Edward Abbey was the original environmental monkey-wrencher. His popularity is resurgent—maybe just in time.
Although it’s been nearly three decades since Edward Abbey drained his last can of beer and flung it onto a Forest Service byway, the author’s suasive prose and thorny legacy still thrive within certain enclaves, including those of the disaffected youth, thank goodness, who seem to arrive with each generation like the hardy grasses that poke through buckled concrete. By the time they find Abbey, they’ve dispatched their Thoreau and von Mises, and they’re thirsty for stouter brew. (We’ll forgive them their late-model SUVs and Sprinter vans.) To them, Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang are as necessary worldview additives as Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and some, charmed by Abbey’s not-so-subtle call to agitate, have Googled up the public domain copy of “Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching,” compiled by “Various Authors,” like “T.O. Hellenbach” (but actually written by Abbey’s best-known disciple, Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First!).
Whether these latter-day eco-warriors have employed the necessary hammers, wrenches and granulated sugar to wreak destruction on various species of Caterpillar, they’re not saying. Perhaps more inspired by Bill McKibben’s call for a sensible middle path, they’ve traded hardware for social media and video cameras, which are probably stickier stuff than Karo Syrup five decades removed from the more physical strain of civil disobedience that once swept the country. All the same, you can almost hear Abbey wailing from the depths of his unmarked grave, “What we need here is a little precision earthquake.” Fortunately, many still have their ears to the ground. After 26 years of repose under the hardpan of the Dark Head Wilderness, a temblor of sorts has disinterred Abbey’s spirit, and he’s being feted more this year than any other in recent memory. Apparently, Abbey is needed.
This April, W.W. Norton released All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West (see sidebar), written by the “don’t call me a nature writer,” David Gessner, who interweaves Abbey’s unrepentant wildness and Stegner’s brainy restraint as he follows their separate but ultimately conjoined ideological perambulations through the Western states while reflecting on his own environmental coming of age. Gessner, an irreverent ecocritic himself who not only possesses a—gasp—sense of humor, but who also boldly paddles and wades into the raw material he celebrates in his writing, has been blogging about Abbey as of late in anticipation of the book’s release. In a recent piece for Orion, he describes the 130-page file the FBI compiled on Abbey, and ponders how Cactus Ed would have fared in post-9/11 society; he surmises that Abbey could have found himself behind bars. As for Abbey’s relevance and sustained appeal, indeed; Gessner gives a nod to those who still read him and the millions who have been inspired by him, including his own self.
In May, University of New Mexico Press—of Abbey’s alma mater—released Sean Prentiss’ Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, a travelogue-cum memoir-cum-biography in which Prentiss describes his quest to, well, find Abbey’s hidden desert grave. Prentiss, a barrel-chested teacher of creative writing and self-propelled sports enthusiast, logged 7,000 miles trailing Abbey’s literary spoor, from his birthplace in Pennsylvania to his current place of repose somewhere in Arizona. He meets up with several of Abbey’s cronies—Jack Loeffler, Dave Petersen and Ken Sleight (a.k.a. Seldom Scene Smith)—and listens as they explain how Abbey’s worldview affected their own. “Just having a wilderness to disappear into, when you’re in outlaw environmentalist mode, is a comforting thought,” Loeffler tells Prentiss. Does Prentiss find Abbey’s grave? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but it would appear that Prentiss found something more about himself as he crisscrossed the dun backroads of the desert Southwest.
Abbey appears on film this year in at least two features and an animated short. First, he makes a cameo in Yvon Chouinard’s new award-winning documentary DamNation, a film that deconstructs the pseudo-science that spurred the construction of 75,000 dams in this country. The film, which for its blending of history and artistry is deserving of the accolades being heaped upon it, should have been dedicated to Abbey, because the movie’s denouement was directly inspired by his writing.
But it’s not until an hour into the film that we catch a glimpse of him, standing atop a parapet downstream of the Glen Canyon Dam, calmly advocating for “sabotage and subversion as a last resort,” in his stiff-jawed baritone. Who knew the guy was so photogenic? Scrap the beard, and he’s a cross between Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, with a voice like the latter’s. This Abbey-inspired documentary, which is as beautiful as it is educational, is worth seeing for no other reason than to watch the stunning Katie Lee and friends cavorting through “the place no one knew,” the magical stretch of the Colorado so poignantly described by Abbey in Desert Solitaire, now submerged due to the Glen Canyon Dam.
The organizers of this year’s Wild and Scenic Film Festival screened a two-minute short, “A Line in the Sand,” produced by Justin Clifton and Chris Cresci and created by motion graphics and 3-D artists Barry Thompson and Eric Bucy of Half Wild Studios. The film is a graphic meditation on some of Abbey’s more pungent quotes, which are spoken by voice actor John Drew.
Finally, Abbey stars in Wrenched, a 90-minute feature film by director ML Lincoln, which describes the arc of the environmental direct action movement, a.k.a. monkey-wrenching, inspired in large part by the book of the same name. While Wrenched isn’t exactly a biopic, Abbey plays a central role as the one literary agitator to rule them all. Loeffler and Sleight are joined by Dave Foreman, Doug Peacock, Robert Redford, R. Crumb, Terry Tempest-Williams and bookstore owner Ken Sanders, among others, to discuss Abbey’s influence on the movement.
“I started reading Edward Abbey when I was 18,” says Tim DeChristopher, a Gen Xer who committed financial fraud to protect land threatened by oil and gas extraction. “I was old enough to understand it, but not quite old enough to realize that it wasn’t a manual.”
Which brings us right back to Gessner, who claims that those who have walked Abbey’s path, like others inspired by the prose of powerful writers, were perhaps looking for something like a father figure. “A hunger for models. For possibilities. For how to be in the world.” Abbey, for his part, wanted none of it. Sounding a lot like Bob Dylan, Abbey called himself an entertainer. “I have no desire to be a leader of any kind. I dislike being called a guru. I think every man should be his own guru. Every woman their own gurette. We should all be leaders.”
All the same, Abbey’s measured voice sounds fairly guru-like these days in light of the dark news that continues to pour out of science journals like turbid water from a breached dam. The appeal of his good-natured orneriness, and satirical pissed-offness, is a refreshing tonic after too many years of science-speak and hedging and soundbites carefully parsed so as to not startle the electorate. While he was living, Abbey laid it out plainly, calmly, sans bullshit. Overpopulation. Capitalism. Man’s perceived dominion over nature.
“Most humans do not have the self-control to refrain from using that power,” Abbey told his friend Loeffler in a taped interview.
Gessner is a kind of nature writer gone wild, although he’s exquisitely self-aware, brutally honest about his own peccadilloes, and like Abbey, he takes literary risks. While he falls well short of advocating for the destruction of amortizable assets, he’s the guy who dished on Thoreauvian nature writing as an exercise in preaching to the converted. Here he acts as a literary historiographer who stops short of tracking his quarry to his final resting place.
“I knew I would likely be able to find the spot,” writes Gessner of Abbey’s tomb. “I had good contacts, old friends of Ed’s, and thought it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out the location. But when I got to the Abbey library in Tucson, I changed my mind. … I decided, finally, that I would let the poor man rest in peace.”
Rest in peace? Not this year.