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Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey

[ab-ee]

Edward Paul Abbey (January 29, 1927 - March 14, 1989) was an American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues and criticism of public land policies. His best-known works include the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has been cited as an inspiration by radical environmental groups, and the non-fiction work Desert Solitaire. Writer Larry McMurtry referred to Abbey as the "Thoreau of the American West".

Biography

Abbey was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Home, Pennsylvania, where there is a Pennsylvania state historical marker in his honor In the summer of 1944 he headed west, and fell in love with the desert country of the Four Corners region. He wrote, "For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same." He received a Master's Degree in philosophy from the University of New Mexico and also studied at the University of Edinburgh. In the late 1950s Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger for the United States Park Service at Arches National Monument (now a national park), near the town of Moab, Utah, which was not then known for extreme sports but for its desolation and uranium mines. It was there that he penned the journals that would become one of his most famous works, 1968's Desert Solitaire, which Abbey described "...not [as] a travel guide, but an elegy."

Desert Solitaire is regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature, and has been compared to Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Thoreau's Walden. In it, Abbey vividly describes the physical landscapes of Southern Utah and delights in his isolation as a backcountry park ranger, recounting adventures in the nearby canyon country and mountains. He also attacks what he terms the "industrial tourism" and resulting development in the national parks ("national parking lots"), rails against the Glen Canyon Dam, and comments on various other subjects.

Abbey died in 1989 at the age of 62 at his home near Oracle, Arizona. He is survived by two daughters, Susie and Becky; and three sons, Joshua, Aaron and Benjamin.

Controversy

Abbey's abrasiveness, opposition to anthropocentrism, and outspoken writings made him the object of much controversy. Conventional environmentalists from mainstream groups disliked his more radical "Keep America Beautiful...Burn a Billboard" style. Based on his writings and statements--and apparently in a few cases, actions--many believe that Abbey did advocate ecotage or sabotage in behalf of ecology. The controversy intensified with the publication of Abbey's most famous work of fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel centers on a small group of eco-warriors who travel the American West attempting to put the brakes on uncontrolled human expansion by committing acts of sabotage against industrial development projects. Abbey claimed the novel was written merely to "entertain and amuse," and was intended as symbolic satire. Others saw it as a how-to guide to non-violent ecotage, as the main characters attack things, such as road-building equipment, and not people. The novel inspired environmentalists frustrated with mainstream environmentalist groups and what they saw as unacceptable compromises. Earth First! was formed as a result in 1980, advocating eco-sabotage or "monkeywrenching." Although Abbey never officially joined the group, he became associated with many of its members, and occasionally wrote for the organization.

Sometimes called the "desert anarchist," Abbey was known to anger people of all political stripes, including environmentalists. In his essays the narrator describes throwing beer cans out of his car, claiming the highway had already littered the landscape. Abbey even had an FBI file opened on him in 1947, after he posted a letter while in college urging people to rid themselves of their draft cards. He differed from the stereotype of environmentalist as politically-correct leftist by disclaiming the counterculture and the "trendy campus people", saying he didn't want them as his primary fans, and by supporting some conservative causes such as immigration reduction and the National Rifle Association. He devoted one chapter in his book Hayduke Lives to poking fun at left-green leader Murray Bookchin. However, he reserves his harshest criticism for the military-industrial complex, "welfare ranchers," energy companies, land developers and "Chambers of Commerce," all of which he believed were destroying the West's great landscapes. Abbey refused to be pigeon-holed by the left or the right; above all he was a staunch advocate for wilderness preservation and ecological protection. Abbey thrived on controversy; his popularity has proven to span generations.

Death and burial

Edward Abbey died on March 14 1989 due to complications from surgery. Abbey died after four days of esophageal hemorrhaging, due to esophageal varices, a recurrent problem with one group of veins. Showing his sense of humor, he left a message for anyone who asked about his final words: "No comment." Abbey also left instructions on what to do with his remains. These instructions were described in an Outside magazine article written by David Quammen in June 1989:

He wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck. He wanted to be buried as soon as possible. He wanted no undertakers. No embalming, for Godsake! No coffin. Just an old sleeping bag... Disregard all state laws concerning burial. "I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree." said the message.

As for graveside ceremony: He wanted gunfire, and a little music. "No formal speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief." And then a big happy raucous wake. He wanted more music, gay and lively music. He wanted bagpipes. "And a flood of beer and booze! Lots of singing, dancing, talking, hollering, laughing, and lovemaking." said the message. And meat! Beans and chilis! And corn on the cob. Only a man deeply in love with life and hopelessly soft on humanity would specify, from beyond the grave, that his mourners receive corn on the cob.

A 2003 Outside article described how his friends honored his request:

"The last time Ed smiled was when I told him where he was going to be buried," says Doug Peacock, an environmental crusader in Edward Abbey's inner circle. On March 14 1989, the day Abbey died from esophageal bleeding at 62, Peacock, along with his friend Jack Loeffler, his father-in-law Tom Cartwright, and his brother-in-law Steve Prescott, wrapped Abbey's body in his blue sleeping bag, packed it with dry ice, and loaded Cactus Ed into Loeffler's Chevy pickup. After stopping at a liquor store in Tucson for five cases of beer, and some whiskey to pour on the grave, they drove off into the desert. The men searched for the right spot the entire next day and finally turned down a long rutted road, drove to the end, and began digging. That night they buried Ed and toasted the life of America's prickliest and most outspoken environmentalist.

The article goes on to note that Abbey's body is believed to have been buried in the Cabeza Prieta Desert in Pima County, Arizona, where "you'll never find it". The friends claim to have scratched out a marker on a nearby stone, which read:

''EDWARD PAUL ABBEY
1927—1989
No Comment
In late March, about 200 friends of Abbey gathered near the Saguaro National Monument near Tucson and held the wake he requested.

In the late summer of 1988, an interview with Abbey appeared in "Western Winds Magazine" a newsletter for an outdoor company called Western Mountaineering. The interview, written by Paul Bousquet with some help from editor Fred Lifton, contained two quotes that were especially poignant coming so soon before his death:

ww: According to my calculations you turned 60 this year. How did this effect you?
Abbey: Haven't given it much thought. It's one of those things that happen when you keep hanging around. I expect my life to become an easy downhill slide from here on. My father is 86 and still working--alone--out in the Appalachian woods every day, cutting down trees and hauling them down to the sawmill. Barring accidents internal or external, I'll probably end up doing something like that. Longevity, like intelligence or good looks, is largely a matter of heredity: choose your parents with care. Also, it helps to have a mean, rancorous, rotten disposition; us mean and ugly types are hard to kill.
ww: Have you ever come close to death? Tell us about it.
Abbey: In my youth I did fool things on rock, on snow, on mountainsides and deep down in slickrock canyons, but never suffered more than the usual thrill of utter terror. Rode motorcycles for a few years. Got on a few horses I didn't understand. And again never lost anything but some skin. About five years ago some medical doctors gave me six months to live, saying I had pancreatic cancer. But they were wrong, their machines had deceived them: the dark blob on the X-ray screens and CAT-scans turned out to be some kind of portal vein thrombosis, which means that I may die at any moment of a massive internal hemorrhage. But in the meantime I feel fine and carry on as usual, having no particularly appealing alternative, and am ready for whatever happens so long as it's quick, violent and economical. And if it's not, I'll do my best to make it so. Like everyone, I've lived close to death all of my life.

Quotations

  • On abortion: "Abolition of a woman's right to abortion, when and if she wants it, amounts to compulsory maternity: a form of rape by the State."
  • On absurdities: "As for the "solitary confinement of the mind," my theory is that solipsism, like other absurdities of the professional philosopher, is a product of too much time wasted in library stacks between the covers of a book, in smoke-filled coffeehouses (bad for brains) and conversation-clogged seminars. To refute the solipsist or the metaphysical idealist all that you have to do is take him out and throw a rock at his head: if he ducks he's a liar. His logic may be airtight but his argument, far from revealing the delusions of living experience, only exposes the limitations of logic." (Desert Solitaire, pp. 121-122).
  • On industry: "In the Soviet Union, government controls industry. In the United States, industry controls government. That is the principal structural difference between the two great oligarchies of our time."
  • On Anarchism: "Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners."
  • On terrorism: "The most common form of terrorism in the U.S.A. is that carried on by bulldozers and chain saws."
  • On off-road vehicles: "The fat pink slobs who go roaring over the landscape in these over-sized over-priced over-advertised mechanical mastodons are people too lazy to walk, too ignorant to saddle a horse, too cheap and clumsy to paddle a canoe. Like cattle or sheep, they travel in herds, scared to death of going anywhere alone, and they leave their sign and spoor all over the back country: Coors beer cans, Styrofoam cups, plastic spoons, balls of Kleenex, wads of toilet paper, spent cartridge shells, crushed gopher snakes, smashed sagebrush, broken trees, dead chipmunks, wounded deer, eroded trails, bullet-riddled petroglyphs, spray-painted signatures, vandalized Indian ruins, fouled-up waterholes, polluted springs and smoldering campfires piled with incombustible tinfoil, filter tips, broken bottles. Etc." (Postcards from Ed, pp. 66-67).
  • On sport hunting: "Whenever I see a photograph of some sportsman grinning over his kill, I am always impressed by the striking moral and aesthetic superiority of the dead animal to the live one."
  • On firearms: "The tank, the B-52, the fighter-bomber, the state-controlled police and military are the weapons of dictatorship. The rifle is the weapon of democracy. Not for nothing was the revolver called an "equalizer." Egalite implies liberte. And always will. Let us hope our weapons are never needed--but do not forget what the common people of this nation knew when they demanded the Bill of Rights: An armed citizenry is the first defense, the best defense, and the final defense against tyranny." (Abbey's Road)
  • On reason: "Reason has seldom failed us because it has seldom been tried."
  • On truth: "Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion."
  • On the Bible: "A knowledge of the true age of the earth and of the fossil record makes it impossible for any balanced intellect to believe in the literal truth of every part of the Bible in the way that fundamentalists do. And if some of the Bible is manifestly wrong, why should any of the rest of it be accepted automatically?"
  • On the wisdom of crowds: One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothin' can beat teamwork." (Seldom Seen Smith, in The Monkey Wrench Gang)
  • On war: "The tragedy of modern war is that the young men die fighting each other - instead of their real enemies back home in the capitals."
  • On patriotism: "A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government."
  • On highways: "Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it's not the beer cans that are ugly; it's the highway that is ugly." ("The Second Rape of the West," The Journey Home, 1977)
  • On growth: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." (The Journey Home, 1977)
  • On government: "Society is like a stew. If you don't stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top."

Critical comments

  • About The Monkey Wrench Gang, the National Observer wrote, "A sad, hilarious, exuberant, vulgar fairy tale... It'll make you want to go out and blow up a dam."
  • The New York Times wrote, "Since the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Mr. Abbey has become an underground cult hero."

Bibliography

Fiction

Non-fiction

Letters

  • Cactus Chronicles published by Orion Magazine, Jul-Aug 2006 (no longer active,)
  • Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast (2006) (ISBN 1-57131-284-6)

Anthologies

See also

  • Ecodefense: A Field Guide To Monkeywrenching [book]

External links

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