It's been a while since I have published a review here. It's not that I'm not reading, but I haven't been as motivated to write. But I felt this book was worth a look as I know there are a couple of people here interested in Edward Abbey. It has been 24 years since Abbey's death and I found an interesting op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune about Abbey.
Susan Zakin, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! And the Environmental Movement (Viking, 1993), 483 pages including endnotes and index.
Susan Zakin should be commended for tackling this project. For most organizations, writing a corporate history is fairly straightforward. But Earth First! wasn’t just any organization, it was a movement with roots in anarchism, creating a nearly impossible task for the historian. The challenge is to capture on paper the events of a loose group of people who defied stereotypes, despised structure, and were spread over half of the continental United States. Zakin achieves this by producing a collection of loosely related stories that provide insight into the group, but just as importantly, enjoyable reading.
1980 was a troubling year for environmentalists with the election of Ronald Reagan followed by his appointment of James Watt to lead the Interior Department. It seemed as if the remaining American wilderness areas were wide-open to exploitation and many began to question the effectiveness of more traditional organizations like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society to protect such areas. Out of this challenge rose Earth First!, a loose-knit group committed to saving wilderness areas by whatever means available. This included sabotaging equipment, spiking timber sites with spikes designed to damage saws, removing survey stakes and even blowing up power lines and ski lifts. Such actions were called “Monkey Wrenching,” a term from a 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.
From the beginning, Earth First! was made up by an eccentric group of people. Many of the members, like Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey, seemed to be walking contradictions. They enjoyed their beer and partying around the campfire. Many were at best male chauvinists, but probably a better description of them would be “sexist” in their views of women. The group definitely wasn’t politically correct (but this was a time before the label became so popular or such a death nail). They held extreme views on immigration (give the Mexicans guns and send them back home). Such extreme views often kept others who supported their positions on the wilderness and the environment from joining their ranks.
Zakin tells the story of Earth First! mostly through the eyes of its “preacher,” Dave Foreman. Foreman had grown up in the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist yet independent sect. Although he would later eschew religion, the independent views of his family’s church remained with him. In a way, like Abbey, he was an environmental libertarian. Foreman had worked for a period of time in Washington as a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society. But big cities and uncomfortable suits wasn’t Foreman’s forte, so he headed back west and help organize Earth First! The group quickly got into action pulling pranks such as creating a “crack” in the Glen Canyon Dam and mocking James Watt as he toured the National Parks around the West that were under his control.
At one point midway through the book, I began to question where Zakin was going with the story as she introduced a number of new characters and their love life with Ilse Asplund. The book took on almost a “Peyton Place” genre as she told about a drifter named Ron Fraizer meeting Ilse, followed by another lover named Mark Davis. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fraizer (who had helped teach Davis how to use a cutting torch) went to the FBI to squeal on Davis out of jealousy for his involvement with Ilse. Fraiser’s jealousy gave the FBI the break they needed to infiltrate Earth First!. Eventually, this led to the arrest of a number of the members in the late 1980s followed by a highly publicized trial in Prescott Arizona in 1990. The trial that began with a big sensation, ended in a plea bargain and most of the sentences were much lighter than they could have been. Mark Davis, convicted of destroying ski lift towers, received the longest term. Dave Foreman got off with a suspended sentence. Shortly before the crackdown, Edward Abbey had died. Afterwards, there wasn’t much left to the movement and the remaining members battled one another for the control of a newsletter with dwindling circulation.
I enjoyed Zakin’s account of Earth First!. On a personal level, her book brought back many memories for me. I’d forgotten many of the outlandish things James Watt had said even though I had helped organize a protest in his honor in 1981 when he was speaking at the North Carolina Republican State Convention. It was amazing experiencing the reaction of the delegates as some were supportive of us and agreed that Watt needed to go and others called us names (And my grandmother who lived a 100 miles away called after seeing me on the news). I was also able to get a new insight into a friend of mine and learn more about a couple of other people that I’d met when living in Utah and Nevada.
I would recommend this book for those interested in Edward Abbey and those who sought to be his disciples. However, there are limitations with the book. First of all, it was written shortly after the trial, so there a lack of distance from the events. It’s almost a quarter of a century since the trial and the death of Edward Abbey and perhaps time for another reappraisal of the movement. For anyone who might tackle such a project, Zakin’s book would provide a good base to begin such a study. Zakin book depends heavily on Dave Foreman’s memory. A new study might approach the movement through other key members.