Part IV Black Sun by Edward Abbey
Black Sun, published in 1980, offers a more nuanced look into Abbey’s themes. Like The Good Cowboy, it is set in a contemporary time period and presents a society bent on self-destruction. As Thomas J. Lyon has noted, the setting is “the sundown century: jets overhead, zoo-like obsessions with sex, manic pseudo-philosophy all around.” The book opens with an Edenic scene, Adam, alone in the Garden, before God created Eve. Will Gatlin, awakens in his cabin on the north rim of the Grand Canyon and feels the dawn wind and the morning bird song. Nude, he washes with snowmelt, then dresses and climbs the fire tower to keep watch on the forest, where, “There is nothing out there which is new to him, nothing which is wholly unknown.” He is at peace in the wilderness. And, he has learned to adapt to the rhythms of the land, rather than depend on electricity or modern technology to sustain his life. The water cistern is filled by the winter’s snow, and “when the snow is gone the rains will come to replenish the cistern by way of cabin roof and drainpipe. [T]here on the summit of a great plateau, miles from the nearest well, spring or stream, there is no other source.” Yet Gatlin’s world is constantly intruded upon by his friend Art Ballantine, a university professor, a former colleague, who tries to tempt Gatlin back to Civilization. “Outside there’s a world, Will,” Ballantine tells Gatlin, perched on the deck of Gatlin’s fire observation tower. “The great world. All yours. Full of fruit, wine, beautiful ideas, lovely and lascivious ladies, enchanted cities, gardens of electricity and light.” Gatlin is alone, but satisfied. He stands watch over his forest and “is not in the least oppressed by the slow advance of the minutes, the hours, the day. There seems to be no difference of any importance between his time and that of the living and decaying trees below his platform, between his time and the transformations of the rock on the canyon’s rim.”
What distinguishes this story from The Brave Cowboy is the introduction of an Eve, a young woman named Sandy, a 19 year old Goucher College student working a summer job. Over a few weeks she and Gatlin fall in love with one another. The beauty and simplicity of their relationship is reflected in nature, as in one evening when “they lay on the sand under the willow tree and watched their supper cook on the clear slow passion of burning juniper. They scooped up the fine river sand in their hands and let it flow through their fingers. Talking quietly.” Sunlight is reflected off the cloud face and the water, doves call, herons take flight. It is the Garden of Eden before the fall, and the two are in harmony with nature.
Earlier Abbey novels end in tragedy, with no middle ground between the good of nature and the evil of modern life. But while this book does end with Sandy’s disappearance, the tone is one of, as William T. Pilkington has written, “irrevocable and inconsolable loss.” Sandy, caught between the extremes of a natural life with Will and the calls of her east coast family and her boyfriend, a U.S. Air Force cadet who calls nightly and, as Sandy says, “really needs me and really wants me. He always has, or almost always.” Although he thinks the words in his heart, and really means them, Gatlin can’t bring himself to utter the words she really needs to hear, that he will do anything for her, return to the university, “go back to the world again, back to the cities, emerge at last from this miserable pack rat’s nest [he’s] made in the forest.” Sandy goes into the desert, into the canyon, for a few days to sort her feeling out, and disappears without a trace. Gatlin mounts an almost superhuman, week-long search for her, nearly dying himself of thirst and exposure in the heart of the canyon’s 120 degree heat. In the canyon, Sandy comes to represent the loss of wilderness. Gatlin wakes from fevered dreams about Sandy to feel “the pang of loss, the bewildering pain of something precious, beautiful, irreplaceable swept away forever.” He opens one of the solar stills he has built and finds a nest of scorpions. As he opens a second, he begins to hallucinate, first about his mother, father, and brothers, long gone but happy to see him, but the old farmhouse then becomes “a crescent blaze of shore and sea, a deserted coast where no ships came, where no man lived, where no wings wove invisible patterns through the air.” As he accepts the death of Sandy, he realizes that he is “alone in one of the loneliest places on earth. . . . From river to forest an ascent of over five thousand feet; from rim to rim ten miles by airline at the most narrow point; from canyon head to canyon mouth two hundred and eighty-five miles by the course of the river. In all this region was nothing human that he could see, no sign of a man or of man’s work.” It is in this recognition of Gatlin’s, this growth, this maturity, though tragic, that we sense what is truly lost.