Dr. Adam Johns
English Seminar 0200
3 September 2014
Darwin and Abbey’s Escape From the Anthill
As one enjoys an outdoor meal, it is not uncommon to leave behind a few crumbs, fallen scraps, or perhaps an entire piece of watermelon, pasta salad, etc. If one waits long enough, it is highly likely they will observe this morsel slowly become encompassed by numerous yet miniscule ants. Nearby, between the cracks of a sidewalk or upon a patch of dirt is the anthill, the home of these copious creatures, their “city” so to speak. This hill represents society, while the world outside is the great outdoors, the unexplored, nature. When examining both the works of Abbey and Darwin, we see an escape from the “anthill” and in immersion into the great unknown.
When considering both Abbey and Darwin’s roles in nature, it is important to view them not just as minute ants in the grandiose elements of nature, but also as more dominant spiders, who slowly establish their places through the creation of webs. It is important to note that their escapes from society or their “anthills” are the central idea of their ventures, yet at the same time these authors are also comparable to other insects in that they play several roles throughout their ventures into the wilderness. Abbey, on one hand weaves his web slowly, as he becomes more and more familiar with his surroundings, falls into a routine, and conquers challenges, such as the threat of rattlesnakes, in order to survive and become one with nature. On the other hand, Darwin weaves his web through journaling his expeditions into the jungles, shores, and forests of various continents. In this way, Darwin also exhibits the “wings” of an insect more mobile than both the spider and the ant, as he delves further into nature.
In his writings, Abbey makes an interesting point, proposing, “We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might then discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men,” (Abbey 58). In this way, we are able to again compare life in the anthill to the fast-paced living our society is accustomed to today, and has been for centuries. The lives of the ants are short; they do not have the time (or brains) to know of the pleasure that can come from stopping to take in the natural world. However, as humans we have both the mental capacity, and lifespan to be able to enjoy nature. In the chapter “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks” Abbey’s most central argument is that we need to take life slowly and weave our own webs in nature, and perhaps even exhibit wings. The only way to do so is to leave all remnants of society, and the means to move quickly (or our cars) “in the world’s biggest parking lot,” (Abbey 57). Essentially, he wants us to move at the pace of ants, yet be able to appreciate what is outside the anthill—equalizing ourselves with what lies beyond.
In his ventures, Darwin is able to literally observe the ants of Rio de Janerio. Of this he writes, “A person, on first entering a tropical forest, is astonished at the labours of the ants: well-beaten paths branch off in every direction, on which an army of never-failing foragers may be seen, some going forth, and others returning burdened with pieces of green leaf often larger than their own bodies,” (Darwin 31). These observations bring to life the uncovered sights that Abbey wants us to be able to stop and recognize in the wilderness. One would not be able to view these observations from a car, for it would be moving too fast and neglect to offer us the proper vantage point. Yet, when challenged by the idea to use simply our legs (as both Darwin and Abbey did), or the two wheels of a bike, or perhaps even the four legs of a horse, we are able to take note of a world other than what we know.
The ideas brought up by both Darwin and Abbey in their deviations from the “anthill” help us as readers to understand their subtle points, that we too must leave the anthills, or the societies we live in today, so as to find what we they found, but in a way that is unique to our own experiences in the wilderness. Although we can argue that we are vicariously living this experience through both authors by reading their works, this idea is missing the central point they both try to make. In order to see this for ourselves, a willingness to leave the anthill and equalize with even the tiniest most seemingly insignificant insects in nature, is what going into the great outdoors is all about.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Print.
Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.