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American Wilderness Writing (February 2016): Desert Writers

By Erik Hage

Desert Writers

As the US frontier reached the Pacific Ocean and as US society moved into a more advanced industrial age at the turn of the twentieth century, wilderness writers turned to arid regions that remained remote.  The three most prominent of these “desert writers” are Mary Hunter Austin (1868–1934), Joseph Wood Krutch (1893–1970), and Edward Abbey (1927–89).

Mary Hunter Austin’s The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays that first appeared in Atlantic Monthly and that explore California’s Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevadas and northwest of Death Valley.  Writing in deft prose that recalls Thoreau, Austin builds on the ecological and nonanthropocentric vision established by her predecessors, constantly turning attention to the land and its flora and fauna—and to those humans who sought an existence more attuned to their environment.  Though Austin’s interests and publications ranged widely—she wrote feminist works, plays, and fiction—she is among the most eloquent voices in the nature-writing sphere, and she added an early significant woman’s voice to wilderness writing.

Joseph Wood Krutch’s books The Desert Year and The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist’s Interpretation warrant close consideration.  Krutch spent his early professional years in New York City as a professor, theater critic, and literary biographer, later turning to a life in the Arizona desert as a naturalist.  He wrote of ecology, natural history, and the southwestern desert with literary flair, becoming a widely appreciated champion of conservation.

Edward Abbey, who was the last person to interview Krutch before Krutch’s death, is arguably the most famous and outspoken literary champion of the desert and its protection.  Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, which emerged from his employment in Utah for the National Park Service, is likely the best known and most widely read nonfiction work about the relationship between the desert and civilization.  Abbey sometimes abandons Austin’s subtlety and obliqueness and Krutch’s artistic eye, opting instead for bluntness and misanthropy and at the same time producing stirringly eloquent observations about these arid regions.  One can also detect in Abbey’s writings traces of Thoreau’s ideas, updated for a modernized society.

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