Edward Abbey's Road

Edward Abbey has been dead 13 years and we still don't know what to make of him.

His fans and his foes alike are still arguing over Abbey's literary merits or lack of them, marveling at his singular personality, grumbling about his propensity to blur the line between fact and fiction and in general deconstructing him in hopes that his contradictory legacy can be squeezed into some category.

All this bickering has inspired a cottage industry of memoirists, biographers and hagiographers who have done their damndest to solve the riddle of Abbey. In 1994 James Bishop came out with "Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey." That same year, David Petersen saw fit to air much of Cactus Ed's dirty laundry in "Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey 1951-1989."

There have been a few other books along the way. But the first definitive biography appeared just last year; James Cahalan's "Edward Abbey: A Life," which did a superb if protracted job of researching Abbey's entire time on the planet and doggedly putting to rest some of the more spurious claims made about him.

The newest Abbey book is "Adventures With Ed: A Portrait of Abbey," a memoir by Abbey's great friend Jack Loeffler. Loeffler was one of the band of brothers who spirited Abbey's body away after his death in Oracle, Arizona, and buried him, wrapped in a sleeping bag, in an undisclosed spot in the desert thereby fulfilling Abbey's last wish -- to become fertilizer. Loeffler's book is a somewhat guy-centric chronicle, but it captures, perhaps more than any previous account, Abbey's spirit.

Abbey is probably best known for his 1975 novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang," a rollicking eco-adventure story in which dynamite and acetylene torches figure largely in the protagonists' efforts to defend a wilderness "cursed with a plague of diggers, drillers, borers, grubbers; of asphalt-spreaders, dam-builders, overgrazers, clear-cutters and strip-miners." Monkey Wrench was quickly adopted as the manifesto of radical environmentalists and is credited with inspiring the movement that became Earth First! (although Abbey never officially endorsed the group).

But Abbey was also an eloquent prose stylist whose literary celebration of the wildernesses and wastelands of the Southwest, where he lived for 42 of his 62 years, remains unmatched.

In one of his most famous books, the 1968 non-fiction chronicle "Desert Solitaire," Abbey dubbed the desert "a world of light. The air seems not clear like glass, but colored, a transparent, tinted medium, golden toward the sun, smoke-blue in the shadows. The colors come, it appears, not simply from the background, but are actually present in the air itself -- a vigintillion microscopic particles of dust reflecting the sky, the sand, the iron hills."

Desert Politics

I was captivated by these sentences when I first read them. I was 20 years old, living in Death Valley, and I had just befriended a desert denizen named George who had a tattered library containing many of Abbey's books. In his cabin, locked in a metal trunk, there was also a small arsenal of firearms.

George had come to the desert to wait for the revolution. He was prepared to wait a long time. When the industrial state finally collapsed, he told me, these weapons would come in handy and I had better learn to use them. I was fascinated by and a little wary of George's anarchist politics, but in sparely populated regions, I figured, you couldn't be too picky about your friends.

One day George and I hiked deep into the desert in search of the grave of Jean LeMoigne, a pioneer who had expired in the area a century ago and by all accounts was buried out there somewhere. The sun was scorching hot. When we stopped to rest, George took his copy of "Desert Solitaire" out of his knapsack and read aloud:

"The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert."

As we hunted for traces of the pioneer's burial site, Abbey translated the landscape with the rhythm of his prose, his wonder at the natural world, his indignation at human encroachment. We found a jumbled pile of stones and decided that it was the last resting place of the unfortunate LeMoigne. George took a photograph. Several months after I left Death Valley, I plucked a card out of my mailbox. It was a picture of a mound of stones in the middle of a sun-bleached wasteland. On the back George had scrawled, "Not Jean LeMoigne's grave."

Consensus and Confrontation

In new-millennium environmentalism, the politics of consensus has replaced the politics of cranky confrontation. I'm all for consensus -- it just makes for some bland reading. Contemporary nature writing is a carefully cultivated landscape that can be counted on to provide lovely imagery, spiritual epiphanies and even extraordinary adventures, but little in the way of combustible opinions.

Abbey, on the other hand, could always be counted on to stir up a good fight. Among his tips on desert etiquette, which greatly inspired George, Abbey advised, "Always remove and destroy survey stakes, flagging, advertising signboards, mining claim markers, animal traps, poisoned bait, seismic exploration geophones and other such artifacts of industrialism. The men who put those things there are up to no good and it is our duty to confound them."

The Abbey lovers and Abbey haters, apologists and detractors, have all contributed to the inevitable myth-making of a man who had already pretty successfully created his own myth. Depending on whom you talk to, Edward Abbey comes either festooned with an ill-fitting halo or wearing cartoon horns and a forked tail.

One of the most accurate -- albeit unintended -- descriptions I've ever read of the man can be found in his own essay "The Great American Desert," in which he catalogs the hazards of the indigenous plants: " ... venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, sawtoothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry and fierce."

Abbey didn't fit easily into any camp. His outspoken opposition to immigration and gun control, for instance, didn't sit well with his liberal admirers. He wanted to strengthen America's borders, maintaining that to admit a steady stream of additional human beings into the U.S. would only hasten its material downfall and further endanger its fragile natural resources.

An essay he wrote called "Immigration and Liberal Taboos" was rejected in turns by The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Newsweek and Mother Jones. When it was finally published in the Phoenix New Times, it was greeted with howls of protest, among them a letter from fellow naturalist and writer Gretel Ehrlich, who called Abbey "arrogant, incoherent, flippant, nonsensical, nasty and unconstructive."

He wasn't ignorant of the economic and political reasons that impel people to flee Central and South America. He stubbornly maintained that nonintervention was the best policy. Let the uprisings begin, Abbey declared -- he was all in favor of healthy revolution -- outside the borders of the U.S. "The one thing we could do for a country like Mexico," he wrote, "is to stop every illegal immigrant at the border, give him a good rifle and a case of ammunition, and send him home."

Being branded a bigot didn't boost Abbey's standing among Sierra Clubbers, who praised Abbey's keen descriptive eye and dedication to wilderness preservation, but were already a tad jumpy about his "Keep America Beautiful--Burn a Billboard" approach to activism. And people didn't know what to make of a preservationist who was known to casually toss beer bottles out the window of his pickup as a protest against the highways that criss-crossed his deserts.

Wendell Berry got it exactly right when he said that Abbey was not an environmentalist but an autobiographer -- in other words, no matter what he wrote, fiction, non-fiction, polemic or poem, he was always Edward Abbey. Berry bestowed upon Abbey the highest praise any artist can have: that he was always interesting.

Useful to Society

One of my favorite haunts in Death Valley was a briny little pond I had discovered hidden among the tamarisks off Route 190. The pond was ringed by hummocks of salt grass and pickleweed, and its tepid waters were home to schools of the silvery pupfish that are native to Death Valley.

George had hiked into the desert to shoot cans and plot future coups and I had custody of Abbey's book "Abbey's Road" (probably the only copy for 100 miles in any direction). I sat in the pond -- it was only a foot and a half feet deep -- and read while pupfish nibbled at my toes.

In that collection of essays he writes of his travels in Mexico, where he encounters the Tarahumara Indians, a culture that's been screwed by both the advances of civilization and its attempts to "save" them. "Throw out the teachers, the missionaries, the government doctors and public health technicians; close off the roads and stop the road building; stop the logging; shut down the mines; burn down the hotels; tear up the airstrips; throw out the totalitarian fanatics from so-called Third World politics; ban all tourists, including us; and let these people alone. Leave them alone."

That's vintage Abbey right there: He always said a good writer was a political writer -- one who dared to speak the truth, and make him or herself useful to society.

Despite a loyal following of readers, Abbey's literary efforts were often met with critical silence. He was too scornful and unrefined; he made the establishment uncomfortable and he in turn continued to offend and scandalize. Over a long and outspoken literary career, Abbey was accused of every "ism" in the book, including elitism, iconoclasm and sexism. Arrogance and xenophobia were thrown in for good measure.

"The author of this book should be neutered and locked away forever," wrote one reviewer of "The Monkey Wrench Gang."

"While not ignored," Abbey retorted, "my books are greeted with what I must recognize as a coolness verging on outright frigidity, particularly by the doctrinaire buzzsaws of chickenshit liberalism."

Cities Rise and Fall

A dozen years passed before I got back to Death Valley for a visit. When I made it to Furnace Creek I walked up Route 190 looking for the pond where I had spent so many happy hours with the pupfish. But the pond was gone. The entire spring was gone; they had encased it in a pipe. All that remained was a dry dimple in the sand, filled with debris and a single desiccated palm frond, brown and bent, like the wing of some prehistoric bird.

It was a depressing spectacle. Next to the environmental depredations of two centuries, the loss of one small pond was of not much consequence, but to me it seemed a symbol of something important; a small beautiful thing that existed now only in memory, like so many other small things -- species of birds, insects, plants.

Then I remembered something that cheered me a little, which is this: Nature always bats last. Abbey was a tireless defender of wilderness, but he was also confident that the human flair for destruction would ultimately pale beside wind, water and time.

"Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear -- the earth remains, slightly modified," he wrote. Or as John Vogelin, the protagonist of Abbey's 1962 novel "Fire on the Mountain" put it, with his creator's distinctive insouciance: "I figure in forty years civilization will collapse and everything will be back to normal. I wish I could live to see it."

Abbey was that rare romantic idealist who was also supremely practical, in part because he refused to waste time on what he called the "misty empires of obsolete mythology" (i.e. religion). That didn't mean he could stop railing against the cancer of unchecked development; it just helped keep things in perspective.

No matter what people think of Abbey's politics, he has much to offer environmentalists of all stripes -- from apolitical Nature Conservancy stewards to Earth First! militants.

"Do not burn yourselves out," he wrote. "Be as I am -- a reluctant enthusiast, a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for natural land and the west; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it's still there. ... Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound men with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards."

Tai Moses is the managing editor of AlterNet.org.

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