Dr. Adam Johns
English Seminar 0200
10 October 2014
Abbey and 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 likely they will observe this morsel become slowly encompassed by numerous yet miniscule ants. Nearby, between the cracks of a sidewalk or upon a patch of grass is the anthill these copious creatures call home. This mound is their “city”, so to speak. Suppose the anthill is located near two tall trees, perhaps oaks or maples situated about 3 feet from one another. An elaborate, carefully crafted spider web joins these trees and is home to a singular, dominant spider. This spider and its web are independent, a creation unique to the creature itself and its place in nature. Edward Abbey represents both of these creatures through his writings as he goes from a miniscule ant escaping society to a web-weaving, sovereign spider.
The anthill for Abbey began in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania where he was born in 1927. To summarize his young life, Abbey started writing during his childhood, and first explored the West at the age of seventeen. Needless to say, he fell in love. He then spent a year in the army at nineteen, and from there a year at Indiana State Teacher’s College, before moving West for the better portion of his life. In 1951 and 1956 Abbey earned his B.A. and M.A. respectively at the University of New Mexico where he studied philosophy and English. After earning his M.A. Abbey worked as a ranger and began writing some of his most famous works including of course, Desert Solitaire (American Environmental Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present).
In the introduction of this book Abbey tells us precisely none of this. In fact, he even tells us that this is of no relevance to his work saying of Arches, “Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book,” (Abbey xi). However, this information is precisely what his anthill is made out of. It is the dirt that constructs the world, the city, the society Abbey came from and “escaped” from. This escape is what Abbey’s work is all about, and what he challenges others to do. Best said by Frances K. Foster of the University of Texas in 1981, “His approach undeniably links humanity to the natural environment,” (Foster 65). For Abbey, humanity is this anthill, and the natural environment is the spider web.
In the notorious chapter, “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks” Abbey tells us “ants” how he wants us to come explore mother nature’s biggest spider web, otherwise known as the untouched world, or our national parks. In fact, these specific instructions can be interpreted as how Abbey would feel one becomes a “spider” in the face of nature. He blacklists cars and “ponderous camping machinery”, and instructs us to use our feet, bicycles, and even horses in our exploration (Abbey 52-53, 57). For the time we spend in Arches, or elsewhere, we are expected to behave as a spider would. To weave our webs slowly and carefully, and do so silently in order to make them as beautiful as possible without altering the places we choose to weave them. We are predators to some, and prey to others. Yet, he does not expect us to remain spiders permanently upon our departure from the natural world. When the anthill calls once again, we are to return as ants with a renewed perspective of the world—the spider’s perspective.
The idea of the transition from ant, to spider, and back again begs the question of whether or not Abbey ever transforms back into this ant when he leaves Arches. This can be interpreted several ways. On one hand, we can argue that Abbey has quite a lead on a great majority of humanity in being a true metaphorical spider. His perspective is one that thwarts the traditional progressive attitude many humans support. He does not want to keep moving forward, developing, and industrializing, in fear that we will destroy what little we have left of the wilderness. He is a seasoned spider; he shares his knowledge of surviving the elements with us, and is able to use this knowledge to his advantage. Seen in his domestication of a gopher snake in order to ward off rattlesnakes, in which the pair become “friends” to the point of Abbey comparing the creature to a cat as the it sits curled up by the heater (Abbey 19). But, this tale is just a small piece, a mere millimeter of his grandiose web. Moving on to another part of the web, a time separate from his days in Arches, where he narrowly escapes death and quite literally climbs out of it in the chapter “Havasu”. He even goes so far as to deem this survival adventure as, “…one of the happiest nights of my life,” (Abbey 205). And yet another piece of his web can be taken from his death, something we cannot draw upon by simply reading his books. Two days before his death Abbey requested to be taken out of the hospital and into the wilderness for one last campfire. His deceased body was then, upon his own instructions, driven into the desert as far in as possible and buried beneath a pile of rocks (American Environmental Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present). This was arguably Abbey’s last act as a spider, in a web that was collectively woven throughout his life. He started in the wilderness, and although deviated at times, ended in the desert, making him, arguably, a sort of “eternal spider” that never quite transformed back into an ant.
On the other hand, it is only fair to examine that Abbey does in fact equalize himself as a “fellow ant” when he leaves Arches and his web, returning to the anthill. Of this he says, “Who am I to pity the degradation and misery of my fellow citizens? I, too, must leave the canyon country, if only for a season…” (Abbey 265). In this context, it is important to understand that he is referencing his “fellow citizens” in that they are unfortunately, in his eyes bound to the anthill of society. He takes pity on this fact, and shows remorse for he must too return to it. Yet despite his attempt to show us how much he disdains the fact he is no longer going to be a spider, he still equalizes with his fellow ants and tell us that he is rightfully one of them in leaving. From this we can conclude that Abbey may not in fact be this “eternal spider” given the condition that he must “rejoin for the winter that miscegenated mesalliance of human and rodent called the rat race (Rattus urbanus),” (Abbey 265). That being said, it is only fair to say that Abbey self-admittedly begins a new web each time he transitions from ant to spider in his lifetime.
It is also important that we return to the point that Abbey includes virtually no background information on himself when examining if he can be considered superior to humanity as only an ant turned spider. Since we do not know of his life, his youth, and quite obviously his death, when we read his work we can interpret this as his message that he wants to be seen only as a sovereign spider. For this persona gives him the most authority and portrays his chosen portrait of himself as an environmentalist, and nature enthusiast. The question of what we know of his ant days from purely Desert Solitaire can be answered rather simply…we know almost nothing. Any accounts such as “Havasu” are stories of him as a spider, and the one sparse account I uncovered with pure mention of him as an ant occurred during “Episodes and Visions” where he theoretically tells tourists that he is “not seriously married” and “rests for the winter” (Abbey 234-235). We also know that Abbey resents the side of himself that is an ant, or at least could be considered an ant because he does not like this piece that must return to the “rat race”. So, in these minute details, Abbey is telling us that he yearns to be an eternal spider, yet must also acknowledge and be humbled by the reality of the anthill. He is as close to being an eternal spider as a human could get—yet becoming this creature totally immersed in nature from start to finish is virtually impossible. Critics and fans alike, such as Foster, also bare witness to this yearn to transform while noting things like, “Abbey’s idealism and cynicism are illustrated by his attitude toward national parks, a position some would call elitist,” (Foster 65). This “elitist” position is one that Abbey demonstrates in order to assert, and create the illusions of superiority and dominance in the face of the rest of society and of the ants.
One could argue that this technicality of ant to eternal spider, or ant to spider to ant to spider debate is one that is irrelevant, that he is simply an eternal spider because he died in the wilderness, and showed more of a dedication to it than any of us ants ever will. You could say that the importance of this seemingly minute detail is nothing in the face of the bigger picture of Desert Solitaire, which is at surface level, about Abbey getting through to us readers on his views. However, this ant-eternal spider debate is what lies at the center of Abbey’s internal conflict, and paradox, which is reflected throughout the entire book. We cannot ignore the fact that he wants to transform and leave the anthill forever, yet never fully succeeds or is able to. It is the essence of Abbey’s struggle with being a human, being an ant, and yet wanting and hoping to be considered and perhaps quite literally be an eternal spider.
"Abbey, Edward." American Environmental Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present. Amenia: Grey House Publishing, 2008. Credo Reference. Web. 8 October 2014.
Foster, Frances K. "Recommended: Edward Abbey." The English Journal 70.6 (1981): 65-6.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Touchstone, 1990