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



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.

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