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 writer, has outlived his contemporaries. Abbey fills Thoreau’s ecological niche, I suppose—besides cantankerousness they share obsessions with the natural world as against human culture, and also with the duty and the methods of resistance.
But the differences are as distinct as the landscapes that inspired the two men—actually, the landscapes probably account for many of the differences. Thoreau reveled in the profligate, fecund bounty of the Northeast—no need, he said, for a yard with “unfenced Nature reaching up to your very sills. A young forest growing up under your windows, and wild sumachs and blackberry vines breaking through into your cellar; sturdy pitch-pines rubbing and creaking against the shingles for want of room, their roots reaching quite under the house.” Abbey chose to live in a region with much less rainfall and a higher mean temperature. The desert’s main features—the canyons, mesas, buttes, reefs, spires—are the work of geologic time; even its stunted junipers are the slow, seemingly pointless (no saw-timber here) product of centuries. “Alone in the silence,” he writes in Desert Solitaire of a hike to Rainbow Bridge,
I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and pre-human to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse—its implacable indifference.
As a result, Abbey’s thoughts echo those of the voice from the whirlwind, which asks Job if he knows why the rain falls in the wilderness, far from any human habitation. All creation is not for man, insist God and Abbey; the reasons for the desert, if reasons exist, are beyond our understanding. This thought injects a truly radical perspective into Abbey’s nature writings—a perspective implicit in Thoreau, in John Muir, in Aldo Leopold, and in a hundred other unlikelier places, but a perspective still struggling to break into the culture.
The anthropocentric model remains as central as the idea, before Copernicus, that the earth stood at the hub of the universe. It is a comforting notion, the absolute primacy of man, and any attempt to break from it must disquiet us. In one essay, Abbey describes hiking in with a search party to Grandview Point, 2700 feet above the Colorado, to find a missing tourist. The man is discovered, dead, “limbs extended rigidly from a body bloated like a balloon.” Although the buzzards “for some reason have not discovered him two other scavengers, ravens, rise heavily and awkwardly from the corpse as we approach.” Eight men carry the body back to the road.
Each man’s death diminishes me? Not necessarily. Given this man’s age, the inevitability and suitability of his death, and the essential nature of life on earth, there is in each of us the unspeakable conviction that we are well rid of him. His departure makes room for the living. Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone—we remain, others come…. A ruthless, brutal process—but clean and beautiful.
Perspective, though, differs from detachment. Abbey is firmly attached to the place he loves. He chose to live there because he found it so haunting and awesome. This attachment blazes again and again into anger, as he watches other people destroy what he adores. In one of his finest essays, “How It Was,” from his 1971 collection, Beyond the Wall, he recollects a trip from Blanding to Green River across the Utah desert. With three friends, he drove a pickup truck over 180 miles of unpaved jeep track past piñon pine and juniper, through the streamside cottonwoods “attended by a few buzzing flies and the songs of canyon wren,” across the Colorado on a cable ferry, and up a side canyon, North Wash, where they camped by the bank of a flash flood. “Today the old North Wash trail is partly submerged by the reservoir, the rest obliterated.” Utah has run a paved highway through the region, bridging the canyons. The Colorado river lies a hundred feet beneath Lake Powell.
All of this, the engineers and politicians and bankers will tell you, makes the region easily accessible to everybody, no matter how fat, feeble or flaccid. That is a lie.
It is a lie. For those who go there now, smooth, comfortable, quick and easy, sliding through as slick as grease, will never be able to see what we saw. They will never feel what we felt. They will never know what we knew, or understand what we cannot forget.
Over and over again the same sequence recurs. The Arches National Monument has been paved, with plenty of parking space and Coke machines. The air above the Grand Canyon is filled with the never-ending drone of sightseeing helicopters. The deep vistas are closed in by the smog from the Phelps-Dodge copper smelter.
Abbey does not consider such developments the sad byproducts of growth and progress, side effects to be ameliorated when possible and tolerated when not. He considers them—he speaks fairly crudely, on purpose—symptoms of the “madness,” the “insanity,” the “monster” that is “Industrial Civilization.” And here he begins to tread on dangerous ground. We Americans can deal with someone who contends that he looks forward to the buzzards picking clean his bones; but what about someone who says, as Abbey does, that we must “curtail our gluttonous appetite for things, ever more things, learn to moderate our needs.”
We don’t worry, of course, that he threatens our standard of living. It is our peace of mind he disturbs, with the insidious idea that someone else might be leading a life with different means and ends, a fuller, more satisfying, life. (A life that, not coincidentally, does less harm to the planet.) Wouldn’t we rather be floating down some canyon on a raft? Spending the night in Concord jail was not the most subversive thing Thoreau ever did; far worse was spending eight months living on $61.99 3/4. (“Poverty gave him all his wealth,” wrote Van Wyck Brooks. “The leisure to spend a day, whenever he chose, walking twenty or thirty miles, or voyaging about the river in December, when the drops froze on his oars, pleased with the silvery chime of the icicles against the stem of his button-brushes.”) Dangerous examples these, undercutting our consoling sense of the inevitability of our lives. For their power to disturb, they recall Muir’s remark, after he climbed a pine tree in a gale to see what it would be like at the top: “Our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.”
Abbey does not explicitly claim that the mass of us lead lives of quiet desperation, but he repeatedly advances examples that make the point. In his first book of essays, in 1968, he identified an enemy—“Industrial Tourism”—that he has been fighting ever since. Industrial Tourists, he explains,
work hard…. They roll up incredible mileages on their odometers, rack up state after state in two-week transcontinental motor marathons…and endure patiently the most prolonged discomforts: the tedious traffic jams, the awful food of park cafeterias,…the nocturnal search for a place to sleep or camp,…the ever-proliferating Rules & Regulations, the fees and the bills and the service charges,
and so on.
Look here, I want to say, for god-sake folks get out of them there machines…. Dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it. Dusty? Of course it’s dusty—this is Utah!
Though it’s obviously not his doing, in the two decades since Abbey wrote that passage, more people have begun to explore, to hike beyond the parking lot. At least his crankiness wasn’t entirely eccentric.
He’s had considerably more effect in spreading another idea, one that found in his writing its most eloquent expression—the idea of personal direct action to protect the environment. Vandalism, some might say, though Abbey would probably call it counter-vandalism. As early as his college days he was knocking over billboards. In Desert Solitaire he describes pulling up the survey stakes laid out by the crew planning the paved road through the Arches, forcing surveyors to do their work over—“a futile effort, in the long run, but it made me feel good.” During the years that followed, working by night he poured sand or sugar in the fuel tanks of a “goodly number of earthmovers, ore trucks, front-end loaders and Caterpillar bull-dozers,” anything that spent the days ripping up his desert.
Finally he wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, an adventure story about a team of four people—Hayduke, a Vietnam vet; Seldom Seen, a jack Mormon outfitter; Doc Sarvis, a Tucson physician; and Bonnie Abbzug, Sarvis’s girlfriend—who set out across the canyon country, doing their best to wreck bridge after mine after road, a spree of merry ecological sabotage. The book, while not as carefully written as his other novels, has much beer-drinking in it, as well as car chases and pickup chases and four-wheel-drive jeep chases through towering scenery, as angry developers and rednecks less enlightened than Abbey’s rednecks pursue the quartet. Abbey also provides a large supply of very American technical details about how to damage machinery (“Now we select our operating speed. We have five speeds forward, four in reverse…. Now we engage the flywheel clutch.” The bulldozer lurches forward, over a cliff, never to build another road.) Unlike his other books, The Monkey Wrench Gang sold half a million copies, and provided the ready-made legend for a radical environmental organization, Earth First!, that was formed a few years later, adopting Abbey as its patron saint.
Dave Foreman, who founded Earth First!, resigned as chief Washington lobbyist for the Wilderness Society in the late 1970s after becoming convinced that the mainstream environmental organizations were compromising too often, surrendering too much of the remaining American wilderness to miners, ranchers, and oil interests. Foreman, who organized the loosely knit and fast-growing group as a “tribe,” and who speaks nostalgically of a return to a hunter-gatherer society, still spends most of his time arguing for increased wilderness tracts. But along with letter writing, civil disobedience, and guerrilla theater, Earth First! members engage in fairly wide-spread “ecotage.” The group took as its emblem the monkey wrench, and as one of its chief slogans “Hayduke Lives!” (As indeed, at the book’s end, he does—Abbey is writing a sequel.) They have dreamed up new techniques Abbey didn’t consider (putting spikes in old-growth Douglas firs and redwoods to keep loggers from felling them, for instance) and they have refined others. Ecodefense, a handbook of sabotage tips culled from the advice column of the Earth First! journal, has already gone through two editions. But the soul of the enterprise is still The Monkey Wrench Gang and Abbey’s blend of Thoreau and Ned Ludd. *
In his latest essay collection, One Life at a Time, Please, Abbey argues his view in three short pieces. The first, “Arizona: How Big is Big Enough?,” asks if increasing the population of Tucson and Phoenix is really a laudable goal: “Where, when, and how is this spiraling process supposed to reach a rational end—a state of stability, sanity, and equilibrium?…Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” In “Eco-Defense,” where he instructs readers on the proper size nails to use in spiking trees (60-penny) he argues in the simplest terms the right to resist—if an English-man’s home is his castle, “the American’s home is his favorite forest, river, fishing stream, her favorite mountain or desert canyon, his favorite swamp or woods or lake.” Finally, in three pages on anarchy—the most insistently political essay of his career, written for the Earth First! journal—he predicts our civilization will not last a century more before an environmental crisis will force a return to a
higher civilization: scattered human populations modest in number that live by fishing, hunting, food gathering, small-scale farming and ranching, that gather once a year in the ruins of abandoned cities for great festivals of moral, spiritual, artistic, and intellectual renewal, a people for whom the wilderness is not a playground but their natural native home.
His idiosyncratic anarchic vision exalts human dependence on the natural world at least as much as human freedom. Freedom, he implies, involves fitting back into our proper place, “remaining loyal to our basic animal nature.”
One could argue with all this, of course. Monkey-wrenching costs time and money to people whose only crime is that they grew up to be loggers or surveyors. It bypasses, in the fashion of the Old West, the democratic process of discussion and compromise. It probably makes life harder for more conventional environmentalists. The saboteurs give traditional answers too—that it’s the huge mining corporations and the powerful timber lobbyists that override democracy. Or that wilderness gone is gone forever, so the stakes are high. Or that a clearcut hillside is the real destruction, and a spike in a tree merely a “vaccination.” Or that the radicals can act as Malcolm X to the Sierra Club’s Martin Luther King, Jr., making the mainstream conservationists look more reasonable. Or that conscience leaves them no choice. In any event, Earth First! members seem more and more inclined to protest peacefully, sitting down in the path of roads or camping high in trees slated for felling or hanging banners off the side of Mt. Rushmore, rather than risk muddying their message with debates about “terrorism.”
For even the most radical tactics mask the true extremism, which is in ends, not means. Virtually every act of a normal modern life argues with Abbey’s premises. Most of us do not really believe that we need to fit back into nature, to dramatically temper our ambitions as individuals or as a species. Sometimes, amid the oil crisis of the 1970s, scientists or politicians would argue that we lived in an “age of limits,” a very mild form of the radical ecological argument. Ronald Reagan successfully attacked this line of reasoning as the pitiful, whining surrender of men unwilling to push forward and seize their destiny—of men who didn’t understand that it was morning in America. Of weak men, like Jimmy Carter. And Abbey—with his vision of a nomadic society, of Tucson buried under sand dunes over which “blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer”—goes farther than Jimmy Carter.
Abbey, though, has a natural advantage. His gruff pronouncements have an almost unfair power to persuade because they come from a leathery cowboy-without-cattle, a loner, and because they echo up from the canyons of the arid West, the landscape where our idea of ourselves has traditionally been formed. Hayduke is a sort of Henry David Wayne. And Abbey’s argument is the argument of a confident man who poses a dare. Man’s special gift is reason, as a bird’s is flight. His highest calling, then, is to overcome his biological instinct to breed in great numbers and to extend his range of habitation—to use reason to do the one thing no other animal can do, that is, limit himself voluntarily. Not to build more dams and use more power and grow genetically “improved” mice, but to use less power and tear down dams and leave mice the way we found them.
Perhaps the premise is utterly wrong—the advantages of industrial civilization hardly need listing, and maybe man’s happiness does lie in growing in numbers and in power, using his technical ability to stave off disaster. (The oil crisis, after all, went away.) Or perhaps the premise is half-right, and Abbey and others like him will help move us toward a balance somewhere between the Santa Ana Freeway and the state of nature. But the ozone hole above the Antarctic widens each year and the global temperature climbs with each decade and a radical analysis becomes at least a little plausible.
The ultimate goal of the Monkey Wrench Gang is to destroy Glen Canyon Dam, which backs up the Colorado River into “Lake” Powell. Glen Canyon stands with Muir’s drowned Hetch Hetchy atop the list of places mourned by American environmentalists. Smaller and more intimate than its downstream neighbor the Grand Canyon—but what, on earth, isn’t?—Glen Canyon disappeared before all but a few thousand had the chance to float down it. Abbey was one of the lucky ones, making the trip while construction on the dam was in progress. Abbey called the canyon “paradise,” and the descriptions of his trip in Desert Solitaire make the term sound technical, precise. From an anthropocentric point of view, the great concrete plug made a certain sense, providing light and power to the expanding Southwest, and helping to water the region even during this year’s drought. But Glen Canyon is the navel of Abbey’s universe—its degradation stands for all human folly and arrogance, and its salvation would be the sign that man had turned the corner, begun the trek back toward his proper station. Abbey has not figured out in any systematic way what his ideal, ecologically sound, world would look like. It is safe to say, though, that in it Glen Canyon would be a canyon again, not a dead reservoir.
When Earth First! formed, its initial major action was the symbolic destruction of the dam. Standing on top of the giant structure, members unfurled a black plastic crack that, filmed from a distance, looked astonishingly like the real thing. If the dam ever does go, Abbey once wrote,
[It] will no doubt expose a drear and hideous scene: immense mud flats and whole plateaus of sodden garbage strewn with dead trees, sunken boats, the skeletons of long-forgotten, decomposing water-skiers. But to those who find the prospect too appalling, I say give nature a little time. In five years, at most in ten, the sun and wind and storms will cleanse and sterilize the repellent mess. The inevitable floods will soon remove all that does not belong within the canyons. Fresh green willow, box elder and redbud will reappear; and the ancient drowned cottonwoods (noble monuments to themselves) will be replaced by young of their own kind…. Within a generation—thirty years—I predict the river and canyons will bear a decent resemblance to their former selves. Within the lifetime of our children Glen Canyon and the living river, heart of the canyonlands, will be restored to us. The wilderness will again belong to God, the people and the wild things that call it home.
August 18, 1988