Edward Abbey is now remembered as a militant environmentalist, an environmental writer, even a nature writer, but that is most certainly not how he saw himself. In his mind he was only a writer. His sister Nancy, quoted by James Bishop, Jr., thought of Abbey as, “just a very fine writer who cared about the environment.” He cared about a great many other things, however, and wrote about them as well. Shortly before his death in 1989, Abbey said of himself, “I never wanted to be anything but a writer, period. An author. A creator of fictions and essays. I take all of life, all of society, for my proper realm of discourse, as any honest reader can discover.”
But the environment was extremely important to Abbey, not just as a writer but also as a man. A human being. He continually rediscovered himself in nature, in the wilderness of the desert Southwest, and recoiled at the vision of exploitative actions that were depriving him and the rest of civilization from the freedom to experience that nature—purely human nature in a pristine wilderness. He was deeply inspired by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, and did what he could as a writer to promote the “integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”
Edward Abbey was also a teacher and a philosopher. He taught environmental ethics and humanistic philosophy through his writings. He also taught writing courses at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His impact as a teacher should not be ignored.
But, by my definition, Abbey was only partially an environmentalist. In the preface to The Environmentalist, I describe an environmentalist this way:
The preservationist sees natural wonders and wants to hold them unblemished for all time. The conservationist sees natural resources and wants to ensure their viability for future generations. The ecologist sees the relationships between species and the world they inhabit, and wants to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The environmentalist sees all of these as one and the same.
Edward Abbey expressed often and with vigor the deeply held convictions of a preservationist. He was openly hostile to conservation science as applied by the U.S. Forest Service and its constituents. He feigned ignorance of ecology, an ironic stance that served him well as an avowed preservationist. In sum, Abbey was not a complete environmentalist. He was, however, a great and determined defender of wilderness. “Why wilderness?” he wrote in Slickrock. “Because we like the taste of freedom. Because we like the smell of danger.” For Abbey there is no freedom without wilderness; therefore, we must preserve what precious little wilderness remains. Our foes are the industrial powers of growth and their allies, the state. We must fight the good fight—the enemy is ourselves.
He has been called an environmental militant by some, but they must not have read his books. His reputation comes largely from the actions of others who have patterned their activities after Abbey’s books, particularly The Monkey Wrench Gang. Earth First! was founded in 1979, four years after the publication of MWG, by Dave Foreman, an admirer of Abbey’s work. Earth First! is unhesitatingly militant in its environmental actions. On the About page of the Earth First! website, one may read this description:
Earth First! is different from other environmental groups. Here are some things to keep in mind about Earth First! and some suggestions for being an active and effective Earth First!er : First of all, Earth First! is not an organization, but a movement. There are no “members” of Earth First!, only Earth First!ers. It is a belief in biocentrism, that life (the Earth) comes first, and a practice of putting our beliefs into action.
While there is broad diversity within Earth First! (from animal rights vegans to wilderness hunting guides, from monkeywrenchers to careful followers of Gandhi, from whiskey-drinking backwoods riffraff to thoughtful philosophers, from misanthropes to humanists) there is agreement on one thing, the need for action!
Earth First! publishes its own Earth First! Journal, calling it “The Radical Environmental Journal.” At the time of this writing, the current issue had articles about recent and ongoing environmental actions. Articles like:
- “In Defense of Mishanthropy” [sic] in which the author calls for a reduction in human population for the good of the environment;
- “BBB Pies Barry Clausen: EF! Nemesis Sees Cream” the report of a pie in the face action against an EF! informant; and
- “Confrontation in Colorado” in which a series of typical monkeywrenching actions were taken against expansion of the Vail ski resort near Vail, Colorado.
In the latter article, reported by Emily Wolf and Stephanie Tidwell: “A coalition of forest defenders converged on Vail to stymie Vail Associate’s greed-motivated plans of wanton devastation in pursuit of the almighty dollar.” As one EF!er hung from a 30-foot tripod, blocking access to the construction zone, several others locked themselves to equipment brought in by the Forest Service to remove the human obstruction. While these actions were carried out another EF!er set up a roadblock to the area by overturning a van and locking himself to it. Typical monkeywrenching. Effective in slowing the progress of progress. And nobody got hurt.
Earth First! cries “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth,” with the very large exception that people must not be harmed in the course of environmental actions. The movement might be described as militant pacifism in defense of the environment. And it certainly has a sense of humor. Much like its mentor.
Abbey described his own role in environmental militancy this way: “I lead the attack and then once contact is made with the enemy I quickly retreat, and let more moderate people start compromising, explaining, and maneuvering while I go off and do something else.” He fights for the underdog, convinced the other dogs have plenty to fight for them already: “I say these things because too few others will, because far too many say the opposite.”
Yet his influence as a writer advocating militant environmentalism cannot be overlooked. Even his widow, Clarke Cartwright Abbey, has carried on the work. She, with three friends, organized a group called the Wildlife Damage Review, devoted to reporting atrocities committed by a little-known group within the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Animal Damage Control or ADC. The ADC utilizes traps, firearms, aircraft, and other devices to kill thousands upon thousands of black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, blackbirds, skunks, badgers, and raccoons each year for cattlegrowers whose herds graze on public lands. The cattlegrowers claim they cannot raise beef without federally subsidized predator control. The Wildlife Damage Review considers the slaughter to be unjust, cruel, and a waste of taxpayer money.
Abbey’s writings have also influenced recent actions taken by one of his former employers, the National Park Service. As he foretold in “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” our National Parks have become overburdened with automotive traffic. The Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, an organization devoted to fundraising in support of the Grand Canyon National Park, summed up the problem in this description posted on the National Park Service Website:
The most pressing issue in the park today is the impact created by the annual crush of nearly 5 million visitors and their private cars on the few developed areas along the canyon rims. The roads and facilities in developed areas of the park were never designed to handle this volume of use. The result has been the gradual degradation of the visitor experience and unacceptable impacts on the park’s natural and cultural resources. No comprehensive management plan is in place that provides direction for the park when dealing with general visitor use or that guides appropriate development in the park.
That there is no comprehensive management plan in place is in no way the fault of Edward Abbey. He offered up a plan several decades ago. Nonetheless, Park Service is proposing a solution known as the “The Greenway.” It is described by the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation on its webpage:
The Greenway will offer a combination of non-motorized routes of travel; multi-use trails designed to accommodate those who wish to experience the canyon. A system of high quality inter-connected trails and overlooks will allow visitors to access the canyon rim on foot, by bicycle, in a wheelchair, or (some areas only) on horseback. The trails will be specially designed and surfaced to make access and use easy and convenient for all levels of ability. Options will greet each individual, group, or family. They will range from a short walk to the canyon rim to a daylong outing of 25 miles or more. Using a network of equipment rental and return points, visitors can custom-tailor their canyon tour by riding bikes to a destination and returning by public transit. The Greenway will showcase Grand Canyon National Park as a model for sound resource stewardship.
Sound familiar? It should. Compare the Greenway project to this statement from Abbey’s infamous “Polemic“:
No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs — anything — but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.
Now, admittedly, Cactus Ed uses ironic rhetoric in stating his argument. He presents himself as the curmudgeonly voice of unreason in order to grab your attention. While today his proposal and his arguments strike us as perfectly reasonable, they were statements of near blasphemy when he uttered them in the ’60s. He had to take on the voice of a crank so as not to be immediately written off as a whiner. Recall Abbey’s discussion of the then-current problems of Yosemite National Park and the solution he offered there as well: “Let our people travel light and free on their bicycles — nothing on the back but a shirt, nothing tied to the bike but a slicker, in case of rain. Their bedrolls, their backpacks, their tents, their food and cooking kits will be trucked in for them, free of charge, to the campground of their choice in the Valley by the Park Service.” Now read an excerpt from one of several alternatives proposed by Park Service at Yosemite National Park:
Visitors would arrive at an orientation/transfer facility in the west end of the valley, at their lodging or campground, or in a gateway community and then move between destinations in the valley by shuttle bus, bicycle, or on foot. Day use visitor and out-of-park bus traffic would be intercepted at an orientation/transfer facility[.]
Okay, so Park Service makes no mention of providing the service free of charge. Still, this proposed alternative to the traffic jams that currently confront visitors to Yosemite is a dramatic first step toward Abbey’s vision of a people-friendly National Park, a vision acceptable to conservationists and ecologists as well as preservationists. Maybe Abbey was more of an environmentalist than he cared to admit.
He was also a philosopher and a teacher. He was a writer who often delved into subject matters seldom broached by any but serious philosophers. But Abbey made it accessible to the rest of us. He used a peculiarly American voice to comment on the works of Nietzche, Spinoza, and Henry David Thoreau to name but a few. Harold Alderman has said, “Edward Abbey was, of course, primarily a writer and not a philosopher.” I disagree. I think Alderman must mean that Abbey was not a professor of philosophy, as when Thoreau writes, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” Abbey was a well-educated man, extremely well-read in philosophy as well as literature, who truly lived his own personal philosophy of pacifistic anarchism in the wilderness. In Walden, Thoreau goes on to explain:
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
Edward Abbey was a philosopher. He based his philosophy on Nietzche’s social anarchism, which is itself based on individualism. But Abbey was no hermit, and his creed no misanthropic tract of violence. In his “Theory of Anarchy,” he wrote, “Anarchy is democracy taken seriously.” In his own journal he would write, “Anarchism is a secret yearning toward brotherhood. Anarchism is the demand for community.” Edward Abbey was above all else a humanist. He lived out his philosophy and expressed it, taught it to the rest of us, through his writings.
Every writer worthy of the title is a teacher, but Abbey was also a teacher of writing. For several years in the later part of his life he taught writing courses at the University of Arizona. Author Mary Sojourner took one of his classes shortly before his death, and was surprised by the man who taught the class, here quoted in Quigley:
I knew of him as a man who had a lot of judgments, who treated women as boobies, and who kept searching for younger and younger women as he grew older. I thought he stood for a lot of the qualities in men that make women so angry, all the macho bullshit. But he turned out to be a most compassionate man. We became comrades. He listened to me. He honored my writing.
Another student described Abbey as shy and awkward, but also “a sure-handed editor, thorough, tough, and good-humored.” To get an “A” in one of Abbey’s classes students had to get their work published, a standard significantly higher than most other university courses. At the same time, Abbey would use his personal influence with editors to help promising students get that “A”.
Still, without doubt, Abbey will be best remembered as a writer. It’s all he ever wanted to be. He was, in fact, a writer’s writer. He made continual references to literature, quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Robinson Jeffers, whom he admired greatly. Jeffers is today little known, but his poetry sold well in the mid-20th century. Jeffers’ poetry was often suppressed for its vehemently anti-war, anti-Rooseveltian pacifism and misanthropic tone, but Abbey found there a foil worthy of his own humanistic arguments. Consider this excerpt from Jeffers’ 1948 poem, “The Double Axe:”
But still remains the endless inhuman beauty of things;
even of humanity and human history
The inhuman beauty — and there is endurance, endurance,
death’s nobler cousin. Endurance.
Like Jeffers, Abbey insisted on de-anthropomorphizing the world so as to avoid ascribing human qualities where human qualities are only in the mind of the observer. At the same time, he argued with Jeffers’ criticism of humanity, as in this passage from Desert Solitaire: “[H]ow could I be against civilization when all which I most willingly defend and venerate — including the wilderness — is comprehended by the term?”
Abbey was often called the Thoreau of the west by reviewers (when they deigned to review his work), and he did lean heavily on Thoreau, but he was also indebted to Thoreau’s own mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his critique titled “Emerson,” Abbey wrote: “Emerson appeals not to experience, logic, sense or common sense, but to our innate idealism, our instinctive need for harmony and meaningfulness, a need which grows greater when the world grows more desperate.” The very need expressed throughout Desert Solitaire. The very desperation portrayed in The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Abbey lived and worked in a world of words. David J. Rothman writes that “Abbey was literate in the deepest sense, the point at which the written word becomes the medium of thinking, not just its tool.” He wrote to entertain, but he very deliberately wrote to effect the changes in civilization he felt we needed in order to survive, that is, the essential deconstruction of American thinking about the wilderness, about freedom. He was a very literary writer, a buzzard who gave new life to the works of others.
Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering. For most of us a promotion in grade, for some the realization of an ideal.
Edward Abbey used his typewriter like a monkey wrench, blowing up complacency in the minds of his readers. He exhorted them to action. Once, when asked if he personally would push the plunger on blowing up a dam or a bridge, Abbey said, “No, but I’d hold the flashlight.”
- Bishop, J., Jr. 1994. Epitaph For A Desert Anarchist: The Life And Legacy Of Edward Abbey
- Earth First!
- Joyce, D.J. 1999. The Environmentalist: Environmental Law and Policy
- Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac
- Quigley, P., ed. 1998. Coyote In The Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words
Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold