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Smoke is an odor easily recognized but more difficult to describe.

In the late 1950s, Edward Abbey worked as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument (Utah), living for a summer in a trailer ten miles from the highway. His book Desert Solitaire was published in 1968. In the first chapter, Abbey describes a small campfire in a way that is both personal and universal:

“The fire. The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, in my honest judgment; I doubt if all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise could equal it. One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American west. Long may it burn.”   (Edward Abbey)

This paragraph reveals a dozen ways to delve into identity and nature, beginning with “The fire.” followed by a judgment that “The odor of burning juniper is the sweetest fragrance on the face of the earth, . . .”). Leaving the personal, Abbey evokes literature (and incense) by suggesting that the sweet fragrance of burning juniper is greater than “all the smoking censers of Dante’s paradise. . .”  followed by the proposal that the scent of burning juniper is like “the perfume of sagebrush after a rain” which propels us towards the mysteriousness of a chain-reaction (“magical catalysis) “like certain music. . .”

Breathe. Read the paragraph slowly. See how in only seventy words Abbey transformed a small campfire built of dead sticks he scavenged from beneath the junipers to space-time mysteries and ideas (or hope?) of clarity congealing around a complexity of feeling (“piercing strangeness of the American west.”) as noteworthy in our time as half a century ago.


Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire, A Season in the Wilderness.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1968 (13).