The Deep Surface: A Note on Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry

by Jason Peters on September 25, 2009 · 4 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place,Writers & Poets


Rock Island, IL

In the introduction to Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey denied any interest in “true underlying reality, having never met any.” “I am pleased enough with surfaces,” he said; “in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance.”

The catalog of surfaces Abbey gave by way of example couldn’t have been Abbeyer: “the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind—what else is there? What else to we need?”

Later in the book Abbey would say there is a way of being wrong that is also a way of being right, which is to say he provided the necessary hermeneutic for understanding all that deliberate hogwash about surfaces. Abbey was plenty interested in “underlying reality”; it’s just that he knew full well that you don’t get any underlying reality without first acquainting yourself intimately with the surface. The silk of a girl’s thigh is the beginning of knowledge, not its end.

Abbey certainly wanted to know the sweet aroma of a juniper fire, but he also wanted to know the “peculiar quality or character of the desert that distinguishes it, in spiritual appeal, from other forms of landscape.” He understood the desert to invite “not love but contemplation,” and so, while there, he did a very sensible thing: he contemplated death by dehydration. He considered the promotion most men would enjoy in being picked clean by a buzzard, soon to soar aloft in its gizzard. (“All the time, everywhere, something or someone is dying to please.”) He called progress a “storm cloud.” He called the automobile a “bloody tyrant.” Noting that Indian pictographs and petroglyphs have lasted several centuries out in the elements, he wondered how much of our own art, protected by climate control, would last even fifty years. He knew that health and happiness are “virtues unknown to the statisticians,” and he called the GNP the “grossest national product.” He knew about the search, about how a man might disappear into the canyon, as the legendary Everett Reuss had, that pilgrim soul who “one day lost . . . the thread of the labyrinth.” He looked up at the stars and said “a man could lose his mind in those incomprehensible distances.” He knew plenty of Blake, plenty of Muir, plenty of Audubon, Jeffers, and Thoreau. As Thoreau went to the woods, so Abbey went to the desert: to live deliberately, “to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us.”

No, Abbey knew plenty of underlying reality. But he knew it because he got intimate with the surface. He penetrated rather than bypassed it. If I say that that’s sacramental, I do so with Abbey’s irreverent assurances: there is a way of being wrong that is also a way of being right.

Wendell Berry’s admiration for Abbey is a matter of record. I don’t have a copy of What Are People For? in front of me tonight, but anyone who wants to verify this can get the book and take a look at “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey.” It’s an essay I return to now and again because in it one writer I admire admires another writer I admire, and there we all are admiring one another. Well, I’m not being admired, but you get the point.

My purpose, however, is not to get into Berry’s admiration for Abbey. My purpose is to get into Berry’s admiration for surfaces, which, like Abbey’s, is ultimately an admiration for depth, for that “underlying reality” Abbey affected indifference to.

I might turn anywhere to illustrate the point, because Berry’s sense of “Heaven’s earthly life or of the earth as “heaven’s gate” is ubiquitous. But what has me thinking again about surface and depth is a new poem recently published in the New Yorker. You might say that Berry’s “A Speech to the Garden Club of America” is a cry de profundis.

The speaker of the poem apologizes for coming to his speaking engagement by jet,

By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go.

The spatial relations throughout are verticle; the poem pits oil–that “antique dark-held luster” that we dig up to burn “in our fit / Of temporary progress”–against the “Contemporary light” above, which, along with “work, sweat, and hunger[,] / Bring[s] food to table.”

That is, just as we must go below for the oil, so the oil sustains the speaker as he travels high above—“higher / Than we should go.”

Let no one miss the point: this is an admission of complicity such as we often find in Berry. He is the Thoreauvian of whom E.B. White spoke: men who have hated compromise but have compromised, men who have loved wildness but have lived tamely. This is a speaker we can attend to. He is not congratulating himself for owning a Prius.

But notice what he calls the garden: it is a “creature of the surface, like ourselves”; it

lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.

It is standard romantic doctrine that we learn from Nature, our tutor, and Berry apparently sees no reason at this point to quibble. Why, he asks, should we dig deeper than the roots? Why should we wish to soar higher than the fruits? To do so is to participate in an “anti-life of radiance and fume / That burns as power and remains as doom.”

Like Abbey, Berry is “pleased enough with surfaces.” Let the garden, this creature of the surface, suggest to us our range.

But, like Abbey, Berry is plenty interested in the paradox of surfaces, in “true underlying reality” as well. There’s a depth to this garden, this creature of the surface, and we’d better plumb it.

I said the spatial relations of the poem are verticle, and so they are. The garden knows its place, just as the speaker would know his. The garden and all within it exist in an order in which we too participate, an order that has a name, which some have called the analogia entis. We don’t know that we participate in it. We have scrapped it for a new order, a new cosmology, in which our place is nothing more than an undefined and random placelessness. We have “decentered” or “depositioned” ourselves. We are no longer a little lower than the angels or a little higher than the beasts. We are adrift. As Berry has said, we lack the ancient definition of ourselves. We have nothing, no measure that can tell us how low or how high to go.

So we behave by turns as beasts below, digging for the “antique dark-held luster,” or as gods above, held aloft “by a sustained explosion through the air”—we who ought to be creatures of the surface.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin September 25, 2009 at 8:50 am

Ed was also that paradox of sweetness…of the bittersweet type , attached to the hardscrabble. He was subversive against a modernity that is itself subversive against the soul. The desert, and particularly the slickrock country suits this predilection to a tee. There, amidst the fantastic forms, chromatic colors, serrate vegetation and loud silence, everything is hard and unforgiving . To be a soft human, a vessel of water within this arrestingly arid landscape is to be sweet, like a ripe apple, something at once forbidden and alluring. One cannot escape ones own humanity as well as all of humanity’s essential fragility….and resilience….. within someplace like Muley Twist or Dark Canyons. Despite the brutally hard nature of the desert, Mans impact is not easily erased and the scars in the desert pavement are borne for a long time, but another paradox of the desert. Paradox is the resort of a mind that may tarry over and enjoy the surface but is always and ever plunging deeper into that mysterious thing we call existence …and laughing, or crying and singing bawdy songs to it as the spirit may move. He loved woman because what else does one do with such a divine creature?

Ed was an outlaw in a culture whose laws too often conspire to crime and his stealthy and illegal burial out there where the Mojave, Sonoran and Plateau deserts come together was a fitting end for a man whose heart was strong, like the buzzards flight…those carrion eaters he liked to call “Philosopher Birds”.

If your students cannot tune into Ed’s frequency, there is a real question whether or not they will ever tune into any truly authentic frequency and will be lost in this desert of plenty bathed in klieg lights.

avatar Hudson September 25, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Normally I regard calls to the surface of experience, or the culture, with suspicion. After all, American culture is replete with resoundingly superficial thrills—as in “what you see is what you get,” from A Chorus Line. But Jason Peters has already cocked his pistols before you can reach for yours, on this one: He assures us that Edward Abbey could defend himself quite well, thank you, from any charges of “Ahem, where’s your gravitas?”

Mr. Abbey celebrates the pied beauty of things in the selections chosen by Mr. Peters. Both Abbey and Peters know that the appeal of such poetic naturalist writing is to the senses. Years ago, Richard Wilbur wrote that it was the task of the poet not to discover new categories of thought, but to sensualize experience. And so we appreciate the well-turned phrases Jason Peters has snipped from the Edward Abbey library.

Wendell Berry has written a commendable poem with tolerable rhymes (doom/fume) and a carefully developed argument, which Mr. Peters lays out for us. Really, we shouldn’t delve any deeper than the roots or go higher than the” leaves and fruits.” The poet apologizes for arriving at the Garden Club of America by jet with its “sustained explosions through the air,” which comes perilously close to a mock neo-primitive explanation of jet travel.

All good and well, if you are a plant. Human beings are restless animals exploring the earth. And for thousands of years, our means of transportation were only mildly destructive to the environment. The challenge for the naturalist today is to strike a balance between tree-hugging and ecco-terrorism, and realistic development of the land, as the Sierra Club, for example, tries to do. The task for the followers of Edward Abbey is not to trample the wilderness to death, in their numbers, that he so forcefully and eloquently called them to come to, learn from, and enjoy.

avatar JD Salyer September 28, 2009 at 3:23 pm

An extremely elegant and eloquent connection of *analogia entis* to Berry’s (& Abbey’s) reflections on surface existence.

I’m reminded of Lewis’ observation that “seeing through” the surface of something — the intellectual attitude of treating surfaces as if they were somehow transparent — is not the same at all as actually seeing the thing.

In regards to fossil fuel — say, coal — it’s interesting to note that one can actually find coal on the surface, as noted by early explorers of Kentucky. Not, of course, that there’s enough lying around enough to satisfy the appetites of industral-consumer society — but maybe enough to support homesteads, if one were content with self-limitation and respected the integrity of the earth? If we weren’t greedy?

I suspect I take a (slightly) more optimistic view on the occasional “going below” or “travelling above” than Dr. Peters. My biggest objection with such activities is not so much that they take place per se — I’m still not sure what I think about that — but that in our commodified world these sometime-chthonic, sometime-lofty artificial breaks in the surface of things are executed for such frivolous and petty reasons. We move mountains to get the energy lying beneath in order to… what, power an electric toothbrush?

Or maybe in order to ensure that the lights can be kept on late into the night, so that we stay late at the office to do the work required to move the mountains to get the energy underneath in order to keep the lights on late into the night, so that we may… etc., etc. ad infinitum?

Or, since the essay refer to airplanes… I admit that I am myself inclined to be optimistic regarding early aviators like, say, Antoine de St. Exupery and Lindbergh, and would argue pretty strongly that the pioneering days of human flight embodied something worthwhile, vis-a-vis the human spirit.

But I’d also admit the tragedy of it — and maybe it’s an inherent tragedy. Namely, the success of the early aviators rapidly paved the way for the prostitution & trivialization of their own activity.

That is, maybe I’m still too much a technophile, but I think I can imagine some justifiable contexts for using the awesome power of flight… however, such contexts would include neither the enabling of long-distance business trips nor helping college kids make it to Spring Break at Daytona Beach.

Here I’m thinking along the lines of Goethe’s Der Zauberlehrling. I don’t know that (in this case) Goethe means us to believe that the mage’s art is inherently evil, but what IS clear is that you most certainly should NOT be using that kind of deep cosmic power for cheap amusement, nor for a cheap short-cut around the daily work of life.

I’ve read Mr. Berry’s essay on Abbey, and have gotten some notion of the latter’s persona from other sources, but have never read anything by Abbey himself. This piece is another good reminder that I need to correct that situation sooner rather than later.

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