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Quotations from Abbey and Others

by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:57 AM

Here are some passages in Abbey's writings, along with similar passages from other writers that can help us understand Abbey's ideas.

CONFRONTING THE ESSENTIAL
Abbey
I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us.
--Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “The First Morning,” 6

Thoreau
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
--Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Walden

DIRECT PERCEPTION
Abbey
I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.
--Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “The First Morning,” 6

For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.
--Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “Cliffrose and Bayonets,” 41-42

Each stone, each plant, each grain of sand exists in and for itself with a clarity that is undimmed by any suggestion of a different realm. Claritas, integritas, veritas. Only the sunlight holds things together. Noon is the crucial hour: the desert reveals itself nakedly and cruelly, with no meaning but its own existence.
--Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “The Heat of Noon,” 155

I stare long at the beautiful, dimming lights in the sky but can find there no meaning other than the lights’ intrinsic beauty. As far as I can perceive, the plants signify nothing but themselves. “Such suchness,” as my Zen friends say. And that is all. And that is enough. And that is more than we can make head or tail of.
--Abbey, Down the River, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” 19-20

Others:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.

This is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time....

If I had explained myself clearly you would realize by now that through this non-"artistic" view, this effort to suspend or destroy imagination, there opens before consciousness, and within it, a universe luminous, spacious, incalculably rich and wonderful in each detail, as relaxed and natural to the human swimmer, and as full of glory, as his breathing....
--James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, New York: Ballantine Books, p. 11

This practice led me to the first of my strange experiences on the prairie, the one where I first found the stone circles – where I felt drawn to them – and where I found myself trying in some simple and direct way to acknowledge the power I found out there. After such an experience, which felt to me complete in itself, I could not doubt that rightness of the approach, and I incorporated it into my daily walks. I began to tune in to this strange new perceptual experience which came from where I didn’t know, and for which I had no name, and which required of me stillness, intense altertness and if not a casting away of the will, at least a subjugating of it to what I sometimes thought was a larger will.

I began to try to stop thinking about anything else but the dirt on the road, the grass beside it, the stones, the fields spreading out on each side, the hawks circling overhead, the song of the meadowlark or red-winged blackbird, the sound of the wind in the grass, a particular rock high on a hillside. This required concentration, I found, and a constant calling myself back from thoughts of other things to my surroundings at the moment.
--Sharon Butala, Perfection of the Morning: A Woman’s Awakening in Nature (Hungry Mind, 1994) 124-125.

Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live, and to live is to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, divinely, serenely aware. In this state of godlike awareness one sings, and in this realm the world exists as poem, no why or wherefore, no direction, no goal, no striving, no revolving. . . . One is rapt by the ever-changing spectacle of changing phenomenon; this is the sublime, the amoral state of the artist, he who lives only in the moment, the visionary moment of utter far-seeing lucidity. Such clear icy sanity that is seems like madness.
--Henry Miller, "Creative Death," Selected Works, vol. 2 (1942).

{An account of the 7th and 8th day of the first ascent on El Capitan's Muir Wall.}
...with our more receptive senses we now appreciated everything around us. Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief. The varied shape of the clouds never ceased to attract our attention. For the first time we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the walls, so tiny they were barely noticeable. While belaying, I stared at one for fifteen minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color. How could one ever be bored with so many good things to see and feel? This unity with our joyous surroundings, this ultra penetrating perception gave us a feeling of contentment that we had not had for years.
--Yvon Chouinard, American Alpine Journal, 1966

MEANING
Abbey
There are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch. . . . You may see a symbol, a sign, a fact, a thing without meaning or a meaning which includes all things.
--Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “Cliffrose and Bayonets,” 41

Each stone, each plant, each grain of sand exists in and for itself with a clarity that is undimmed by any suggestion of a different realm. Claritas, integritas, veritas. Only the sunlight holds things together. Noon is the crucial hour: the desert reveals itself nakedly and cruelly, with no meaning but its own existence.
--Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “The Heat of Noon,” 155

Under the desert sun, in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean, the rock cuts cruelly into flesh; shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your nostrils, bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats, a pillar of dust by day; the thornbush breaks into flame at night. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. Therefore, sublime.
--Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “Down the River,” 219

Others
The sherpas start down immediately; they, too, seem oppressed by so much emptiness. Left alone, I am overtaken that northern void – no wind, no cloud, no track, no bird, only the crystal crescents between peaks, the ringing monuments of rock that, freed from the talons of ice and snow, thrust an implacable being into the blue. In the early light, the rock shadows on the snow are sharp; in the tension between light and dark is the power of the universe. This stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning here than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence. Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, and Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.
--Peter Matthiessen, Snow Leopard, 179-180

The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.
--Peter Matthiessen, Snow Leopard, 217-218

“Spring”
There are no images here
In the solitude, only
The night and its stars which are
Relationships rather than
Images. Shifting darkness,
Strains of feeling, lines of force,
Webs of thoughts, no images,
Only night and time aging
The night in its darkness, just
Motion in space in the dark.
It is a night full of darkness,
And space, and stars, and the hours
Going by, and time going by,
And the night growing old, and all
The webs, and nets, or relationships
Changing, and it is Spring night
In Provence, here where I am,
And under the half moon the almond
Buds are ready to burst. Before noon
The blossoms will open, here by
This peach colored house amongst
The steel gray pines and the gray
Limestone cliffs. Now the buds
Are round and tight in the dim
Moonlight, in the night that
Stretches on forever, that had
No beginning, and that will
Never end, and it doesn’t mean
Anything. It isn’t an image of
Something. It isn’t a symbol of
Something else. It is just an
| Almond tree, in the night, by
The house, in the woods, by
A vineyard, under the setting
Half moon, in Provence, in the
| Beginning of another Spring.
--Kenneth Rexroth, Complete Poems, 610-11

“Piute Creek”
One granite ridge
A tree, would be enough
Or even a rock, a small creek,
A bark shred in a pool.
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.
The mind wanders. A million
Summer, night air still and the rocks
Warm. Sky over endless mountains.
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present seems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in the dry air.

A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.
No one loves rock, yet we are here.
Night chills. A flick
In the moonlight
Slips into Juniper shadow:
Back there unseen
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go.
--Gary Snyder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems 6

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by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:57 AM