Unique Moments While Teaching Edward Abbey
Sandstone Formations South of Laramie
Unique Moments While Teaching Edward Abbey
I remember well during the first week of classes a bad blizzard hit Laramie in mid-January. I had just started to teach an undergraduate class in Edward Abbey and had given background information on Abbey who was a ranger at Arches National Park (Utah) a few years before I rangered in Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado). Out of several seasons in Arches came his classic book Desert Solitaire: A season in the Wilderness (1968). Just as we were about to discuss Desert Solitaire, along comes this freaking blizzard dropping three feet on snow on the small town of Laramie. The radio broadcast didn't say whether or not classes were canceled at the University of Wyoming.
Faithfully, I dressed in a warm parka, put on my ski boots and gaiters around my legs, and clipped into my cross country skis. I skied down Mitchell Street and over to 7th Street and skied toward the University of Wyoming campus a mile or so away. The wind howled and I had to ski through several complete white-outs. I didn't have to worry about cars on the streets, anyway. At long last after some twenty-five to thirty minutes of skiing I arrived at the classroom building, unclipped my skis and clip-clopped into my classroom full well expecting zero students. I was almost right, but there sat three brave students (out of 20) not expecting me to show up.
"Well, class," I said, what would you like to discuss about Edward Abbey as the winds howled outside. One of them said, "let's look at passages where he describes snow."-- "Fair enough," I said. In the opening chapter, "First Morning," he arrived at his trailer house on a cold, snowy night:with snow swirling through the air. He writes, "A cold night, a cold wind, the snow falling like confetti." He entered his trailer house, unrolled his sleeping bag and tried to get some shut eye with the furious wind shaking the trailer like a tin can. One student said he liked it when he got up before sunrise the next morning when "the snow-covered ground glimmers with a dull blue light, reflecting the sky and the approaching sunrise."
"What about summer snow?" I asked. They hadn't gotten that far in the book. I told them to jump ahead to "Tukuhnikivats, the Island in the Desert." In this chapter Abbey, tired of desert heat, drives up into the La Sal Range to climb a thirteen-thousand foot mountain called Tukuhnikivats or "Where the Sun Lingers" in the Ute language. In order to summit this high peak of rocky slabs, he elected to climb up through a bell-curved snowfield. He writes, "I advance upon it slowly and carefully, kicking out footholds as I climb. The snow is firm, solid, as expected, and at first it seems easier to go this way. But the kicking of niches becomes tiring; an ice axe would be handy now." Reluctantly, he decides to scamper up loose rocks to the summit where he saw a third of Utah and the strange pinish arches so far below shimmering in heat.
Reluctantly, we left the classroom to enter a blizzard, but none of us required an ice axe just yet!
A few months later toward the end of March after having read and discussed Desert Solitaire, Beyond the Wall and The Monkey-Wrench Gang, I asked the class if they might not like going to a little piece of Utah in the midst of the Laramie Plains to wrap up our discussion of three books before moving on to another three. They all said YES. We car pooled to a spot seventeen miles south of Laramie on a warm Saturday morning and huffed across the prairie a wee bit until we came upon some fantastic sandstone formations. (See black and white image).
Once we arrived, the twenty of us gathered dried sticks of sage brush and dead branches from mountain juniper and lit a fire in a scooped out sand hollow. We sat in a circle and I asked students to select a passage from Abbey, read it out loud and discuss some of its telling features. One students read from the "Rocks" chapter of Desert Solitaire: "The very names are lovely--chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, chrysoprase and agate.Onnyx and sardonyx, Crytocrystalline quartz. Quartzite, Flint, chert and sard. Chrysoberyl, spodumene, garnet, zircon and Malachite. Obsidian, turquoise, calcite, feldspar, hornblende, pyrope, tourmaline, prophyry, arkose, rutile...lithium, cobalt, berylium, mercury, arsenic, molybdenum, titanium and barium...basalt, granite, gneiss, limestone, sandstone, marble, slate, gabbro, shale." He said, look all around us and that is what you have! To be more literary I suggested that Abbey has created for us a catalog of objects much like Walt Whitman in "Song of Myself." He is playing with sounds, as well. Listen to the rocks rolling down a hill" "Crytocrystalline quartz, quartzite, flint, chert and sard."
Another student commented, as our fire crackled, on Abbey's love of the smell of burning sage brush and juniper like incense burning as an offering to the gods. Just then a strong gust of wind blew puffs of smoke laced with red embers out toward us and beyond. We had no other choice but to douse the fire with our water canteens. We lingered a half hour more discussing a man who brought the earth, the desert to us, the readers, whether in armchairs or out in the desert itself!
I guess what i Succeeded in doing was combining my ranger experience and my teaching experience to apply it to the teaching of natural history writing at the University of Wyoming.
Interested Readers should go to Ann Ronald's fine book The New West of Edward Abbey.