Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
17 September 2014
There have been two separate scenarios in the story thus far in which a river has played an integral role, giving meaning to the text and book as a whole. The rivers carry many meanings, and the number of interpretations that can be made about them, based on the person reading the book, is incredibly large. So far we have seen a river play a very prominent role in the chapter “Rocks”, and the chapter “Down the River”. Within this essay, I will attempt to summarize and derive the meaning of what was discussed in class about “Rocks”, and relate that to “Down the River”.
“Rocks” tells the story of two men that are destroyed by greed and ignorance. Husk gambles his entire life, and that of his family’s, into the mining business. His major risk is described with the quote “He had left behind a seventy-acre farm in the East Texas pinelands, a Fordson tractor and lesser implements, two purebred Blue Tick coondogs and his father, A. T. Husk Senior, to look after things. All except the old man had been mortgaged to finance the hunt for new wealth and a new life. For Albert Husk was a man of vision.” (Abbey 83). “Vision” is one way of stating his nature, but I believe a more fitting term is “blind greed”. He makes contact with Graham, and sets up the business relationship.
When the partnership turns sour, Billy-Joe is caught up in the turmoil, again because Husk involved his entire family in his gamble. It is at this point that the river enters the story. Billy-Joe must cling to a tree in order to survive. Once the flood enters the valley, the tree is uprooted, and Billy-Joe uses it to float on as he travels down the river. Floating down the river, he endures an experience described by “Now began for the boy what was for him, an unreckoned, uncountable series of days and nights. His life became dreamlike…A golden dream which grew day by day more golden, more dreamlike, on the golden water under the inescapable eye of the golden desert sun…the light came down on his naked body from above, from the burnished walls on either side, from the dazzling play and sparkle of the water itself.” (Abbey 99). A few sentences later, the excruciating agony is depicted by “Finally he must have given up those efforts and remained entirely on the tree, making no move whatever as the rays of the sun, direct and reflected, seared his flesh, baked his brain within its skull, poisoned the marrow of his bones.” (Abbey 99). This experience eventually ends up killing him. The meaning behind this story is a religious metaphor for Jesus dying on the cross. Both deaths are on trees, and neither can physically escape their fate once it has started. The river represents another idea, the passage of time. Time flows continuously, just like the water down the channel. And the time was no longer broken into segmented intervals, days; it was just one long continuous stretch. The only change throughout the time was whether the scorching sun was present or not.
I believe this same idea can be translated into the chapter “Down the River”. Newcomb and Abbey embark on this adventure down the Colorado River to see the natural beauty, before state parks turn the area into an easily accessible tourist site. During this adventure, time is almost meaningless to them. “This is the seventh day-or is it the ninth?-of our dreamlike voyage” (Abbey 245) writes Abbey at the end of the adventure, reflecting on what he experienced. He and Newcomb are also in somewhat of a dreamlike state. They experienced a different type of life as they floated down the river, just as Billy-Joe did. However, the idea of emerging as a new man after the experience only holds true for the story of Abbey and Newcomb. The trip taught them to look for some new meaning in life, but in the case of Billy-Joe, the experience was not life-changing, it was life-ending.
While that major difference remains, one main parallelism of the stories is the religious/philosophical element. This was already explained in “Rocks”, but this isn’t a hard idea to decipher in “Down the River”. Multiple different philosophical conversations occur between Abbey and Newcomb, such as “’Who is Ralph Newcomb’ I say. ‘Who is he?’ ‘Aye’ he says, ‘and who is who? Which is which?’ ‘Quite,’ I agree.” (Abbey 232). Just as they have lost sense of time, they have lost sense of self. They are simply part of the bigger picture, united in the idea of being a part of the wilderness. These philosophical conversations also include the topic of God, and the origins of life.
While the endings of these two chapters are quite different, the themes tied to the stories are very similar. These themes help relate the chapters to each other, and support the understanding of one another.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Ballantine, 1971. Print.