The Best of Edward Abbey
One Life at a Time, Please
The Monkey Wrench Gang
Down the River
Beyond the Wall
Early in his first collection of essays, Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey describes a scene from a summer he spent as the ranger at the then-deserted Arches National Monument in southern Utah, his nearest neighbor twenty miles distant across the sand and the slickrock. Wishing one evening to write a letter, Abbey went outside and hooked up the four-cylinder gas engine that served as his generator. “The engine sputters, gasps, catches fire, gains momentum, winds up into a roar, valves popping, rockers thumping, pistons hissing up and down inside their oiled jackets.” The lights go on—indeed,
the lights are so bright I can’t see a thing and have to shade my eyes as I stumble toward the open door of the trailer. Nor can I hear anything but the clatter of the generator. I am shut off from the natural world and sealed up, encapsulated, in a box of artificial light and tyrannical noise…. I have exchanged a great and unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one.
Abbey has spent most of his life in the boundless American desert, occasionally coming in to write. His novels and essay collections (six of each) have found a devoted, even fanatic audience in the Western states, where he is the subject of critical studies and symposiums. Less well known in the East, Abbey was born on a hardscrabble Pennsylvania farm just before the Depression. He hitchhiked to the canyon country as a teen-ager, and vowed to return as soon as he was out of the service—the great stone sculptures, the naked drops, had knocked from his heart the “fuzzy hills” of his Appalachian boyhood.
Of his forty years in the Southwest, a great many have been spent alone—not alone in a room, or alone in a crowd, but all by himself a dozen miles from the last pavement, in a fire tower or ranger shack or bedroll spread by a pool of water. For many years, until the movie option payments on his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang began to support his modest way of life, he worked as a seasonal employee of the Park Service or the Forest Service—at Arches, at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on the empty North Rim of the Grand Canyon, at the Petrified Forest. And when he had a few days or a few months off, he would take a vacation deeper into the wilderness—a long, foolhardy solo hike, perhaps, trudging 120 miles from one dwindling, briny waterhole to the next. All in all, I would wager, he has spent more time alone than all but a few thousand Americans of his generation.
America, of course, has always been open to voices of solitude and of nature. Abbey argues in an essay from his 1982 collection Down the River that only specialists still find interest in William Ellery Channing or Dr. Holmes, and Emerson is more espoused than read, but “in the ultimate democracy of time,” Thoreau, who died a minor …
Beyond Ecology November 10, 1988