, the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture.…)

Desert Solitaire is rather like Thoreau‘s Walden in many ways. But one of the more palpable themes of the book is a sense of change. The scenery Abbey describes is of an America coming to terms with easier access to its beautiful National Parks and the perceived need to exploit the same natural features that make them so unique. He writes about exploring Glen Canyon before the dam, and everywhere his writing is littered with a subtle sense of foreboding, of great change, just around the corner.

But at the same time, his descriptions are of an America set in stone, where change takes millennia to be affected by the elements, and eventually understood and valued by its inhabitants. And that’s what makes the ever-present threat of change so heartbreaking. But Abbey can only explore, observe, reflect, and report.

Everything is packed, all my camping gear stored away, even my whiskers shaved off. Bald-faced as a bank clerk, I stood in front of a mirror this morning and tried on my only white shirt, recently starched. Like putting on chain mail. I even knotted a tie around my neck and tightened it in the proper style—adjusting the garrote for fit. A grim business, returning to civilization. But duty calls.

Further memoirs and autobiographical writing of Abbey’s seem hard to come by, so I’m branching out into his more prolific fiction work. The Monkey Wrench Gang opens with a rather wonderful depiction of the sabotage of a new bridge being ceremonially opened over Glen Canyon…

Below is a list of my out-of-context, largely useless Kindle highlights from Desert Solitaire. They’re mostly passages that left me tingling, filled with wanderlust, laughing, daydreaming or mournful. If nothing else, they ought to give you a flavour of some of Abbey’s best turns of phrase.


Continue reading ““Not a travel guide but an elegy” – Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness”

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Jerry Brotton on ‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’ at Stony Stratford Library

On Monday evening, Lisa and I had the pleasure of attending a local talk, from the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Amazon UK)

Jerry Brotton was a very interesting speaker, and it was a fascinating hour spent listening to his thoughts and theories on how maps – predominantly maps of the world – throughout history tend to reflect the beliefs and interests of their creators.

The maps featured ranged from Babylonian stone carvings through Ptolemaic renderings of the known world, right up to the present day, with some postulations on where the like of Google and Apple might be taking us with their seeming monopoly on digital maps.

The talk was held at Stony Stratford library and was well-attended – sold out, I think. There was a glass of wine waiting for everyone when they arrived and, although Lisa and I were the youngest audience members by at least half, we weren’t made to feel unwelcome at all.

Brotton’s thoughts on maps are fascinating, although they do tend towards the philosophical and ideological. My brain is a bit more boring and practical so I was left a little hungry for some talk of how maps are made, and used. To his credit, Brotton did explain that be never meant to discuss the latter.

The Q&A session that followed raised, as they usually do, an intriguing range of responses to what we’d all just heard. Questions from the audience members were often prefaced by their own long winded theories…

All in all it was an interesting talk. Brotton is great to listen to, and an entertaining speaker – which makes sense, when you learn that he is a university lecturer – and it was great to have such an event just a few minutes’ walk from home.

We’re very much enjoying living in Stony Stratford, and the local library, along with events like this one, is a big part of what we’re loving about it.

The Tube

I love The Tube.

blast! Films has put together a really fun, interesting series looking at the life both in front of and behind the scenes of London’s Underground railway. I’m coming at it as someone who’s rather fond of the Tube, and I can see that it might not appeal to everyone. But for the most part, like any good documentary, it’s just a story about people.

Episodes have focussed on ticket inspectors, drivers, station staff, track engineers and head office  and many more. It’s slickly edited to give a broad view of the system over the course of a day, night or weekend, with lots of interwoven ‘stories.’

You can catch The Tube on BBC iPlayer. All episodes to date are still online. Episode one is here.

As a series of vignettes, I can’t help but find that it reminds me of HV Morton‘s series of essays, brought together in little volumes with titles like Nights of London, The Spell of London, or The Heart of London.

Although Morton’s London was studied and written about in the 1920s, the London Underground features regularly in his writing – as it will in most London stories from the 20th century onwards.

Morton’s writing is detailed and vivid – but not without humour. His observations are often as amusing as they are serious. One of my favourite things is that he writes about scenarios and people that you can still find in London today – just as much as he writes about ways of life that have all but vanished.

I love Morton’s books on London – it’s a joy to flip through slices of life from all over the city, all walks of life, from almost a hundred years ago. He also wrote books about travels in England and beyond.

You can read his 1936 book The Call of England online, and the chapter on Manchester is great. It opens with: “I came into Manchester over a road as hard as the heart of a rich relation,” and goes on to say: “I have been told that it always rains in Manchester. This is a lie; it had just stopped.”

Read the chapter (and the whole book) online, thanks to archive.org. (Tip: if you click the ‘i’ button, top right of the ebook reader, you can download the entire book in other formats.)

A tour of Chetham’s library

The other day, I and some folks from CILIP North West were treated to a tour of Chetham’s library, situated between Urbis and Manchester Cathedral. I must admit I didn’t know a great deal about Chetham’s beforehand, other than that it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and some other little titbits that can be summarised as it being a very old, very beautiful library.

Being a fan of such things, I jumped at the chance, even leaving a riveting lecture on organisational culture early. My lecturer decided to spend five minutes telling an anecdote about a previous job and I just happened to have to leave part way through her story. Satisfying.

The stroll I took through the city to get to the library was very enjoyable in its own right; Manchester was cold and crisp, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows and throwing a golden hue onto whichever surfaces were tall enough to catch it. The Christmas Markets had opened that day in and around Albert Square, and it was lovely to have a quick look as I went past.

 

It reminded me that Manchester is a wonderful city at this time of year. Sure, it gets as busy and suffocating as any shopping city in the run-up to Christmas, but everything else is just very enjoyable.

I got to the library just in time to say hello, and to confirm if I could take photographs inside.

 

The tour was very entertaining and enjoyable. Our guide struck a nice balance between being informative and amusing, and never veered into boring territory. He seemed proud of the collections, and had many quips and stories pertaining to old traditions, the library’s place alongside the School of Music, and Manchester in general – as well as his mild obsession with books dealing with death.

The place oozes history. You can’t walk down a hallway or glance at shelving or sit on a chair without feeling its many centuries of age. So many of the fixtures and fittings are either original or merely very old. Indeed, very little of the library is ‘modern’, and the whole place has a very satisfying consistency in terms of decor and style. We were told, in fact, that a lot of the furniture spans many hundreds of years in styles, but it still all looks appropriate.

 

We were told many interesting things about the ‘mechanics’ of the place: for example that the books are mostly sorted in size order for reasons of practicality. One librarian attempted to get the collections sorted in Dewey order, but for a library of this kind, such an effort is futile.

 

The library is very dark inside. Old lead-lighted and stained glass windows offer an eery, pleasing light – but at levels far below that necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, even with the aid of electric light, it wasn’t hard to imagine visiting the library a century or more ago – nor to understand how in the winter months all those years ago, the library would usually close around 2pm.

 

Of interest to many was the staggering list of names of its users through the past. Karl Marx was a particular highlight, with his favourite location being easily identifiable, and that ever-present connection with the past making it so believable and alive.

A personal highlight was talk of the Leech collection, a vast archive of diaries, scrapbooks and photographs spanning a couple of hundred years of one family. There is a staggering amount of material held on this family, and it’s a wonderful resource. With my personal university project on how and why we keep diaries, I was especially fascinated to hear more about it.

It was a lovely tour and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to visit the place. It turns out you can just pop in any time, but it was especially good to be given a guided tour by someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic.

For more information on visiting Chetham’s library (and a lot more), head over to their website: http://www.chethams.org.uk/visiting.html

You can see some more of the photographs I took on my tour in this Flickr photoset.

In praise of Charles Paget Wade

I never properly rounded-up my time at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, where I spent five weeks this summer. The last few weeks were very busy, and as soon as I had stopped there, I got stuck into another new project. In short, I guess I never fully rounded it up in my head either.
This is all part of a much wider feeling of placelag, a term I’ve come to use more often, and one which rather aptly encompasses how I’ve felt for most of this summer.

But what I want to tell you about today is a man named Charles Paget Wade.

As part of my work at the Trust this summer, I was collating research on some of Hampstead Garden Suburb’s more prolific architects. The plan is to produce some rather neat little monographs on a handful of them, complete with timelines and photographs and drawings of their work. Some preliminary research had been done by Trust staff, and it was my job to bring it all together, fill in any gaps, and write something rather more readable than mere bullet points and dates.

I was honoured to be given this task, and I think I gave it my best shot, completing draft monographs on the lives and work of architects Michael Frank Wharlton Bunney, Cecil George Butler and Courtenay Melville Crickmer.

But what I found really enjoyable was raking through all the gathered research on these men; delving into their world and finding contemporary resources to back up what they did.

My time on the reference desk at Chesham Study Centre (and my general in-built nerdiness) means I have a thirst for such information, and a small but useful repertoire of places to go looking for it. Along with online resources, I also had access to the Trust’s own archive of maps and books.

In one of these books, Raymond Unwin’s seminal Town Planning in Practice (read online at archive.org), I found a map of the Suburb. A fairly decorative map dating from 1909, it contained not just the roads and place names, but also little illustrations of buildings dotted around the area, and small doodles of historic events that took place nearby.

I was taken in by its combination of simplicity and complexity; its informative yet childish style. The doodles were silly and unnecessary, yet the map didn’t lack attention to detail.

I noticed, in the bottom corner, the artist’s mark:
The map can be viewed in full at the Trust website, here.

Something about his turn of phrase – “Charles Wade made me” – urged me to find out more about this Wade fellow, and fortunately I was in the right place. Not only was the rest of Town Planning in Practice illustrated by him, but I had access to plenty more books he had collaborated on, and I was able to ask David Davidson, the Trust’s architectural adviser about him too.

Before long, I had a figurative rough sketch of Charles Paget Wade – one he could have penned himself. “A very strange man,” David told me, who liked to dress up and who had a very childlike nature his whole life.

Another of Wade’s signatures on a different map ran, poetically: “On winter’s nights Charles Wade made me, in solitude in his upper room, in nineteen hundred and nine AD, at the Vale of Temple Fortune.”

(It’s worth mentioning here, too, that Wade’s peculiar turn of phrase helped inspire the name of my girlfriend’s craft enterprise: Lisa Made Me.)

The more I found out about Wade, the more I wanted to know. It turns out he was an architect as well as a book illustrator (and more), with a handful of works on the Suburb itself. I managed to combine some photographic surveys I was conducting with visiting some examples of his work, and I used any downtime I had to read more about him online.

It turns out that Wade was an architect for only a few years, instead concentrating on illustrating several books with his distinctive drawings, and building up a collection that would become his life’s work. Whilst at war in 1917, and having inherited his family’s fortune of a sugar plantation on St Kitts, Wade stumbled on an advert for a run-down manor house in the Cotswolds which he went on to buy.

The house was, Wade said, ” in the most deplorable state of ruin and neglect, but had not been spoilt with modern additions,” and he proceeded to fill it with items he had collected over the years.

He was a real magpie of a chap, with an eye for the exotic; he picked up items from antique dealers all over the country, anything that exhibited great craftsmanship. He lived next to the manor house in a small cottage, giving the larger building over to house his eccentric, growing collection. He welcomed guests, clearly enjoying the items being seen and enjoyed by others – and using the strange collection to live a rather unusual, somewhat theatrical life. When Queen Mary visited in 1937, it is said she thought Wade himself ‘the most remarkable part of the collection’. (From Jonathan Howard’s essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available here.)

Wade gave Snowshill Manor over to the National Trust some years before his death in 1956, and it has been looked after by them ever since. A massive restoration project took place in 2004 on the house and its collections, taking care to reproduce the ambience and presentation Wade had painstakingly created.

I’m still in the early stages of my quest for more information about Wade. Luckily it seems that as well as illustrating for most of his life, he also kept scores of notebooks and diaries. I have ordered a copy of his memoirs, and a visit to Snowshill Manor is on the cards when I get the time. (National Trust website here.)

© National Trust

Whilst he remains something of an enigma to me, a handful of quotes about Wade (found here) only go to further cement my belief that he’s a fascinating chap, and one I want to know more and more about:

J B Priestley said of Wade:

“He was, in fact, one of the last of a famous company, the eccentric English country gentry, the odd and delightful fellows who have lived just as they pleased, who have built follies, held fantastic beliefs, and laid mad wagers…”

A visitor to Snowshill in the 1920s said:

“with his slightly sinister sense of humour… he would sit as still as a waxwork till one saw him, or to my terror as a child, he would leap out from the parted flames of the fire with his grey hair streaming…”

And finally, in Some Country Houses by James Lees-Milne

“With his old wax complexion, angular features and sharp nose, his presence was daunting. He admitted to Lutyens that he loved toys and had never grown up. He had a child’s insatiable wonder and curiosity. A tassel to him was an object deserving intense scrutiny and examination. How was it made, and of what, and by whom, and for what purpose?'”

It’s that kind of curiosity and nerdiness that I absolutely love. So here’s to the eccentric and obsessive Charles Paget Wade.