A Desert Anarchist's Legacy
Remembering Ed Abbey, 10 Years Gone.
By Gregory McNamee
MARCH 29, 1999: THERE'S A TRANSPLANTED Scottish scientist out in southern California, a self-styled "extropian" who calls himself Max More and who claims to be working on some wondrous biomechanical means of escaping the one great inevitability. "Conquering death," More says, "is only the first step toward control over the random tyranny of nature."
To beat death, More continues, we'll have to shed some of our primate ways, swear off sex and war. We'll also have to dispense with a few of the normal encumbrances--chiefly the frail and easily damaged human body, which the young scientist proposes replacing with "a virtual world where there's no gravity, where we're not constrained by the laws of physics, where we can appear as we like." In More's dream of the future, we'll be remade as humans into perfectly functioning pieces of software, elegantly coded and bug-free, projecting our invulnerable selves into the future, out to the stars.
When, a few weeks ago, I read about More and his intimations of immortality, I thought, incongruously, about Edward Abbey. The proud descendant of hardscrabble Scottish farmers and laborers and no stranger to grand dreams, Abbey would now be 72 years old. Here on the 10th anniversary of his death I've been imagining him as he might be if he had lived, gaunt and tall, a gray beard tickling the bottom of his rib cage, looking very much like the abolitionist John Brown in John Steuart Curry's famous painting, ripping around Tucson in his fire-engine red Cadillac, mad as hell, mad at everything, mad at the mention of a scientist who dared even think it possible to sidestep the be-all and end-all of life and death, mad at the thought that humans could, in just the last few years, have found plausible ways to unhook our species from the engine of natural selection and say goodbye at last to the awful randomness of nature.
But he is not, of course, alive to sound his mighty dry-throated roar of defiance in the face of such heresies. Ed Abbey died just over a decade ago, on March 14, 1989, his embattled pancreas having finally given out after years of alarms. Accepting nature as it comes, he faced his death, by all accounts, with gruff courage, even with humor.
When Ed Abbey left us, something changed in Tucson, in the Southwest, in the West (for although Tucson claimed him jealously as its own, Abbey claimed the whole West as his home). The desert lost a defender, perhaps the most persuasive one it ever had. It lost a champion who insisted that the land would prevail, and that its enemies were also the enemies of humankind. It lost a man who was unafraid to take on the thankless job of being a Socratic gadfly--and a fly in the ointment. As Chuck Bowden wrote at the time of the cantankerous anarchist's death, in Abbey's absence, "Who in the hell is going to keep us honest?"
Eight days after Ed Abbey died, several dozen people gathered in the desert west of Tucson to pay homage. The farewell, a celebration much more than a funeral, was as Ed had instructed (he left a rough agenda in his journal, reproduced in his book Confessions of a Barbarian): It began with champagne, went on to a bagpiper's playing Scottish tunes and readings by Leslie Silko, Bob Houston and other local writers; moved into a feast of an unlucky cow surgically removed from its pasture on some plot of public land, of tortillas and tamales and seemingly endless quantities of beer, tequila and whiskey; and ended with an impromptu concert by itinerant guitarist Bob Greenspan and a tape recording of Ed reading from his newly finished manuscript Hayduke Lives!
Six weeks later, as Chinese tanks moved in on the students at Tiananmen Square, a group of people a thousand strong gathered at Arches National Monument (now National Park) in southern Utah, where Ed had written his best-known book, Desert Solitaire. At sunrise on that hot May morning, one speaker after another rose to remember Ed Abbey's contribution to Western writing, to anarchist ecopolitics, to the protection of wilderness: C. L. Rawlins, Wendell Berry, Ann Zwinger, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Dave Foreman, Doug Peacock. Wallace Stegner, Abbey's former teacher, who could not attend the memorial, wrote to say, "He was a red-hot moment in the conscience of the country, and I suspect that the half-life of his intransigence will turn out to be comparable to uranium."
As I listened to the farewells in Tucson and Moab, I thought, just for a moment, that it might be possible at that moment to make something approaching a revolution away from civilization toward culture (as Abbey put it in Desert Solitaire), that the few hundred people in attendance would not return to their homes but instead set about liberating what was left of the land, perhaps run for public office, perhaps write a few incendiary tracts, perhaps torch a bulldozer or two on the way out of town.
It would have been a fine legacy for Ed, the best and most appropriate of all possible memorials. And the spirit was willing, with a stock of conspirators close at hand.
But the revolution, of course, did not come. All of us went back to our homes to make livelihoods and raise families and pay the bills. Ed Abbey sank into the earth, and the bulldozers kept on grinding their way across the land, doing their best to churn up his bones.
INTRANSIGENCE CAN BE a fine and necessary thing, as Wallace Stegner knew. But what half-life can it have in a civilization that has no memory?
In this anniversary month of his death, a few readings have been given, a few commemorative articles have been published. Perhaps even a few prayers have been said. But still the revolution has not come. These are fat times, and few people have taken up Abbey's burden of spoiling the party by reminding their fellows that the cycle of accumulation and consumption comes at great cost.
For all that, these 10 years have not been silent. There has been all along a thriving Abbey industry, a steady stream of reissues of Abbey's own books joined by a few posthumous titles--a collection of poems, a set of aphorisms, a selection from his journals. A collection of his letters is said to be in the works, as is a movie version of Abbey's 1975 "comic extravaganza" The Monkey Wrench Gang, the book that helped shape the modern radical-environmental movement. (If that movie is in fact released, then bulldozer owners should lock up their rigs; movie-inspired copycats are everywhere.) Soon other books will feed into that stream: memoirs by Doug Peacock and Jack Loeffler, a literary study by Jim Cahalan, books of essays by writers whom Abbey inspired.
Even academia, which for so long left Abbey alone, is catching up to him, as the recent publication of the collection of scholarly essays Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words bears out, to say nothing of a Cliff's Notes-like set of "masterkeys" to Fire on the Mountain and Desert Solitaire, books so transparent as to require no explication. Abbey would probably have been amused by the academic essays, but then appalled if he ever got around to reading them. He had small patience with scholarly critics, who, he wrote, "have donned the vestments of high priests and presume to instruct the writer not only in literary method but in what he shall and shall not write about, and in what he shall think about what he writes and does not write."
That so much literary activity now surrounds Abbey is unsurprising. When he died he had begun to accrue more than the usual recognition given a writer of popular books; with profiles appearing in outlets ranging from Outside and Smart to USA Weekend, he was in danger of becoming a celebrity, a thought that worried him some. He was receiving regular invitations to speak and to give readings from his work, to teach, to perform all the chores that bring in money but keep a writer from working. His recently published novel Fool's Progress had been selling well and had received generally positive reviews, although some critics faulted him for his narrator's lack of refinement, and still others had taken him to task for not having been, well, serious enough in the book that he regarded as being among his best novels.
It's true that he had fun playing with his image in the pages of Progress: "I shall live the clean hard cold rigors of an ascetic philosopher," he wrote. "A dive into the icy lake at dawn. Two quick laps around the shore. A frugal breakfast of cool water and unsalted watercress, followed by an hour of meditation. And then--then what? What then? Then I'll row my houseboat ashore, jump into my rebuilt restored 1956 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible and speed away to the nearest legal whorehouse for some quick fun & frolick before lunch."
That fun aside, Fool's Progress was serious work, a book on which Abbey had worked for years. It is, as he deemed it, an "honest novel," one loosely based on his own life. In its opening pages, Abbey's alter ego, Henry Lightcap, takes off from his nearly empty Tucson home (its contents having just been removed by a disgruntled spouse) after shooting his refrigerator, a hated symbol of civilization. Lightcap makes a winding journey by car to his boyhood home in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, calling on old friends along the road, visiting reservations and out-of-the-way taverns, and reminiscing about the triumphs and failures of his life. Readers would be mistaken to view The Fool's Progress as pure autobiography, but it looks deeply into Abbey's life and times and his way of thinking. Abbey regarded it as one of his best books of fiction, and he was right to do so.
He wanted, his journals suggest, to be remembered chiefly as a novelist, not foremost as an essayist or nature writer or even environmental activist. It didn't quite work out that way; what gets people fighting about Abbey, all these years after his death, is not this or that literary trope or plot line or technique of characterization, but what Abbey had to say about ranching or Gloria Steinem or Glen Canyon Dam, and where his work is taught--and novels these days cheat death only by being made into movies or assigned to college students--it's mostly Desert Solitaire that joins the syllabus in surveys of Western American literature or seminars in environmental writing.
Abbey spawned no school, although some of his friends have done work that shares his concerns with the environment, and although a handful of writers have made it their business to observe his call, whether in direct homage or not, to speak for the voiceless. (I think here of Barbara Kingsolver's recent, politically charged novel The Poisonwood Bible, of Terry Tempest Williams' essays on Mormon women and wild birds.) The money in literature these days is not in speaking for the disenfranchised, but in fetishizing the present culture (think of Bret Easton Ellis) or imagining a past more noble than it was (think of Charles Frazier); outside of a few little-read nature writers, no one else is doing Abbey's work, picking up where he left off, although God knows there's plenty more to be said.
As for the radical environmentalism that Abbey inspired, there's little sign of it these days. The movement has largely disintegrated, notably with Earth First! splintering in the wake of federal assaults and internal dissension, which one can read about in the pages of Susan Zakin's fine book Coyotes and Town Dogs. Abbey's anarchism has shaded off into the cynical every-man-for-himself libertarianism of the Contract with America crowd, while environmental issues are generally shrugged off as so much old news.
PERHAPS ABBEY WANTED no followers. He did much in his last years to assure that he would have none by raising pet peeves to the level of ideology, by coupling reasonable calls to action with unreasonable arguments. For, even as his celebrity was growing, Abbey earned much bad press by stepping outside the bounds of wilderness-preservation politics to speak on topics like feminism and, thornier still, illegal immigration. In the early 1980s, he began to publish letters to the editor and essays on that question, insisting that the border between the United States and Mexico be sealed off with electric fences and patrolled by the military--strange talk indeed for a self-styled anarchist. "Taking in the surplus populations of Latin America will increase our economic-social troubles without really doing much to help Mexico and the others," he wrote, urging those "surplus populations" to take up arms against their oppressors.
He didn't help his case, which, he said, was based on environmental grounds (the United States was overcrowded as it was, he believed), by further insisting that the American way of life had to be protected against the Mexican threat "to degrade and cheapen [it] downward to the Hispanic standard," and by pointing to what he called "the rising tide of human muck...that is drowning our cities, flowing over our borders, and threatening everything good and free and spacious that still remains in American life."
These were heartfelt words, not contrarian put-ons of the sort that might be explained away as bids for publicity. They led, not surprisingly, to charges of racism. Ed didn't do much to fight those charges; instead, he added fuel to the fire by dismissing his critics as confused members of an imagined "East Coast liberal elite."
I had worked with Ed to publish a 20th-anniversary reissue of Desert Solitaire, and Ed asked me to read the manuscript of Fool's Progress before he sent it off to the publisher. I did, and I wrote him that while I thought the book fine for the most part, I also thought that portions would confirm the growing view that he was turning into a crank, especially some of the passages that he regarded as humor. ("What's the difference between Navajos and yogurt?" went one joke. "Yogurt is a living culture.") I asked him whether he might reconsider. Do you want, I asked him, to be explained away years from now like Ezra Pound--assuming that anyone cares about Ezra Pound years from now?
Ed wrote back and said that he'd rethink the troublesome passages. Then, over the next few weeks, little white index cards began to appear in my mailbox, scrawled in blue ink in his crabbed hand, keyed to pages in the manuscript, announcing that he'd keep this joke or that, that he'd say whatever he wanted to about minorities "devoted to drugs, crime, spray paint, ward-heeling politics, cars and the monthly welfare check"--and to hell with what the critics might say about him. "Whatever happens," he wrote in one of those cards, "I'm going to stand up for freedom of expression. I really resent this climate of intellectual intimidation imposed on writers recently. The American literary world is so corrupt and cowardly that I'd be happy--willing--to lose my part in it anyhow." He added, in a note to another reader, "As one who has been called an 'eco-fascist,' 'genocidal racist,' 'creeping fascist hyena,' and such, I've developed a fairly thick skin. The only response I cannot bear is--silence. No response. Coarse laughter in all the wrong places would be better than more of the silent treatment."
In the end, he kept his jokes, every last one of them, earning, I expect, some of that that coarse laughter. I kept, and keep, my conviction that the book would have been better without them--and that Ed Abbey might be better regarded as a writer today if he'd kept his writing closer to his own spirit, curmudgeonly but also deeply generous, without a trace of meanness.
But Ed Abbey didn't much care; he was happiest, it seems, when he'd enraged someone, anyone. "The fine art of making enemies," he wrote in his journals. "I've become remarkably good at it." And he collected many as an equal-opportunity offender: ranchers, government officials, leftists, liberals, businesspeople, human-rights groups, conservatives and Western congressmen, to say nothing of stalwarts of the literary establishment, notably John Updike and Saul Bellow, whom Abbey accused of being "sycophants, toadies to the powerful, because they pretend to be above it all, when they're really on their knees below it all...groveling before the rich, the powerful, the techno-scientific oligarchy and institutions, those who dominate our lives today."
Say what you will about him: Abbey never groveled, never backed off a position just to make the peace. That probably cost him readers. So, too, did aspects of his latter-day politics--which, for all his calling himself a theoretical anarchist and practical democrat, were fitting to a kind of small-town conservatism that valued old ways and mistrusted change.
ABBEY'S BOOKS, DESPITE their occasional lapses into crankiness, will endure. For one thing, when he was on his game he wrote truly and beautifully: there are few modern novels as heartfelt as Black Sun, no book about the Southwestern landscape more evocative than Desert Solitaire. We continue to read him because no one else has so well captured the essential freedom and beauty of the West, and of America generally. We read him because he remained true to what he believed: the need for wilderness, for open space, for a world outside the city. "There will always be one more river, not to cross but to follow," he wrote by way of a vade mecum in a late essay. "The journey goes on forever, and we are all fellow voyagers on our little living ship of stone and soil and water and vapor, this delicate planet circling round the sun, which humankind call Earth." True words all: that is why we read him.
And we read him because he wrote honestly in a time when the worst sin is to offend someone, anyone, with an unpopular idea. Abbey never shied from offending, even went out of his way to do so, and if he sometimes settled on the wrong target, he more often hit the right mark. He regarded his work as necessarily dangerous; as he wrote, "If I lived in Russia, I'd be in a psychiatric prison. If I lived in Poland, I'd be in hiding. If I lived in almost any Latin American nation, I'd long ago have been 'disappeared' (now a transitive verb), tortured, murdered, buried in a secret mass grave."
Ed now lies buried under 30-odd tons of volcanic scree under a cactus-studded escarpment somewhere in the desert of western Arizona. I think of him often, especially when I drive through cities like Tucson and Phoenix and Los Angeles, grim hives that are busily chewing up the desert surrounding them. The West Abbey loved is under assault every day, and things are getting steadily worse. "One of the most beautiful regions on Earth is being sacrificed to commercial greed and a blind, destructive and eventually self-destructive industrialism," he wrote in 1983, well before the Moab of Desert Solitaire had turned into a sprawl of mini-malls, designer boutiques, microbreweries and mountain-bike rental shops, well before the land just outside Abbey's Tucson backyard had been scraped and bladed and chain-cleared to make some subdivision with a faux-Spanish name, well before a mad scientist could get glowing press for thinking that death could somehow be evaded.
Ed Abbey did not beat death, but his memory lives on in the promise of unfenced land and unbroken sky. It's as good a memorial as any, requiring only a little salutary monkeywrenching by way of upkeep.
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