We are beginning the process of bedding down most of our gardens for the winter. I am reminded of what Robert Frost so sagely stated in his poem “After Apple-Picking,” that there comes a time when the harvest we so looked forward to has run its course and a new desire has arisen: to step aside, rest up a bit, and move on to other tasks — or simply do little or nothing for a while.
Inactivity has its limitations, too. As I write, I am looking at the stack of “to be read” books on the shelf beside my reading chair in my study. One title sticks out: Hannah Arendt’s classic “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”
I suspect I am not unlike other bookish types. That is, we collect lots of books, stack them up, stare at them quite a bit and, as is often the case, over time, never quite get to all of them. But having them is a comfort.
However, having stared at the Arendt book for some time, and given the alarming rearing of authoritarianism’s ugly head both here and around the world, the time has come to heed its wisdom.
Ironically, my increasing worry about where we might be headed in this country has been nourished by another book that I have been reading, also one that has been hanging around for some time: Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire.” I started it not out of any urgency regarding what appears to be an all too willing slide toward authoritarian behavior, but because he writes about his year as a ranger at Arches National Monument in southern Utah, a place we visited last year and hope to visit again this coming year.
Abbey can be exasperating, contradictory and often a bit condescending, but always honest. His love of Arches, and the wilderness in general, is evident. He writes eloquently of the place, and having been there, I can easily understand why. Some of his thoughts are a bit, as they say, over the top: fodder for another day. Here I wish to share some of his thoughts on authoritarianism, which caught me by surprise, since I never expected a polemic of this sort in a book devoted, ostensibly, to his day to day interaction with this vastly evocative natural wonder.
Foolish me. It occurs to me, if I can touch on serious political or social matters while popping black beans or shaving oregano stalks, then certainly there is nothing surprising or extraordinarily unique about Abbey’s making the sorts of ideological extrapolations he does.
In the book he suggests “the wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government.” A curious notion, since I have never thought of the wilderness as a redoubt, a place to escape political oppression. But it makes some sense. Although, if all those with genuine worries about political oppression were to head for the hills, well, there would not be a lot of “wild” in the wilderness.
However, his thoughts about preserving the wilderness are worthy of consideration. As well as his concerns regarding overpopulation, a source of many of our problems and not unrelated to our current climate crisis. Interestingly, Abbey published his book in 1968 and even then is prescient enough to write “history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies tend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible.”
He also warns that technology affords despots an efficient tool to pursue their nefarious goals.
There is no question we are at a crucial time in our history. Social media and a host of other technological tools afford all manner of despots and miscreants a platform to disseminate their venom and lies. I harbor no illusion it will change much during my lifetime. In fact, I suspect things will get much worse before they have a chance of getting better. Not only are we experiencing an uptick in authoritarian behavior in politics, our increasingly tribal affiliations have created an environment wherein if you are not one of us then you must be the enemy. So, now we live in a state of cultural and political warfare.
Regardless, I remain confident that we will come to our senses at some point; there is no choice if we expect this beautiful but very messy thing called democracy to survive. Best to heed Abbey and Arendt.
I think Gabby would agree.