Origins: Cactus Ed


— Edward Abbey (1927-1989)


Edward Paul Abbey was born to Paul Revere and Mildred Abbey on January 29, 1927 in the Appalachian woods of Home, Pennsylvania. His father was a logger, trapper, and dirt farmer, an avowed anarchist, agnostic, and idealist; his mother, a schoolteacher and church organist. His father eventually outlived the writer. His mother walked five miles a day until she was killed in a 1987 car accident.

He grew up in the “Big Woods” of backroads Appalachia, playing with brothers John, Bill, and Howard, and his sister Nancy, listening to the melodies of the forest, imagining life on the frontier. Abbey later wrote of those woods:

It was a sultry sullen dark-massed deepness of transpiring green that formed the theatre which made possible our play. We invented our boyhood as we grew, but the forest, in which it was possible to get authentically lost, sustained our sense of awe and terror in ways that fantasy cannot.

He lived there just long enough to witness the end of the Big Woods. The very mountainside that formed the backdrop to his childhood theatre of the mind was soon logged and stripmined for coal.

In the summer of 1944 seventeen year old “Ned,” as his family called him, hit the road, just as his father had done at that age. He hitchhiked. He hopped freight trains. He found himself in Seattle and San Francisco, saw Yosemite on the way, and worked the orchards and canneries of California. Then he entered the desert.

He first sighted the Colorado River from the river town of Needles, on the California side, in August, a veritable inferno. He would later write of that encounter:

Across the river, waited a land that filled me with strange excitement; crags and pinnacles of naked rock, the dark cores of ancient volcanoes, a vast, 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.

He was arrested for vagrancy in Flagstaff, Arizona. He never forgot the night he spent in that stinking steel and cement jail cell, never forgot the injustice of it. The next day the judge let him off light, setting his bail at one dollar. A kindly officer drove him out to the edge of town, admonishing him not to ride the trains anymore, not knowing this boy was already headed down Abbey’s Road. He would catch his first glimpse of the Painted Desert through the open door of an eastbound boxcar. Heading home.

He finished high school the following year, graduating in the top of his class. Paul and Mildred Abbey raised their children on a steady diet of Walt Whitman, Stephen Foster, Chopin, and Debussy. They encouraged literary and musical skills and young Edward was keen on both, taking up the flute and producing his own newspaper and cartoons while still in grammar school. In high school he edited the school newspaper even though he flunked journalism twice. He refused to take the grammar tests required for graduation until the last moment, confident he knew grammar well enough.

He interrupted his education to fulfill military obligations by serving in Italy for two years. The Japanese surrendered on the very day he completed basic training. His first job choice was clerk typist (so he could write) but the Army made him an MP instead. He was twice promoted. He was twice demoted. It seems he had a problem saluting officers. But his service was good enough to earn him his claim to the GI Bill and helped him formulate the notions of anarchy and pacifism that would sustain him for the rest of his life.

He took these newly acquired gifts of post-World War America and enrolled in the University of New Mexico, where he would remain for the next ten years. On the way he caught the attention of the FBI when he posted a notice at the Indiana State Teachers College in Indiana, Pennsylvania, encouraging students and faculty to mail their draft cards to President Truman or burn them. The FBI’s first report on the aspiring pacifist was filed the day after Lincoln’s birthday, 1947. It said, “Abbey hates the army and all things military.” It was the beginning of what would become a very thick file. He studied English literature and philosophy at UNM: Plato, Diogenes, Joyce, and Thoreau. He edited the college newspaper until he got fired for publishing a piece called “Some Implications of Anarchy.” He got married thinking it would get him laid and studied for a year in Scotland on a Fulbright Scholarship, during which time he got divorced. He completed his Master’s degree in philosophy with a thesis on “Anarchy and the Morality of Violence.” He also wrote and published his first novel, Jonathan Troy, the story of a boy from Pennsylvania who yearns for the American Southwest.

While still in school, Abbey began a career as seasonal worker with the National Park Service and, occasionally, the U.S. Forest Service. Though there were initial doubts as to his fitness for duty as a fire lookout on the Carson National Forest (dutifully reported and filed by his shadowing FBI agent) he did get the job and continued working summers at the National Parks, National Monuments, and National Forests of southwestern America for the next seventeen years.

He married four more times, fathered five children, divorced twice more, was widowed once, and left a young widow in Clarke Cartwright Abbey. Often mislabeled a misogynist, Abbey had difficulty dealing with women (men too, for that matter), but it was not out of hatred for the opposite sex. Women who got to know Abbey as a teacher and a writer found him painfully shy and withdrawn, respectful and pleasant. Perhaps Abbey himself best summarized his attitude toward women: “Women are truly better than men. Otherwise, they’d be intolerable.”

He continued his career as a writer, publishing The Brave Cowboy in 1956. The theme of the book, that society will crush the individualist, was used as the basis for the movie Lonely Are the Brave, starring Kirk Douglas, who later said the character of Jack Burns was his favorite role. Jack Burns became somewhat of a regular in Abbey’s novels, representing the anarchist in several books, including The Monkey Wrench Gang and Hayduke Lives!

Abbey’s own favorite work was Black Sun, the 1971 novel of a forest ranger in search of a lover lost in the canyons of the desert. It was written after the death of Abbey’s wife Judy Pepper, of leukemia. He grieved the loss for years.

His most influential work of fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang, was published in 1975. In this madcap adventure four unlikely heroes set out to blow up Abbey’s most reviled symbol of all that is wrong with America: the Glen Canyon Dam, whose builders Abbey held responsible for destroying hundreds of miles of pristine riparian ecosystem on the Colorado River of southern Utah. The novel is credited with originating the concept of monkeywrenching, though Abbey denied it, saying he was simply reporting and shedding light on what was going on in the desert: a campaign against the activities of exploitative, extractive industrial and governmental organizations ruining the desert. Whether he invented monkeywrenching or not, Abbey’s writing led without doubt to the organization of Earth First!, a group of militant environmentalists whose activities mirror those of the Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey did not really want to blow up dams — he really wanted to blow up our preconceived notion that all progress, all growth, is good, even if it means the ruination of our home, the environment. And he did.

He wrote a sequel to MWG called Hayduke Lives!, published posthumously in 1989. In this novel, completed just prior to his own death, Abbey has the old gang fighting GOLIATH, a self-propelled stripmining machine that threatens to destroy the author’s beloved desert.

That love of the desert — the canyonlands, the redrock country — was brought to most readers through Abbey’s 1968 collection of essays, Desert Solitaire, written ten years after the fact of his serving two summers as a Park Ranger at Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park). Abbey was a prolific essayist, collecting his essays over the years into six other books: The Journey Home, 1975, Abbey’s Road, 1979, Desert Images, 1981, Down the River, 1982, Beyond the Wall, 1984, and One Life at a Time, Please, 1988. He also found time to collaborate on two travel books: Cactus Country in 1972 and The Hidden Canyon in 1978.

Abbey was a disciplined writer who kept a careful journal, of which many entries found their way into his essays and fiction. His journal was posthumously published as A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Notes from a Secret Journal, 1989. Several readers have been compiled, including Slumgullion Stew: An Abbey Reader and The Best of Edward Abbey, both published in 1984. In all, 21 books of Edward Abbey’s writings were published during his lifetime.

He wrote right up to the very end, succumbing finally to pancreatic disease, which had tormented him for seven years. When he was originally diagnosed, his doctors gave him six months to live. He is reported to have quipped, “Well, at least I won’t have to floss anymore.”

He finished A Voice Crying in the Wilderness just days before his death, writing, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

Edward Abbey died at home in his Tucson writing cabin on March 14, 1989. Friends secretly buried him in his beloved desert, later erecting false graves to confound his disciples, the authorities, and other grave-robbers. He had requested burial clothed only in his anarch’s flag, laid to rest where the saguaro, organ pipe, senita, and cardon cacti congregate. High above the desert floor, large raptors circled in anticipation as the grave was dug. Abbey had foreseen it all several years earlier in his essay “Desert Images”:

I roll over on my back and gaze up at the cloudless, perfect, inhuman unsheltering sky. The inevitable vulture soars there, a thousand feet above me. Black wings against the blue. I think I know that bird. He looks familiar. I think he’s the one that’s been following me, everywhere I go in the desert, for about thirty-five years. Looking after me. I follow the fox. The vulture follows me.

He had written his own writer’s epitaph in another essay, “The Sorrows of Travel,” saying “He fell in love with Planet Earth, but the affair was never consummated.” Or, maybe it was. His last words were reportedly, “I did what I could.”

Somebody had to do it. Now let us follow Edward Abbey home — into the desert.



Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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1 reply

  1. Thanks! A nice introduction to Edward Abbey.

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