Down the River is a collection of Abbey’s essays, mostly (if not all) previously published in various publications but generally (if not always) reworked for latter publications, as was his habit. The theme here, of course, is rivers; but he uses his theme lightly and spreads it out wide. The collection has four parts. Part I, “Thoreau and Other Friends,” gives us “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” a lengthy study of that man over the course of Abbey’s ten-day trip down the Green River in Utah with friends. “A crusty character, Thoreau. An unpeeled man. A man with the bark on him.” …about which the same could be said of Abbey himself. Also in this first section appears “Watching the Birds: the Windhover,” about a season spent as a fire lookout, looking out also for birds, in which he gives us this lovely image:
The redtail hawk is a handsome character. I enjoyed watching the local hunter come planing through the pass between our mountaintop and the adjoining peak, there to catch the wind and hover in place for a while, head twitching back and forth as it scans the forest below. When he – or she – spots something live and edible, down she goes at an angle of forty-five degrees, feet first, talons extended, wings uplifted, feathers all aflutter, looking like a Victorian lady in skirts and ruffled pantaloons jumping off a bridge.
Part II is “Politicks and Rivers” and earns its name; here Abbey waxes philosophical and praises nature while criticizing our treatment of her. Part III, “Places and Rivers,” tells more stories of Abbey’s river trips, to which I am especially partial; his descriptions of lost (or soon-to-be-lost) rivers and valleys and canyons are poignant and might in fact make you cry. Finally, Part IV, “People, Books and Rivers” contains “Footrace in the Desert,” detailing possibly Abbey’s first and last running race, and a lovely portrait of John de Puys (“My Friend Debris”), Abbey’s good friend. It finishes with “Floating,” another dirge for lost rivers.
Repeatedly Abbey is funny, even ridiculous, and often lecherous. But this is also a man who has me looking up words like ‘gelid’ (‘very cold, icy, or frosty’), ‘dithyrambic’ (‘wildly enthusiastic; wildly irregular in form’), ‘oleaginous’ (‘rich in, covered with, or producing oil’), and who uses phrases like ‘concupiscent scrivener’ (definition: Edward Abbey). Remember, he had a master’s degree in philosophy. But he also writes, in “Meeting the Bear,”
Though a sucker for philosophy all of my life I am not a thinker but – a toucher. A feeler, groping his way with the white cane of the senses through the hairy jungle of life. I believe in nothing that I cannot touch, kiss, embrace – whether a woman, a child, a rock, a tree, a bear, a shaggy dog. The rest is hearsay. If God is not present in this young prickly pear jabbing its spines into my shin, then God will have to get by without my help. I’m sorry but that’s the way I feel. The message in the bottle is not for me.
This collection, like *almost all the Abbey I’ve read, I highly recommend. It offers a great and varied example of his best nonfiction; it’s poignant, funny, light-hearted and deathly serious, and beautifully, beautifully done. I hope you love it as much as I do.
*Continue to beware of Black Sun for its self-indulgent and unrealistic fantasy of the middle-aged man landing a sex-hungry teenaged virgin for wild romps in a natural paradise.