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The importance of Edward Abbey's 1968 Desert Solitaire to what has become known as second wave environmentalism cannot be understated. Although not the first of Abbey's books, and arguably not the most popular, (1) Desert Solitaire introduced the carefully cultivated persona of what James Bishop, Jr. calls a "desert anarchist" that would remain with Abbey through his life and after. (2) It was also perhaps the most radical mainstream environmental text of the 1960s and early 1970s in that it explicitly rejected the appeal to husbandry so prominent in the environmental discourse of the time. Unlike Rachel Carson's Silent Spring or the 1970 inauguration of Earth Day in the United States, in which a massive twenty million people are said to have participated (Lewis 1985), Desert Solitaire based its environmental vision on the profound, even abyssal, separation of human and nature. Abbey's book celebrates the wild aspect of nature, which is to say that it celebrates the irreducible alterity of the nonhuman. The power of this vision is that it rests, at least partially, on a crucially different model of value than does the notion of husbandry or stewardship, albeit one that has its own problems. Here, I will look quickly at this implied theory of value and its difficulties with the goal of showing that those difficulties are in fact productive in Desert Solitaire. That is, through the text's highly self-conscious interrogation of the problems of language, value, and the nonhuman, we come to see that, read a certain way, the wildness Abbey celebrates actually inheres within the text's ecomimesis, to use Timothy Morton's term (2007). And this realization, one that erodes the notion of the human upon which it is predicated, can tell us something important about value, about ourselves, and about the possibility of a critical ethic of conservation.

At first glance, attributing value to nature may not seem particularly problematic. On reflection, however, it becomes clear that any attempt to isolate a non-anthropocentric model of value is inherently difficult, and perhaps impossible. (3) But before we dip our toes into that deep water, let us look at what I have just called the husbandry or stewardship approach to conservation. That approach essentially opposes the attempt to articulate nonhuman value we find in Desert Solitaire. In the husbandry approach, it is argued that we ought to preserve or conserve nature because it provides some sort of value to us, although the iterations of these values vary. They can be as stark as survival of the human species, literal or spiritual, or as arguably trivial as that of aesthetic pleasure. In husbandry arguments, the value of nature is at base instrumental: we are to protect it in order that it provides something for us. (4) Such arguments can be compelling enough on their own and have often been successful in doing the work of conservation. At the same time, they suffer from what appears to be a fatal flaw. They are based on the value of nature to the human--but establishing that value in some universal way is close to impossible.

Indeed, with the possible exception of the issue of species survival for homo sapiens, there is no, and perhaps can be no, consensus regarding the value of nature. For it is simply not the case that everyone has a spiritual or aesthetic response to nature, any more than it is that everyone has such a response to a given work of art. And of course, there are countless examples of nature being far from beautiful, raising the question about preservation. Should we preserve alpine vistas but fill in swamps, for example? (5) As for the survival of the human species, it is clear that such a survival does not rest on the preservation of natural spaces. Humans have reached a point in our technological development at which what we understand as "nature" has little or no material bearing on our lives, barring the weather perhaps, that cannot be mitigated with further technology or, and this seems less and less farfetched, by eventually abandoning the planet. Further, we know after Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault that values themselves are historical and cultural. Awareness of this historical and cultural contingency of value as such, a vital step toward its critical reevaluation, leads all too easily in our case to the conclusions that "nature" is little more than another contingent and arbitrary concept that ultimately says more about the human than it does about the nonhuman other. At base then there are two problems with the husbandry approach. The first is that it views conservation as a means to very human ends. If these ends can be accomplished with a different means, or the ends in question are not in pressing need of being achieved--and it is increasingly easy to make both of these claims--conservation would be unnecessary. The second problem is that as instrumental, the husbandry approach relies entirely on the value of nature to humans and is as such irredeemably anthropocentric. It thus fails to make a case for the haecceity--the this-ness, the irreducible specificity--of the nonhuman world as such. The challenge to this approach of a non-instrumental, non-anthropocentric environmental thought is precisely the challenge of valuing the nonhuman in and of itself.

Desert Solitaire is important because it struggles with exactly this problem. As we shall see, it also makes a number of conflicting value assumptions, some deeply anthropocentric themselves. But despite its lapses and errors, Abbey's text seeks to make a case for the haecceity--a term I borrow from the medieval Scholastics--of the nonhuman, to articulate a value in and of itself for the nonhuman. To my mind, this attempt is absolutely essential. As we shall see, though, the articulation of a non-anthropocentric vision of the nonhuman has proven very difficult, so much so that in the critical humanities after Morton's epochal Ecology Without Nature, the project has largely been given up. (6) The challenge that Desert Solitaire's vision of the nonhuman as wild, and of the very notions of wildness and wilderness themselves, poses to us is an essential challenge to what amounts to the quietism of a great deal of critical environmental thought, as exemplified by Morton. (7) It is also a challenge to the very notion of value as such and, because of this, it is in itself a challenge to the anthropocentric. That challenge is predicated on an understanding of nature as radically other, and as such it is also predicated on the human/nature binary. Of course, these kinds of predications are deeply problematic. But they are vital to any sort of principled ethical relation to the nonhuman, and such a relation is itself vital to a robust conservationism that seeks to articulate non-human haecceity. Indeed, it is our burden to take up this challenge, especially in what some are calling the Anthropocene, rather than to avoid it.

In what follows, I will argue that by applying what Paul de Man calls a "critical-linguistic" reading, one focused on the disruptive power of trope, to Abbey's ecomimetic text, we can begin to de-anthropocentrize language (1986, 121). In short, the inevitable failure of Abbey's text to do what it so desperately wants to do--to render the alterity of the nonhuman through ecomimetic language--puts into place something like an interference pattern of world, language, and text. That interference pattern, which is produced when readers must "read" the text's figures, provides a window on what is the essentially nonhuman character of the tropological aspect of language. In doing so, and precisely only because the text puts these concerns with mimesis, language, representation, wildness, alterity, and nature into play, we will see that far from failing to produce the encounter with wild nature that is so central to Desert Solitaire, such an encounter is produced in the reading of the text itself. This reading has the double movement of both relying upon and unmooring the text's assumptions about the human, language, and nature. I call the critical-linguistic reading of ecomimetic texts the "wild reading," drawing from poet-essayist Gary Snyder's definition of the wild as "a process of self-organization that generates systems and organisms, all of which are within the constraints of--and constitute components of--larger systems that again are wild" (1995, 174). It is this self-organization, this autonomy, this wildness, that Desert Solitaire seeks and fails to render through language, but that the text ironically produces in and through that failure. That encounter with wildness in language--the latter arguably the most human of all things--estranges us from our own "humanity," thereby opening a clearing for a conceptualization of value in nonhuman haecceity, a critical environmental ethic that values the nonhuman as such and is developed through a textual encounter with trope.

I have used variants of the term "ecomimesis" a few times so far in this essay. So, what is ecomimesis? Morton coins the term in his introduction to Ecology Without Nature to describe language that attempts to reproduce the natural world for the reader. There Morton writes, that ecomimesis is a series of rhetorical techniques that produces writing that "wants to go beyond the aesthetic dimension altogether... to go beyond art" (2007, 31). It is a self-obscuring technique that casts a "spell of language" in order that the "real" world that the ecomimetic writer seeks to render appears "(1) solid, veridical, and independent (most notably of the writing process itself) and that (2) it would be better for the reader to experience it directly rather than just read about it" (30). At the risk of oversimplifying Morton's argument, the point is that the ambience produced by ecomimesis is very much a "spell" that prioritizes something like what Derrida called the metaphysics of presence, here the presence of a represented "natural" scene, over--again in Derridean terms--the radical "supplementarity" of writing that serves to disrupt ideological totalization. Put another way, Morton argues that nature writing seeks to totalize by reinscribing and thus reifying a constructed and contingent idea of "nature," an idea that always already relies on the fraught category of "the human." With this analysis, Morton proposes to pull back the veil of rhetoric that performs this totalizing sleight of hand, one that he argues "make[s] it appear as if, for a fleeting second, there is something in between" the ecomimetic distinction between the "real" it seeks to represent and the text that does the representing (50).

As Morton argues it, ecomimetic writing is a kind of ideological mystification that relies on a reified understanding of "nature" as separate from "the human." So to read Desert Solitaire in terms of a critical-linguistic analysis would simply show the ideological make-up of the text, wouldn't it? But Morton's view fails to take in account de Man's notion of linguistic, specifically tropic, undecidability. In the wild reading, then, rather than dispensing with terms like "nature" and "human," we rely on them. In fact, it is this very binary that makes the wild reading possible. Keeping that binary in play is warranted by both what I consider to be an epistemic fact and by methodological considerations. That is, if Kant has taught us anything, it is that humans are categorically limited by the structures of their senses and intellects. When we suppose an Archimedean point outside of those structures, which is to say when we posit a theoretical approach, it turns out that we often learn less about the thing itself than we do about the structures through which, or by which, the thing is perceived. Such theoretical approaches are deeply useful of course, but the data they provide is a product of their, and thus our, structural constraints. The epistemic warrant for maintaining the nature/human divide then is simply that we have no other choice than to think in these terms. Historically, of course, we can look to the Greek division of physis and techne for proof of how ingrained such a divide is. In addition, no assumed Archimedean point can escape the perceptual and structural constraints of being "human." So while the human/nature divide is artificial, indeed just as artificial as any other epistemological categorization, it has the benefit of being both part of our hermeneutic horizon, and, if seen properly, possessing a critical self-awareness that much of the so-called new materialism seems to lack. If we take "theory" to mean a perspectival approach to knowledge that admits its own essential contingency, the nature/human divide understood as theory offers important insights into the limits of human knowledge rather than simply reinscribing anthropocentrism.

In order to argue that disavowals of the human/nature divide are in fact dangerously non-critical, it will be necessary to look closely at Desert Solitaire on a number of levels, particularly in its own theory and practice of linguistic representation and trope. I ask what the text's views of language are, I examine its understanding of human and nature, and I discuss how both of these play out in the text itself. As a way into the examination, I want to look first at the text's leitmotif: "paradox and bedrock." To the extent that Desert Solitaire has an organizing principle, and that extent is limited by the text's inherent complexity, it can be said to be this figure.


The phrase "paradox and bedrock" first occurs in Desert Solitaire's initial chapter, "The First Morning." At the end of a passage analyzed more fully below, Abbey writes, "I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock" (1990, 6). The coupling returns, suggestively reversed, as the title of the last chapter in which Abbey meditates on his imminent departure from Arches Park, where he has been a seasonal ranger. In that chapter, Abbey writes "I am almost prepared to believe that this sweet virginal primitive land will be grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourists, will breathe metaphorically a collective sigh of relief--like a whisper of wind--when we are all and finally gone" (267). Quickly after this reflection, though, Abbey interrupts his elegizing by radically questioning its essential anthropomorphism:
Grateful for our departure? One more expression of human vanity. The
finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert
landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence,
our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a
matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert. Let men in
their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelope
the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas--the canyons and hills, the
springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter
through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after
sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will
emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a
different and better course. I have seen the place called Trinity, in
New Mexico, where our wise men exploded the first atomic bomb and the
heat of the blast fused sand into a greenish glass--already the grass
has returned, and the cactus and the mesquite. On this bedrock of
animal faith I take my stand, close by the old road that leads
eventually out of the valley of paradox. (Abbey 1990, 268)

As should be apparent, the version of "paradox and bedrock" in "The First Morning" and the "Bedrock and Paradox" of the final chapter are not identical. The first has to do with a paradoxical attempt to be both at one with nature and at the same time an individual. The second casts paradox as the folly of "culture" (as opposed to what Abbey calls "civilization") and bedrock as the abiding power of the nonhuman. (8) But the pairing of paradox and bedrock has other valences as well, valences that speak to the text's explicit project as well as that which is simultaneously the medium, theme, and immanent threat to that project: language.

In his study on Abbey entitled, appropriately enough, Bedrock and Paradox: The Literary Landscape of Edward Abbey, David M. Pozza notes correctly that "paradox finally is the bedrock of Abbey's aesthetic and philosophy" (2006, 9). Put more expansively, we might say that at least in Desert Solitaire, paradox is methodology for Abbey on at least three levels: linguistic, rhetorical, and metalinguistic. (9 ) Take for example the opening two sentences of "The First Morning," where Abbey writes, "This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places" (1990, 1). The linguistic paradox here can be seen clearly. To use the superlative "most beautiful" is to say in no uncertain terms that this beauty is incomparable, that it is of its own genus we might say. But then of course we learn that "there are many such places," that this beautiful place is only one of any number of such beautiful places. Clearly, such linguistic play animates the rhetorical, here meaning the strategic, use of paradox. As Richard Lanham defines paradox, it is a "seemingly selfcontradictory statement, which yet is shown to be (sometimes in a surprising way) true" (2013, 107). Like his literary godfather Thoreau, Abbey uses linguistic paradoxes as a textual strategy of estranging or unseating habits of thought. This is to say that there is a specific rhetorical modality of linguistic paradox in Desert Solitaire. Paradox then is not merely an anarchistic game for Abbey; it is a way of accomplishing a rhetorical goal. (10) Finally though, Abbey's methodological investment in paradox is more interesting in its metalinguistic aspect than it is in its linguistic or rhetorical aspects. As I have said, it is Abbey's non-standard use of language, the formulation of paradox through language, that enables his strategic use of paradox as a rhetorical device. In the case of the "most beautiful place in the world," the subsequent sentence alters the meaning of the word "most." The superlative "most" therefore becomes instead of the one, the yet another. The meaning of the first term, "the most beautiful" is transformed or transfigured by way in which the sentence that follows it shifts its meaning. Put more directly, the superlative "most beautiful" is intratextually altered by that which comes after it: "many such." What happens in this example is what we might call a "re-meaning" in which the initial meaning of "most beautiful" is invoked to be altered. Crucially though, the original meaning is not lost. It remains present; albeit in a manner we would have to call suspended. Textual paradoxes such as these rely on the insertion of ambiguity into a seemingly stable linguistic-conceptual unit. This is the power of language to erode, in a figure that will be important to Desert Solitaire, stable and conventional meaning. It is also the aspect of language that makes poetry possible. We might agree then with Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn (1947) that the language of poetry, or more precisely of literariness, is very much the language of paradox. This fact is both the promise and the danger of the literary--it enlightens while it obscures. Such intratextual and intralinguistic paradox is a central strategy for Abbey, and the issue of his control of it will be of primary importance to us later when we look at his use of metaphor in the chapter called "Water." For now, let us simply note that metalinguistic techniques are part of Abbey's literary strategy, a fact that should encourage us to look for metalinguistic play throughout the text.

At this point, allow me to turn to the other term in Desert Solitaire's leitmotif: "bedrock." For if Abbey's notion of paradox centers on a certain metalinguisticity, that of "bedrock" does something else. Above, we saw bedrock figured in two ways. In "The First Morning," we see it identified with the nonhuman world. In the second section, bedrock indicates the triumph of life over the destruction of the world resulting from what he calls "the valley of paradox." Both cases, although they have different emphases, counterpoise the paradox of language to the bedrock of nonhuman reality. And in fact, if Garth McCann is correct to say that "paradox is the bedrock" (quoted in Pozza 2006, 25; emphasis added) for Abbey, and he is, something very strange indeed occurs when Abbey writes the last sentence of the long excerpt above: "On this bedrock of animal faith I take my stand, close by the old road that leads eventually out of the valley of paradox" (1990, 268). Here paradox is neither a textual method used to unseat reader expectations, nor is it an example of anarchistic linguistic and conceptual play. Instead, it is framed by an imagined nuclear apocalypse as something like the fallen state of humanity, a state that may well result in humanity's own extinction. (11) Paradox is no longer a positive force then at the end of the text. In fact, it is the most destructive force in the history of the world, a force "harnessed" by human beings--the capacity to produce nuclear fission. But note that here "paradox" figured as the fallen state of nuclear modernity remains juxtaposed to "bedrock," and this brings us back to the question of bedrock.

What is bedrock for Abbey? The answer is both easy and difficult. Clearly bedrock is a figure for foundation--the "bedrock of animal faith." The way in which it is juxtaposed to paradox in this passage suggests that this foundation should be understood as ontxr logical and primordial. At the same time, Desert Solitaire is set in what was then Arches National Monument, a place of, if nothing else, rock. The rock of the desert is central to Abbey in the way that it points in its very haecceity to a point beyond and prior to the human, as he shows when he identifies bedrock with the non-human in the Introduction. Bedrock in Desert Solitaire then is both figural--in the sense that it tropes ontological stability--and literal, in the sense that it refers to the stark, meaningless actuality of desert rock. Within the text's mirror image of bedrock then, that is, paradox, lies something profoundly disturbing: in the blinding light of the apocalyptic vision in the final chapter, the metalinguistic is identified with anthropogenic annihilation. Rather than celebrating the paradoxical potential of language, which is to say its literariness, Abbey powerfully damns it.

This central ambiguity can be seen in the book's introduction:
This is not primarily a book about the desert. In recording my
impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for
accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind
of truth, in simple fact. But the desert is a vast world, an oceanic
world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea. Language
makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts,
when facts are infinite.... Since you cannot get to the desert in a
book anymore than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I
have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more
as a medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the
goal. (Abbey 1990, xii)

Note the way in which the mediacy and slipperiness of language is opposed to "solid" bedrock here. That is to say that what Abbey refers to as the "simple fact" is the epistemic and aesthetic force of the nonhuman world's ontological presence, an immediate pure presence fundamentally opposed to the mediacy of language. Edward Twining sums up Abbey's investment in such ontological matters when he writes that Abbey "was a realist, one who obdurately insisted on the unavoidable primary importance of the material world that manifests itself to our (unignorable) senses" (1998, 20). This realist, even materialist, Abbey seems at odds with the paradoxical linguistic anarchist we saw above. Indeed, Twining writes even more forcefully that it "is in this most basic of senses that Abbey was both a moralist and thorough going materialist... he never deviated from [these] three propositions: The world is real. We can know the world. We are responsible for it" (24; emphasis original). This Abbey insists that the world is there; it is real. But, as Twining puts it, Abbey also firmly believes that we can "know the world." The question of course is what could it mean to "know the world" when the medium of knowledge--language--cannot be trusted?


Abbey's desire to know the world seems invested in, to use Morton's terms, the "solid" and "veridical" actuality of the world to which language is explicitly opposed. Indeed, the materialist Abbey would seem to be expressing what Morton calls the "guilt" of the ecomimetic writer above--a guilt which often results in a disavowal of the very language being used to create the ecomimetic effect (2007, 31). Paradoxically, and as the reader has no doubt already noticed, Abbey writes in the same passage that: "I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact" (1990, xii). But how can there be poetry in the non-linguistic? The realist, materialist Abbey insists that the world is there; it is real, and language cannot hope to accurately render it, writing in a deeply instructive passage that follows a survey of writers concerned with the desert country of the southwest:
None of these works I have named attack directly the problem to which
I wish to address myself here: what is the peculiar quality of
character of the desert that distinguishes it, in spiritual appeal,
from other forms of landscape? In trying to isolate this peculiarity,
if it exists at all and is not simply an illusion, we must beware of a
danger well known to explorers of both the micro- and
macrocosmic--that of confusing the thing observed with the mind of the
observer, of constructing not a picture of external reality but simply
a mirror of the thinker...There is no way out of these difficulties.
(Abbey 1990, 240) (12)

Here, Abbey clearly acknowledges the problem of knowing the world, one that is only compounded by his attempt to re-present it in language. The bedrock of the world is not so easily gotten a hold of as we might think, he seems to say. But even if it were, what does it mean to say that, as Twining argues Abbey does, the world is real, and we can know it?

As a sensualist, Abbey's answer will be an aesthetic one. In a meditation on sound and T S. Eliot's Wasteland, Abbey writes:
Far off, the muted kettledrums of thunder, pianissimo... T. S. Eliot
and The Wasteland [sic]. Certain passages in the professorial poem
still appeal to me, for they remind me of Moab, Utah. In other words I
like the poem for the wrong reasons--and dislike it for the right ones.

Here I am relaxing into memories of ancient books--a surefire sign of
spiritual fatigue. That screen of words, that veil of ideas, issuing
from the brain like a sort of mental smog that keeps getting between a
man and the world, obscuring vision. Maya. Time to go back down to the
river and reality. (Abbey 1990, 184; emphasis added)

For Abbey it would appear that, in a Keatsian formula, we know truth through poetry, which would be through beauty. But for him, true beauty is nothing other than ontological factuality, the (if this can be said) this-ness of the nonhuman. And as I have noted, this this-ness is opposed to the paradox of language. Abbey seems to contradict himself again in this passage by collapsing what he argues throughout the book are essentially opposed: fact and poetry, truth and language. But this identification is not merely paradoxical or contradictory. It is absolutely crucial for understanding what is at stake in Desert Solitaire.

In fact, Desert Solitaire simultaneously poses two models of language: the aesthetic model, consisting of sound and figure, and the referential or mimetic model, which represents more or less "accurately," in Abbey's term. The latter refers to the phenomenal world, while the former produces a linguistic reality, that, to borrow a formulation from de Man's "The Resistance to Theory," evokes phenomenal reality that is, importantly, not available to the senses. For Abbey of course, the senses are the privileged mode of access to the nonhuman. Sense perception is precisely what allows access to the nonhuman world: "We can know the world" through our senses. It would therefore be the aestheticization of pure perception that produces, in Abbey's words, both poetry and truth. The problem here though is that textual language is not sensual. For while language can be of course approached aesthetically, there does not seem to be a pure perception of text. Reading text is in no way a matter of sense perception. Instead it produces a non-sensuous linguistic and mental picture--an imaginary, if you like. At stake here is the central problem of ecomimesis identified by Morton: an inherently contradictory valorization of the reality of the physical world over the purely linguistic world of the text, and thus a valorization of sense over the nebulous idea of the imagination.

Indeed, Abbey could not be clearer about the "screen of words" and its relation to perception and to reality. Words are maya--an illusion or a veil, as understood in some Hindu and Buddhist traditions. (13) They are a "smog that keeps getting between a man and the world" (Abbey 1990, 184). We can take written language as aesthetic, and indeed we do in a strange way, but it is precisely the fact that the world produced in the linguistic act is not available to the senses that devalues language for Abbey. Importantly, the tension between the two models of language in Desert Solitaire is not at all obscured, contra Morton's analysis of ecomimesis. Instead, Abbey brings that tension to the fore again and again. At the same time, it is a tension that cannot hold, if only because of its radical implications. If we take seriously the notion of language as veil--obscuring, anthropocentric and anthropocentrizing--why write about the nonhuman at all? As a reader and a writer, of course, this question is anathema to Abbey. What is to be done?


Abbey attempts to solve this problem of language, world, and ecomimesis in the central chapter of the book, entitled "Water." He does so by bridging the two models of language--the referential and aesthetic--through an attempt at deriving language from natural semiosis. Desert Solitaire has made use of aqueous language throughout, drawing the reader's attention to the ways in which water is figured throughout the text. Let us look closely then at a long digression on finding water in the desert in the chapter titled "Water." First, let us note that that the ability is crucial to desert travelers, very much a matter of survival for desert wanderers like Abbey. (14) As he writes, when one spends "long enough in the desert a man like other animals can learn to smell water" (1990, 114). But water, of course, has no smell. Abbey clarifies that a person "can learn at least the smell of things associated with water--the unique and heartening odor of the cottonwood tree, for example, which in the canyonlands is the tree of life" (114). In the crucial passage that follows, he writes of the cottonwood tree:
In this wilderness of naked rock burnt to auburn or buff or red by
ancient fires, there is no vision more pleasing to the eyes and more
gratifying to the heart than the translucent acid green... of this
venerable tree. It signifies water, and not only water but also shade,
in a country where shelter from the sun is sometimes almost as
precious as water. (Abbey 1990, 114; emphasis added)

Two things must be noted here. First this passage contains a cliche of nature writing--localism. This cliche couldn't be more starkly mobilized than it is in this case. To know that the cottonwood is a tree that can grow only in a riparian zone near surface and ground water can mean survival in the desert. This specialized knowledge is a matter of life and death, and it is knowledge which the interloper or visitor or tourist does not necessarily have but that the person familiar with the area does. Abbey here valorizes the familiar sense of place that we find in so much nature writing. But more important than this simple valorization is the word "signifies." In the paragraph that begins immediately after this, Abbey repeats and italicizes the word: Signifies water, which may or may not be on the surface, visible and available," stressing once more that the cottonwood tree is a sign for water, and that as such, it is a sign for survival (114; emphasis original). In a text that is concerned centrally and perhaps even primarily with linguistic representation of the nonhuman, that again and again broadcasts its ambivalence about language, we must pay special attention to passages that address signification, semiosis, and their paradigmatic model, language.

In fact, with the signifying cottonwood, Abbey's text presents language as merely one of a species of natural semiotic systems. Even more importantly, language is derivative of earlier, more primordial types of semiosis. The stakes of this latter claim are high indeed, for if language is derivative of other "natural" semiotic structures, perhaps its relentlessly unstable rhetoricity is not essential to it, as it was with the model of language as maya. If that were to be the case, the aesthetic aspect of language could be "accurate" in a referential sense, thus squaring Abbey's circle. Literary texts such as Desert Solitaire would be able to accurately depict the ontological this-ness of the world through aesthetic practice. As a result, language would cease to do violence to the world through its inherent anthropomorphizing tropology, a tropology that ever puts the non-human in terms of the human. Language stops being that which is most human and thus "artificial," and becomes something "natural" instead. The aesthetic response to language becomes, de facto, the preferred method for experiencing the natural world and it becomes available to us in and through text. Abbey wants to, avant la theorie of course, contradict the valorization of world over art that Morton notes in his analysis of ecomimesis. As we shall see, though, not only is Abbey (always, insistently) equivocal about this, but the case that he tries to build ultimately, and perhaps in the end felicitously, escapes him like so much water slipping through his hands.

The cottonwood not only signifies water, then, but also signifies language itself. That is, the cottonwood-to-water relation, which is a natural sign, a direct passage from signifier to referent, is to be seen as analogous to the relation of language to truth. Perhaps an illustration will make this a bit clearer:

Now in order to make sense of this relation, we must say what "truth" is here. Truth is both the hard factuality of the world, the brute ontological force of the nonhuman world, and the aesthetic experience that Abbey thinks is to be gleaned from sensory perception of that world--an aesthetic experience he seeks to mimic with language. The ecomimetic project of the book, then, is to evoke or represent the world through language "accurately" enough to be able to produce an aesthetic experience that is something analogous to the experience one has in the desert. But that project has inscribed within it two troubling claims. The first is the reliance on the notion that experience of the textual object itself is always of radically lower importance than experience of the world itself, per Morton and Abbey himself. The second, a result of the first, is the self-negating devaluation, distrust, and active obscuration of the very rhetorical dimension of language that makes ecomimesis possible in the first place. It would appear that we could not have a better example of these problems than the figure in question, a figure that seeks to resolve Desert Solitaire's conflicting models of language, the veil and the poetry of truth, through a metaphor by analogy.

As a way of lifting the veil, then, Abbey does nothing less than propose an essence of language here. The referential or mimetic model of language Abbey develops is predicated on what we might call a naturalistic or symbolic account of semiosis that is opposed to or eclipses the model of language as veil, in an operation very similar to one of the metalinguistic paradoxes we saw above. Abbey's essence of language is illustrated by the relation of cottonwood to water in this figure, which is a "natural" relation--in contrast to the arbitrary relationship of the linguistic signified to signifier famously identified by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. That is, the relation between water and cottonwood, which is clearly marked as a metaphor for language and its relation to the world by the verb "signifies," is not in any way arbitrary. Indeed, the signifying cottonwood skips over a signified as concept and goes straight to what Saussure called the referent, the real thing in the world. The tree signifies water because cottonwoods can only grow with sufficient water. And while a given cottonwood or stand of cottonwoods may or may not indicate surface water, they always indicate the presence of enough water to keep them alive.

When Abbey posits the ground of language in this way, a ground (or bedrock) that allows him to continue writing Desert Solitaire in something like good faith, he is attempting to rid language of its rhetorical dimension. Ironically, of course, it is that very dimension that makes literary language possible at all, as we saw above. (15) In this way, Abbey's ostensible redemption of the potential of language would seem to foreclose itself. His commitment to language as an aesthetic medium inherently erodes its own ground of meaning. The stakes of this could not be higher. To see how the veil of linguistic trope simultaneously constitutes and annihilates meaning would seem to be to give up hope for ecomimesis on any number of levels. This would be unacceptable, which is why he strives for a naturalistic semiosis, embracing "bedrock" as the foundation for "paradox," as it were.

But (and this is where things get interesting) Abbey has to do all this through trope, through the rhetorical dimension of language that he has tried to remove from the picture. His naturalistic semiosis operates on what de Man might call the logic of the symbol. The cottonwood in the desert is a natural sign--a symbol for water. It is thus not like the linguistic sign, in which the signifier and signified are yoked arbitrarily. Instead it is an ontological fact that grounds semiosis as such for Abbey. Being able to properly understand this symbol is cast as the difference between life and death in the text. Luckily, because the relation of cottonwood to water is a symbolic one, it is not possible to "misread" it. Although we can certainly imagine a scenario in which a person does not know that green foliage indicates water (or one in which a person who thinks that greenery does not mean that water is nearby), the person in question is simply wrong about the world. These would be misunderstandings that stem from basic errors concerning facts about the world, and thus they would not be misreadings at all. Cottonwood trees simply do indicate water, and any misunderstanding of that fact is not the result of some problem with the relationship between the two, but with the human who does not know that relationship. When he figures the natural sign through metaphor, he authorizes his own aesthetic practice by positing the logic of the symbol as the primordial logic of the sign, and thus of language as such. Note the analogical structure of the metaphor. If it is the case that language is to truth as cottonwood is to water, it would appear that in order to reach truth we need to go through language just as we need the cottonwood to find the water. And truth is analogized with hidden water in the desert, so it would be the case that finding the truth through language is also a matter of survival. Ultimately in the text, language becomes a sign of truth, which in turn is necessary for survival. Language is no longer a veil in this metaphor; it is instead a sign that produces aesthetic experience by revealing hidden truth. To establish meaning through metaphor in this way seems natural enough. It is simply a fact that we use metaphor to mean, and that metaphor shapes our ability to mean to a greater or lesser degree.

But isn't there something unsettling going on here? How can Abbey use a metaphor to disavow metaphor? Or to put the same question in another way: does the text on the page bear out the naturalistic logic of the symbol that Abbey wants to claim as the essence of language? The answer comes down to the distinction between understanding, as we did with the symbol, and reading. Surely, if we read the passage the way Abbey wants us to, the problem of the instability of rhetoric is solved. On the other hand, if we read the passage the way Morton likely would, we pathologize ecomimesis as that which plays out a guilt about language. The outcome of this metaphor (and of course it is not limited to these two options) depends on how we read the passage, a fact that suggests in turn that--in de Man's words--trope is entirely "an epistemological discipline" (1978, 25). To read the passage as I suggest Morton might, or in any other way really, is to show precisely the way in which language in its rhetorical, figurative aspect is not, and cannot be, understood to be grounded in a naturalistic semiosis that will vouchsafe it from itself. In other words, and without generalizing the point to other media, language cannot be properly symbolic in the sense of natural semiosis precisely because of its figural dimension--the very dimension that enables the practice of reading interpretively in the first place.

The cottonwood tree equals water in the desert, and water in the desert equals life. This is nothing other than a natural metonymy. As I noted above, it is clear that Abbey wants to use this metonymy as an analogy for the relation of language to truth, indeed to the ability of language to access the aesthetic truth of the world. But, and this is crucial, how do we get from [cottonwood-water] to [language-truth]? While the cottonwood-water pairing uses metonymy to establish a symbolic relation that implicitly counters the dangerous and disruptive power of trope, it does so through an importantly different figure with a very different logic, namely metaphor. The metonym operates on the symbolic register. That is to say that the yoking of one thing to another thing in metonymic relation relies on a natural and necessary ontological relationship between them: the tree needs water to live and therefore the tree is an indication of water below the surface. This relation is clearly metonymic and, as such, clearly symbolic. But when Abbey uses the tree-to-water metonym as a metaphor for linguistic signification itself, and more specifically for the relation of language to the truth of the world, something strange happens. Unlike the symbolic logic of metonym, metaphor by analogy uses a logic of implied similarity, and as such it requires no ontological relation of signifier to signified--it is arbitrary.

In metaphor then is inscribed the very arbitrariness of the sign insisted upon by Saussure. This would mean in turn that it is in metaphor that the semiotic and epistemological instability of language most powerfully manifests itself. The metaphor of [cottonwood-water] as [language-truth] then can't help but put into question the correspondence between the two associations. In fact, the relations do not match up, and when considered for more than a moment they appear utterly dis-analogous. For example, the first has two concrete referents, the second only one; cottonwoods need water to live while language cannot be said to need the truth of the world; cottonwoods are not essentially media of semiosis or communication while language is, and so on, perhaps adnauseum. Not only is there no legible analogy, but the yoking of the pairs is not based on any kind of necessary relation. In fact, there is no relationship prior to or aside from the metaphorical, that is, arbitrary, one. This is the trouble with metaphor, one that jeopardizes Abbey's entire aesthetic project, and it results from the fact that we must read metaphor--we do not understand it in the way we understand a symbolic/metonymic/ontological relation.

Indeed, when we read the figure figuratively, as it were, we see that its re-figuration of [tree-water] as [language-truth] has the rather unpleasant effect of colonizing or eroding not only the figure itself (to the degree that it is meant to show us something about the ground of linguistic semiosis), but also the supposedly natural semiosis of the first pair. The re-figuring power of the catachrestic metaphor creeps back on the metonymy, and the caprice of trope and the problem of its readability bend or curve back on that which set it in motion in the first place, undermining the very ontological factuality of the natural symbol. De Man discusses this tendency evocatively, again in "The Epistemology of Metaphor," writing that catachreses
are capable of inventing the most fantastic entities by dint of the
positional power inherent in language. They can dismember the texture
of reality and reassemble it in the most capricious of ways, pairing
man with woman or human being with beast in the most unnatural shapes.
Something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachreses: when
one speaks of the legs of the table or the face of the mountain,
catachresis is already turning into prosopopoeia, and one begins to
perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters, (de Man 1978, 21)

This dismembering of the texture of reality happens in reading because we grasp that a figure's meaning means only when we see it as a figure. That is, in our case--when it dawns on the reader that the discussion of the cottonwood tree's relation to water should be read two ways, literal (stable) and figurative (unstable)--the literal meaning is in a certain way subsumed in a figurative one. As a result, once the reader has understood that all of this is a figure, only a residue of the literality of the metonymy remains intact, something like what Walter Benjamin refers to as the "ruin" of allegory in his Trauerspiel book. Once this has happened, once the text has been read, there can be no going back to the pristine visions of naturalistic semiosis or aesthetic "accuracy."

Abbey's figuration of a metonymic/symbolic relation as metaphorically analogous to an epistemo-linguistic relation then radically reverses the figure in question. This happens because phenomenal relation cannot be used to materialize and ontologize a linguistic, rhetorical, and thus arbitrary relation. In the passage from metonymic/symbolic logic to a metaphorical adogic, the reader becomes privy to, as de Man puts it "a sudden revelation of the discontinuity between two rhetorical codes" (1979, 301). Reading, reading wildly that is, allows us to see precisely the opposite of what Abbey wants us to see. We find that the symbol or natural sign is not in fact the paradigm of language from which corrosive figuration deviates, but the other way around. Figuration seems to have transformed the natural, phenomenal, ontological relation of the cottonwood to water into a figure. Of course, the relation between cottonwood and water does not actually change. But because here in the text that relationship is figured, its literal meaning erodes--just as water erodes bedrock. Figure, the rhetorical aspect of language, cannot be contained or constrained in the way the text needs it to be or the author wants it to be. This figure, like all figures, disfigures itself when it is read. But it also disfigures or erodes the notion of the symbol as the ground of semiosis and the reality upon which it relies. In fact, what comes forth is the ability of a literary text to auto-de(con)struct when meaning, rhetoric, and form are read against each other. This demonstrates the inherent possibility and even inevitability of misreading that is essential to reading qua reading. Does this mean that all is lost? Desert Solitaire becomes just another victim of the violence of trope, doesn't it? Mustn't we give up on notions of the alterity of the nonhuman along with notions of language being grounded in naturalistic semiosis?

Not quite. It is precisely the muddying of the waters that makes the text's project vital in the first place. Interestingly, it would appear that the text is aware of exactly the problem I have noted. Later in "Water," Abbey writes:
The poison spring is quite clear. The water is sterile, lifeless.
There are no bugs, which is itself a warning sign, in case the smell
were not sufficient. When in doubt about drinking from an unknown
spring, look for life. If the water is scummed with algae, crawling
with worms, grubs, larvae, spiders, and liver flukes, be reassured,
drink hearty and you'll get nothing but dysentery. But if it appears
innocent and pure, beware. Onion Spring wears such a deceitful guise.
(Abbey 1990, 116-17; emphasis added)

Recall that water is truth and we have access to it through the cottonwood, that is, language. This is the pure and innocent vision of language as natural semiosis proposed only pages before. But here, the very purity of both truth and language is figured as deadly. The Cottonwood has disappeared, and only the deadly water of pure truth remains. That vision of purity and innocence, of course, is precisely the aesthetic view of nature upon which Desert Solitaire relies, one which requires Abbey to ground language in the logic of the symbol. But right here we are told to be wary of the beautiful--of language, of the aesthetic, of the world, and of nature itself. Clearly enough, Abbey alludes to the paradox at the heart of literary texts: the undecidability inherent to reading, particularly to reading trope. Through reading, or, better, through the always already possibility of misreading, the meaningfulness of language erodes, like the wind and water eroded red-rock of Abbey's beloved Southwest. Indeed, the rhetorical dimension of language presents a permanent challenge to any hermeneutic schema, precisely because the former like so much water--cannot be controlled, forever finding fissures to seep through.

But the problem is not only that it is uncontrollable. The rhetorical dimension of language has a figural and epistemological power over the world re-presented in the text. We know that the relation of flora to water is not ontologically altered by its involvement in a tropological nexus. But read figuratively, the epistemological contamination of the ontological by the figural, of the truth of the signifier by the content of the signified, cannot be prevented. And as I have already said, this fact indicates the very essence of figure--its power to dis-figure that which it figures, a power activated by reading. Trope or figure escapes our ability to control it as it infects and erodes that which it figures, relentlessly allegorizing itself far beyond any intent. Trope, then, masters us even as we think we master it. Like water, we cannot grasp it. Taken seriously, this realization has tremendous implications for text, "nature," and aesthetics. When the animating force of the aesthetic collapses or escapes a text, having been exorcised, so to speak, by tropological analysis, what remains and is revealed is the text itself: the text as material object as meaningless and faceless as the rock Abbey takes pains to describe. And it is when the essence of reading is understood to be misreading that language completely slips away from us. We are left "un-reading" the wild text of Desert Solitaire in which paragraphs, sentences, words, and letters no longer seem to carry meaning; they confront us as entirely alien, as other, because of the book's dizzying, vertiginous tropological economy; this is what I call the wild reading.

Upon reading an ecomimetic text wildly, the reader is confronted with that same unmooring "moment of a-pathos, or apathy, as the complete loss of the symbolic" that de Man finds in his reading of Kant's vault (1996, 127). Ecomimetic texts like Desert Solitaire are particularly rich in the way that they are able to mobilize the problem of phenomenality that makes possible such a loss of the symbolic. Because such texts struggle to represent the nonhuman, they are always especially anxious about language and that anxiety manifests itself in the desire to ontologize language's relation to the world. But since such ontologization occurs only through figure, what we find is that rather than making language more home-y or heimelig in the sense of "cozy," it is inevitably radically stranged. Meaning and aesthetic "truth" are instead washed away, leaving only the material traces of text which un-home our relation to language. Rather than simply reinscribing the aesthetic ideology of ecomimesis, then, Abbey's text indicates the danger of confusing what de Man calls phenomenality with reference. Desert Solitaire's ecomimesis relies on a number of such moves as the text blurs over the boundary between world and language in both its aesthetic practice and its explicit theme. As I have argued it, such blurring is not simply the symptom of ecomimetic ideology. Rather, those very slippages produce intense epistemological aberrations precisely because they rely on that which disrupts the reliable passage from language to meaning: trope. And in fact, the text tells us outright that that which is most pure, most innocent-looking, is deadly. We see too that truth, meaning, and reality are not as solid as they appear and are indeed closer to paradox than to bedrock.

Abbey's ecomimesis is not merely unstable; it is language itself, in its figural aspect and its mis-readability, that simultaneously takes control of the text's ecomimetic practice and our own reading practice. In doing so, the wilderness of language shows the epistemological instability inherent to those practices. The apparent mendacity of ecomimesis noted by Morton, because of the way that it essentially problematizes the logic of the symbol, is not in fact a strike against the concept of nature. Rather, ecomimesis is a privileged tool for exposing the materiality of the text and producing a sublime encounter with that materiality in all its strangeness and this-ness--its haecceity. The result of that encounter is the realization that language veers off from the human. Language becomes something that is beyond the human and beyond itself--something autonomous, something wild. And it is here that we can see the powerful de-anthropocentrizing potential of reading trope wildly in the ecomimetic text. For if we can begin to encounter, and even dwell in, our limits, if we recognize that our epistemologies and aesthetics are predicated on that which is autonomous and wild, that our bedrock is founded on paradox, we can begin to see the "value" of the wild as the basis of "the human." If the human, then, turns out to be founded on the wild, and not vice versa, we need not get rid of the concept of nature. In fact, we may learn that value itself is a function of the wild, and that it is precisely the paradox of language--that most human of all things--that erodes anthropocentric accounts of bedrock values. In the very real and pressing battle for the conservation of wild spaces, reading wildly can help us to articulate a critical environmental ethic that is always already deanthropocentrizing.


The author would like to thank the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University for its support while writing this essay.

(1) It was preceded by three novels that had for the most part only minimal success. Abbey's second novel The Brave Cowboy (1956), although it did not sell particularly well, was made into a film starring Kirk Douglas called Lonely Are the Brave in 1962.

(2) The 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang would be the only other candidate.

(3) This problematic remains entirely true for various speculative realisms and object-oriented ontologies (OOO). Although I discuss some of Timothy Morton's work in the essay, I attend to OOO only implicitly here when I discuss the importance of maintaining a "human'Vnonhuman divide. For a more thoroughgoing critique of some of OOO's foundational moves, see Andrew Cole's essay in Artforum International entitled "Those Obscure Objects of Desire" (2015).

(4) There is a less instrumental version of the husbandry argument that stems from religious principles. While the idea that we ought to protect or care for the nonhuman because it is part of Creation may be quite powerful within religious communities, such ideas will never be universal enough to be politically efficacious on a global scale. Thus, even if a religious tradition were entirely oriented toward conservation, it would not be able to enact sweeping political changes.

To this point it must be added that the role of nature in the major monotheistic religions is at the very least a controversial topic, with scholars such as Lynn White, Jr. (1967), Carolyn Merchant (1989), and Arnold Toynbee (1972), among many others, arguing that the major monotheistic religions are to a greater or lesser degree responsible for modern environmental degradation. For example, while Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical Laudato si' is a welcome intervention on environmental matters by a prominent religious leader, its potential real impact outside, and perhaps even inside, the Catholic Church remains to be seen.

(5) It seems grimly appropriate that the Trump administration uses the rhetoric of "draining the swamp" to account for its reckless and destructive environmental policy appointments.

(6) The OOO/speculative realist approach stresses "objects" over "subjects" but does so through what we might call same-ing, a collapse of difference that renounces the first principle of valuation, the axiological principle.

(7) Morton's approach of dwelling in the symptom, as it were, in which a Lord of the Rings snow globe or the so-called Pacific garbage patch is onto-logically fungible with, say, an endangered species of tree frog, shores up rather than critiques neoliberal capitalism.

(8) In the late chapter "Episodes and Visions," Abbey formulates the distinction between civilization and culture when he writes that "civilization is the vital force in human history; culture is that inert mass of institutions and organizations which accumulate around and tend to drag down the advance of life" (1990, 246).

(9) Linguistic paradox is the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory terms. By rhetorical paradox, I mean Abbey's rhetorical usage of the device of paradox to unsettle reader assumptions. Metalinguistic paradox would be a kind of dialectical synthesis produced by the ways in which the terms of the linguistic paradox colonize each other, thereby problematizing the meanings that precede and undergird the linguistic paradox.

(10) See Harold Alderman (1998) and James Bishop, Jr. (1994) for more on Abbey's anarchism.

(11) Not only was Desert Solitaire written during the height of the Cold War in the aftermath of World War II, it was composed in the American Southwest, the epicenter of US nuclear testing. Indeed, both the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico and the Nevada Test Site in and around Yucca Flat are about five hundred miles from Arches and, of course, both test sites were chosen precisely because they are located within massive deserts.

(12) Abbey mentions Mary Austin, legendary desert wanderer Everett Reuss, Wallace Stegner, and John Wesley Powell, among others.

(13) It is safe to assume that Abbey alludes to Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy with the image oimdyd, and very possibly to the source of that image in The Birth, which is Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. Worth noting is that for Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin (in part three of his long essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, for example), Schopenhauer's concept of the veil as an illusion is recast as a necessary mediating force between world and human. (Pierre Hadot's The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature is an interesting look at an analogous image in the Western philosophical tradition.) Perhaps not coincidentally, the German excerpt in the second stanza of The Waste Land is from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, a work that profoundly influenced Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and of course is discussed at length in The Birth of Tragedy.

(14) It is worth noting that the Abbey of Desert Solitaire never seems to bring enough water on his desert explorations. We might psychologize this as a symptom of the intentionally foolhardy bravado that Abbey the man was well-known for, although such a reading is perhaps not very interesting. For our purposes here, it is more important simply to keep in mind that water, or the lack thereof and the subsequent search for it, serves as a main thematic concern for Desert Solitaire for obvious reasons. Suffice to say for now that water carries with it heavy, even overdetermined, "symbolic" weight in Desert Solitaire.

(15) Trope is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for literature.


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Morton, Timothy. 2007. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1972. Excerpts from the Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. In The Structuralists from Marx to Levi-Strauss, edited by Richard T. and Fernande M. De George, 58-79. New York: Doubleday.

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IAN K. JENSEN received his Ph.D. in English with a designated emphasis in critical theory from the University of California, Irvine. His research centers on intersections of American literature, literary and critical theory, and nature writing. His essays have appeared in the Journal of Contemporary Thought and the edited volume Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Critical Perspectives (2016). He teaches at California State University, Long Beach.
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Title Annotation:ESSAYS
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Date:Sep 22, 2019

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