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Reading: Edward Abbey's Last Rant

More extreme than ever, with no new social graces, the impolitic polemicist strikes a posthumous blow for Mother Earth.

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With the death last year of Edward Abbey, the environmental movement--and the American literary scene--lost an aggravating and outspoken scribe. Aggravating, because he constantly offended readers with remarks that were branded sexist, racist, and otherwise politically incorrect. Outspoken, because there was no sacred cow he wasn't proud to attack. He was a polemicist who seemed scarcely able to be a bore, whose fulminations were always a pleasure to read. He ranted, but he ranted eloquently.

Abbey's work is consistently charged with the conviction that writing and reading are important. He was able to reach a large audience by publishing articles and invectives in a wide variety of publications. In March 1989, the month of his death, I spotted his work in two publications. He wrote a travelogue for Conde Nast Traveler magazine, an oddly upscale venue for a self-proclaimed redneck intellectual. He also had a letter to the editor in the Industrial Worker, a publication probably closer to Abbey's heart, with ink that comes off on your hands and politics that stick in some readers' craws. Which makes for an interesting letters column.

Abbey was a master of the biting letter: he wrote to the dailies in Tucson, his adopted hometown, suggesting that the city name a new sewage-treatment plant after a particulary rapacious local land developer. "When looking for wit, wisdom, knowledge or intelligence in a newspaper, any newspaper, your only hope is the Letters column," Abbey wrote in his last, posthumously published novel, Hayduke Lives! Letters columns are where true democracy is found, he believed. What makes Abbey's work worth reading is that he kept that honest and vituperative tone in the essays and books he published. He was never one to pull a punch.

In the summer of 1944, 17 years old and fresh off a hardscrabble Appalachian farm, Abbey hitchhiked west to the Pacific. He saw for the first time the deserts and mountains of the southwest, which was to him a place as much of the imagination as of solid rock and clean air. When he reached Arizona, he found "a land that filled me with strange excitement: crags and pinnacles of naked rock, the dark cores of ancient volcanoes, a vast and silent emptiness smoldering with heat, color, and indecipherable significance, above which floated a small number of pure, clear, hard-edged clouds. 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 become the same."

As soon as he was able, Abbey moved west--presaging the great postwar migration to the Sunbelt, which he would frequently decry in his writing. He supported himself in hand-to-mouth fashion, juggling a seasonal cycle of outdoor jobs--park ranger, game warden, fire lookout--with free-lance writing assignments. He labored in relative obscurity until 1968, when he published Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. The book is a memoir and collection of essays about a summer spent working as a park ranger at Arches National Park in the canyon lands of southeast Utah.

Desert Solitaire contains some of the best nature writing anywhere. The book's eloquence encompasses both the beauty and the danger of the desert. Here was a nature writer--a categorization Abbey hated--who accepted the desert on its own terms, who argued that a wilderness area such as Arches should be allowed to exist simply because it always had. That was reason enough, but Abbey also emphasized the human solace that comes from knowing such places exist.

Burning behind Abbey's sensual descriptions of the canyon lands was anger at the way such areas are plundered by modern civilization. Between the time Abbey worked at Arches and the time he wrote the book, the park was "developed" with paved roads and more elaborate campgrounds, which served to attract more visitors. Abbey said the Winnebago-canned tourists who visit the "improved" park don't grasp any of the essentials of the desert--such as silence, the sun at noon, the buzz of a rattlesnake. Worse, the facilities built to accommodate them ruin the experience for others--and for the real desert dwellers, such as the rattlers. The American cult of convenience, Abbey wrote, must be resisted, or all authentic experience wil be dulled by shields of plastic and metal separating people from the environment.

Arches was only a mild example. Far more egregious was the case of Glen Canyon Dam, the huge federal project that created Lake Powell on the border of Arizona and Utah. The dam blocked the Colorado River and drowned Glen Canyon, which Abbey (among others) had described as a fairyland of colored rock, hidden grottoes, tiny springs, and hanging gardens. He called it the most beautiful place he'd ever been. Drowning it to generate electricity to light the subdivisions of LA and Phoenix was a classic example of mixed-up priorities.

This mammoth symbol of mankind's urge to shape the environment demanded a mammoth response. In Desert Solitaire Abbey's thoughts drifted toward a quick fix: "Some unknown hero with a rucksack full of dynamite strapped to his back will descend into the bowels of the dam; there he will hide his high explosives where they'll do the most good, attach blasting caps to the lot and with angelic ingenuity link the caps to the official dam wiring system in such a way that when the time comes for the grand opening ceremony, when the President and the Secretary of the Interior and the governors of the Four-Corner states are all in full regalia assembled, the button which the President pushes will ignite the loveliest explosion ever seen by man, reducing the great dam to a heap of rubble in the path of the river. The splendid new rapids thus created we will name Floyd E. Dominy Falls, in honor of the chief of the Reclamation Bureau; a more suitable memorial could hardly be devised for such an esteemed and loyal public servant."

That sort of thing was dismissed by some as the demented fantasy of a barely employable radical who'd spent too much time in the hot desert sun. But however much Abbey's thought ran counter to that of the mainstream, it was very much in the tradition of other great American thinkers, such as Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau.

Ecological sabotage was a theme Abbey would return to in The Monkey Wrench Gang, the seriocomic novel he completed in 1975. The book describes the escapades of four motley characters who decide they've had enough of the cult of growth. Taking matters into their own hands, they burn down billboards, disable bulldozers, cut down power-transmission towers, and lead pursuers on several merry chases through the canyon lands. The authorities, of course, are outraged at the destruction of property. But the members of the monkey-wrench gang, led by one George Washington Hayduke, returned Vietnam vet and most radical ecofreak of them all, view their actions as self-defense. Their home is being trashed. They will not, they agree, harm anybody. Just things. They fight not human enemies, but runaway technology.

In one central scene the heroes visit a huge strip mine in northeast Arizona. "Their view from the knoll would be difficult to describe in any known terrestrial language," wrote Abbey. "Bonnie thought of something like a Martian invasion, the War of the Worlds. Captain Smith was reminded of Kennecott's open-pit mine ('world's largest') near Magna, Utah. Dr. Sarvis thought of the plain of fire and of the oligarchs and oligopoly beyond: Peabody Coal only one arm of Anaconda Copper; Anaconda only a limb of United States Steel; U.S. Steel intertwined in incestuous embrace with the Pentagon, TVA, Standard Oil, General Dynamics, Dutch Shell, I.G. Farben-industrie; the whole conglomerated cartel spread out upon half the planet Earth like a global kraken, pan-tentacled, wall-eyed and parrot-beaked, its brain a bank of computer data centers, its blood the flow of money, its heart a radioactive dynamo, its language the technotronic monologue of number imprinted on magnetic tape. . . . But George Washington Hayduke, his thought was the clearest and simplest: Hayduke thought of Vietnam."

They blow up the railway bridge leading away from the mine. Why not? It makes them feel better. The enemy may be endless, but at least the blow struck is satisfyingly direct.

The George Washington Hayduke of The Monkey Wrench Gang returns home from Vietnam with an entirely reasonable hatred of the military-industrial complex, then finds the same forces tearing up the open lands of his beloved southwest. He is a beer-swilling, foul-mouthed, gun-toting, seldom-bathing redneck. At the end of the book he is run to ground, deservedly no doubt, after weeks of disregard for the law. He is killed (apparently) in a fusillade of bullets fired by the Utah Department of Public Safety, the sheriff's office, the FBI, and the San Juan County Search & Rescue Team. Then he falls into the river far below.

Well, the sequel is called Hayduke Lives! More radical and with fewer social graces than ever, he's back, tackling a big target--the Giant Earth Mover (GEM), a $37 million piece of equipment that is poised to tear up lovely, unspoiled Lost Eden Canyon to get at the uranium underneath. It is a formidable foe. But this time the monkey-wrench gang has allies: Earth First! is opposing plans to strip-mine the canyon.

That's an intriguing melding of art and reality, for The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired--at least in part--the birth of Earth First!, the radical environmental group some of whose members advocate putting into action the hard-line stance Abbey espoused in fiction. "No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth" became the group's motto. The theory was that too much wilderness has already been destroyed to make way for ranches and mines and subdivisions, so we need to use any means necessary to preserve what remains--and attempt to restore some of what has been plowed under. The mainstream environmental groups, went the Earth First! rationale, had already been in bed too long with the politicans, the businessmen, the military-industrial complex--compromise was an integral part of their program. Not us, Earth First! said. If those other groups have become bloated bureaucracies that kowtow to the powerful and are concerned primarily with their own status and survival, Earth First! would have no bureaucracy at all. There would be no leaders, only small groups of activists doing whatever they thought right and necessary. If legal means failed, they would cut down billboards, pour sand into bulldozer crankcases, drive spikes into trees to make them worthless as lumber.

That's what we see them doing in Hayduke Lives! The Earth Firsters have colorful rallies and chain themselves to trees. They get arrested and roughed up. They are young and strong and athletic and know how to take care of themselves in the wilderness. There is a fine and youthful romance about their exploits, a wistfulness that made me wish I were there, pounding spikes into trees with these committed and honest souls. They are, above all, stunningly alive.

The monkey-wrench gang, meanwhile, is after the GEM itself. Will they succeed in slaying the beast? If they do, won't another GEM be next in line, as voracious as the first? So what's the point?

Surely the purpose of monkey wrenching is not just to give the young people a fine and romantic pastime to make them feel they're doing something important (and fun to boot). Or to assuage Hayduke's implacable thirst for some action--any action--against the forces of development. Though monkey wrenching as a means of empowerment, a way to feel you can do something (however minor) to control the forces that shape your life is clearly part of the game. It's better than having no hope about the way things are going.

But the Earth Firsters have a more hard-nosed and practical rationale than that. If the cost of dealing with monkey wrenching becomes great enough, then the companies developing wild lands will no longer make a profit from those operations. Logging operations in large areas of the national forests are lucrative only because they are subsidized by the U.S. Forest Service; ranching--and the resulting overgrazing and erosion damage--is profitable on many federal lands only because ranchers pay dirt-cheap fees for use of the land. "The ecology warrior hurts no living thing, absolutely never, and he avoids capture, passing all costs on to them, the Enemy," says Doc Sarvis, one of the gang. "The point of his work is to increase their costs, nudge them toward net loss, bankruptcy, forcing them to withdraw and retreat from their invasion of our public lands, our wilderness, our native and primordial home."

Despite its radical stance, the monkey-wrench gang displays a greater faith in the market economy than the corporations whose destructive land uses are subsidized by the government. Yet it's true that if corporations had to pay the full costs of cleaning up their messes, they wouldn't engage in many of the cavalier practices we see.

Members of Earth First! view their actions as those of an ecosystem acting in defense of itself--monkey-wrenchers as the white blood cells of wilderness. Though media coverage has focused on the group's flashy monkey wrenching and--especially--tree spiking, it's important to note that most members concentrate on legal means and civil disobedience.

Yet Abbey knew that corporations plunder public lands to feed our unsatiable appetite for consumer goods. He knew that getting corporations to clean up their acts depended in part on getting consumers to change their habits. And he was convinced that most of what constitutes American material culture is junk. "Our lives are debauched, our natural resources squandered, our native land ravaged in this mad production of metal, plastic, glass and paper garbage," he wrote. "Who needs throw-away beer cans? Bottle my beer (and let's go back to making real beer, by the way; no more of this watery green commercial angel piss) in solid, substantial, amber-colored jugs that fit a man's hand, that rest solidly on a table and can be washed out and used over again, for Christ's sake, like they do it in Bavaria and Austria, where beer began. Who needs color television? It's bad enough in black and white and wavy stripes. Who needs trail bikes, snowmobiles, electric razors? Winnebagos, power lawn mowers, Styrofoam packaging, bulk-rate mail? Ballpoint pens, glass office buildings with windows that can't be opened, tract homes made of green lumber and plasterboard? Condominiums with cardboard walls, polyurethane geodesic igloos, plumbing that doesn't work, blenders, dishwashers, dryers, plastic picnic plates, electric guitars and Moog synthesizers? Vinylite upholstery, synthetic textiles made from ersatz fibers, sour green oranges and acid-injected tomatoes and hormone-polluted beef shipped from 3,000 miles away, frozen grape juice, incomprehensible income-tax forms, short-life light bulbs, high-powered cabin cruisers on every pond and stream, spray deodorants, nondairy products." His list goes on, but it could go on a lot longer.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is a well-constructed comic novel with real characters and real tensions. Some of the best scenes in Hayduke Lives! are similarly naturalistic: Abbey depicts an Earth First! annual gathering in lush and elaborate detail, swamping us with minutiae about slogans, clothing (or lack thereof), political affiliations--the sort of thing Tom Wolfe would like. But most of the novel is painted in broader strokes. The chase scenes lack the suspense of those in the earlier book, and Hayduke, back from the dead, becomes a sort of comic-book superhero. Invincible. He can't be caught. Well, just once.

If you haven't read any Abbey, Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang are better books. Hayduke Lives! is less a novel and more mythology: the archetypal hero fights the monster that is threatening the peaceable kingdom. The struggle results in real deaths, but the characters who die are caricatures, as expendable as the average dope smuggler on Miami Vice.

Why was Abbey willing to kill people off in his final book? (It's rumored that Abbey died before completing the book, and that the final chapter--in which the deaths take place--were ghostwritten.) He was careful in his earlier novels to make clear that his eco-warriors were fighting technology, not people. He delineated the realms of good and evil clearly enough that he was able to capitalize "the Enemy." And he seemed to believe that gave him the moral high ground: in mythological battles, there is no compromise between good and evil. Maybe he thought people need that kind of example of unquestioning devotion before they'll get involved in trying to solve today's environmental crises.

But Abbey was well aware that real life doesn't lend itself to such easy divisions. He didn't hate all technology. He confessed to liking refrigerators, for example, because they kept his beer cold. What he objected to was technology that had grown beyond reason, propelled only by greed and the mindless quest for an expanding Gross National Product. Gross, indeed. Whatever else he may have been--and he was often accused of racism, sexism, elitism, fascism, Nazism, arrogance, xenophobia, stupidity, smugness, flippancy, nastiness, and assorted other sins--he was a tireless proponent of life lived on a human scale.

He could ridicule environmentalists, feminists, and woo-woo New Age gurus as much as politicians. And he was willing to ridicule himself too. His refusal to fully follow any party line--no matter how much he might agree with it--was a result of his refusal to be categorized, his refusal to give up his individuality. However cranky he could get, he was always honest--and he wrote about life as he lived it.

He was buried--illegally, of course--in the desert somewhere. They say his real-life friend who was the model for Hayduke was next to Abbey when he was dying. The friend told Abbey in which wild place he'd be buried. They say that was the last time Edward Abbey smiled.

Hayduke Lives! by Edward Abbey, Little, Brown and Company, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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