A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Surface Of Things

Like Chris Townsend and Forest Wisdom, I've been considering the legacy of Edward Abbey recently (Abbey died just over 20 years ago on 14th March 1989). For my money the man had all the right ideas about wilderness and the natural world and civilization. His book Desert Solitaire: A Season In The Wilderness is an unquestioned masterpiece - it's eloquent, passionate, poetic, unsentimental, witty, provocative, opinionated and belligerent. His aim is to shock us out of our habitual torpor. And he succeeds. I'd like to ponder this book in more depth when I've more time and energy than I have right now (I've been driving 1000 miles a week lately - don't know what Abbey would have made of that!) In the meantime here's a wonderful quotation from the author's introduction to the book, in which he sets out his stall:
I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact...
It will be objected that the book deals too much with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they've been luckier than I.
For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces - in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child's hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of 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 do we need?

15 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Robert - Greetings! Do you know the Chinese expression to "fan shen"?
Roughly translated (it is really quite untranslatable) it means to look inward and to know oneself - in ancient China that was one's aim in life - to get beyond surfaces. I would guess that to do this you need the kind of solitude you would get in a closed order - or maybe by going out into the wilderness alone. Like you, I think (only think mind you) that I am probably content with surfaces.

forest wisdom said...

SW,
I'm glad that you've added your own tribute to 'ol Ed. You write true and eloquently of him. Also, I'm glad to be in the Abbey-homaging company of such as yourself and Chris Townsend, gentlemen, scholars, and lovers of nature and wilderness.

Peace to you

The Solitary Walker said...

I think Abbey, while he urges us to appreciate the richness, variety and sensuality of surfaces, in doing so, and paradoxically, we get to the deep essence of rock, river, and flower, too.

I would actually say, along with Abbey, that the "surface" (and our sense impressions of it) is the "beyond" as well - just as he called the Earth our only paradise.

The Solitary Walker said...

Not sure that Abbey would go for the term "gentleman scholar", Forest! Can't I be more of a quarter-erudite, cantankerous, rebellious old roughneck... please, just a little bit?

forest wisdom said...

So SW, could one say then that actually for Abbey, "surface is depth, depth is surface."
?

Very "zen" if I may say so. It almost reminds me of the Heart Sutra: "form is emptiness, emptiness is form"

forest wisdom said...

Sure. :)

The Solitary Walker said...

A perfect example of this is the river - surface and depth coexisting. Plus flux and movement (the flux of things is everpresent in the book - eg the flash floods of the arroyos, the Colorado river, the idea of time running out, his gunning of the jeep down the rocky trail...) Somewhere in the book he quotes "that deepest of Irishmen" (who might that be?) saying "I love all things which flow".

The Solitary Walker said...

Also of course, to counteract the flux, there's the timeless quality, the unchanging nature of the desert. With Abbey, philosophically, there's often these kinds of oppositions in play. He's a kind of this AND that, not a this OR that, man. Though in his politics he's straight down the line (and down the right line).

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Very interesting reading this, SW. I have not read (or I confess, heard of) Abbey.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a close friend about seeing the 'surface' and 'underlying reality' of things. The topic was plants and landscape. My friend mentioned reading something on the lines of: 'one is what it is made of, the other is what it is.'

This is very much how I think: I can look at the sunlight on rock and leaves, and appreciate it as colour, light and its surface beauty. But always, always, there is something beyond that. For me The Wind in the Willows expresses this more closely than anything else I have read.

forest wisdom said...

Politically, Abbey was really an anarchist at heart. It would be difficult to equate him politcally with either of the major politcal parties in the US. He had a decided populist/libertarian streak. Being the staunch leftist (socialist? Ah, here we go with labels....) that I am, Abbey and I would have no doubt parted ways on some politcal issues. But never on the environment. We would have been in complete agrteement there.

I love Abbey for his "prophetic" bent, for his willingness to be, as he put it. "vox clamantis in deserto" (a voice crying in the wilderness), for being willing to say trhings nobody else would say, for his colorfulness, his fierce independence, ans ultimately for his deep love and connection to the earth. In that, nearly all is redeemed with Abbey in my eyes....

Bella said...

I probably see it similar, in the moments of enjoying the surface of things, the moonlight, the touch of another hand, it is representing both superficiality and great depth. The enjoyment of these things, is it not because they capture the deep essence of our existence and the magnificience of living? If one sees this whilst enjoying the superficial then their joy is even greater.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I really meant politics in the widest sense of that term, Forest, not party political. In environmental thinking he was way ahead of his time.

In one way he was a unique voice, but in others he was representative of his time: one chapter towards the end of the book reminds me strongly of Jack Kerouac.

Dominic Rivron said...

Interesting that he includes "the feel of music". I think that the richest music (Bach and late Beethoven spring to mind) at the very least creates the illusion that it is taking us beneath the surface of things. Once there, we are left speechless in the face of something that is clearly beyond our understanding.

The Solitary Walker said...

In the book's penultimate chapter 'Terra Incognita: Into The Maze', Abbey links the music of different composers to different landscapes. He pairs Bach with the sea; Debussy with a forest glade ('L'après-midi d'un faune'?); Beethoven with great mountains; Vivaldi, Corelli and Monteverdi with cathedral interiors (he calls their music 'fluid architecture'); and jazz with the city, smoky nighclubs and 'dim, sad, nighttime rooms'. The desert (his book's subject) reminds him of 'the bleak, thin-textured work of men like Berg, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Webern and Elliott Carter - representing 'the apartness, the otherness, the strangeness of the desert.' He goes on to say, 'Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time - another paradox- both agonized and deeply still.'

Thought you would be interested in this.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes the feel of music jumped out at me too!
Interesting too...thinking as I am this week particularly about senses and how we notice what we notice.
x