Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Remembering Edward Abbey

I'm not sure where the picture to the right originially came from, but it's found all over the internet and I borrowed it from his biography in "biocrawler." The link also has a good yet brief bio of Abbey.

Back in the late 70s, while loitering around bridges over the Haw River in Chatham County, I’d BS with other boaters about how we might blow up the B. Everett Jordan Dam. At that time, the Haw River was still flowing unrestricted and contained the best whitewater in Central North Carolina (and some of the best in the state). When the river gauge was at three feet, there was a ten foot standing wave at the first big rapid; I believe it was called "Gabriel’s Trumpet." If the water was that high, open boats foolish enough to run the river got in trouble at this point. Afterwards, the river continued to be exciting, ending up with a magnificent pipeline, a continual drop that was a thrill to shoot in a kayak. By the time I started paddling, it was known our little piece of heaven was going to be short-lived. The lawsuits that had blocked the closing of the dam were ending and soon the lower Haw would become a lake.

A decade after those talks about blowing up the dam, I began reading Edward Abbey. His fast paced novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, is about a collective group of misfits trying to save the West and always having in the back of their mind the idea of blowing up the Glen Canyon dam and draining Lake Powell. Upon reading my first Abbey book, I knew I’d met a kindred soul and in the late 80s and early 90s, I read almost all of his books. Abbey died in 1989. But seventeen years after his death, his words still haunt and criticize.

This month’s issue of The Sun has a collection of letters from the philosophical desert redneck. He was contrary man and these letters confirms it. “A writer must be hard to live with,” he acknowledged. “When not working he is miserable and when working he is obsessed… I write mainly for the fun of it, the hell of it, duty of it, I enjoy writing and will probably be a scribbler till my dying day, sprawled on some stony trail halfway between two dry watering holes.” Although contrary, Abbey maintained that to be honest, he had to be a critic of the society in which he lived.

These letters are show Abbey’s long term optimism for the world (after we humans destroy nature, Abbey felt nature would regenerate itself). However, he was really concerned about the world his children and grandchildren would inherit. He felt the next few generations are going to horrible. Although a critic of Western religions, he drew from Scripture in his writings and noted that the book of Ecclesiastes was a favorite. Yet, in these letters he makes sure that its understood that just because he’s critical of Western religions doesn’t mean he thinks we can find the answer in Eastern Religions. He condemned “Orientalizers,” those who think that we can find an ecological answer in Eastern practices. In typical “redneck fashion,” he notes that the countries from where these practices arise are the most polluted and hopeless places on the globe. Although Abbey may disagree with me, I’ve pondered if he wasn’t influenced like Mark Twain, with a Calvinistic cynicism toward the human race.

It's hard to know how to peg Abbey. He didn't fit nearly into boxes and reconigized this. In a letter to the Tucson Weekly, he lashed out at both conservatives and liberals, noting that some think he's "right winged" because he opposes immigration and massive taxpayer funding for nursing the terminally sick. But then he admits that those on the "right-wing" think he's "left-winged" because he opposes "Washington's muderous polices in Latin America and planetary war on Nature. "What neither wig can grasp is that the bird of truth--like the falcon! the eagle! the yellow-bellied sapsucker!--flies on two wings. Not one. Two," he wrote.

Abbey’s writings often inspire and encourage people to get up and moving. “Action, there’s the thing. Action! When I grow sick with the buzzing of the brain, I like to go climb a rock. Cut down a billboard. Disable a bulldozer (Eine kleine Nachtwerek) Climb a mountain. Run a rapid. Pursue a woman. Etc,” he wrote. To a woman who asked him for a suggestion of a good place to go 4-wheeling, he responded with a sharp critique: “What’s wrong with the horse? Or the burro? Or the bicycle? Or even, God help us, the human foot? Why should not Americans learn to walk again? There is this to be said for walking: it is the one method of human locomotion by which a man or a woman proceed erect, upright, proud and independent, not squatting on our haunches like a frog.”

Abbey even managed to give native Michigander Jim Harrison a backhand compliment when he responded to his book, Sun Dog. “I admire more than ever, the power and grace of your style, the vivid rendering of the physical scene—you manage to make even Michigan sound like a land of splendor and mystery.” But then Abbey sharpened his criticism, “But why for god sake why did you have to make the hero of your book this goddamn Bechtel Corporation type, this sleazy asshole of a construction engineer who flies (first class always) around the world building more and more useless, destructive, ugly and wasteful dams. Why?” He even attacked another of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, for being a farmer whose idea of wilderness is"a weedy fencerow between plowed fields." (Berry has a favorable essay on Abbey in What are People FOR?)

If you are a fan of Edward Abbey’s, check these letters out. However, if you’ve never read him, pick up the Monkey Wrench Gang or Desert Solitaire or A Fool’s Progress. According to one of his letters, Abbey considered his last novel that was published before his death, A Fool’s Progress,” to be his best. Perhaps more telling, his personal favorites were Black Sun (a gem, yet the closest thing he wrote to Chic Lit) and Fire on the Mountain (a futuristic novel and one I haven't read).


  1. My problem with Abbey is that he advocated for eco-terrorism, which is a problem for the environment as well. If the Glen Canyon dam were to be blown up, it would destroy the ecology that has grown up around that area. There are now new species that have developed in the area. There are new plants that populate the banks below the dam. Were the dam to be destroyed, all of those would also be destroyed. I'm much more of an advocated for sustainable development in which we can find peace between growth and the natural world.

    Growth is inevitable because people, on the whole, are greedy. Finding a way to do that with our environment in mind is not only prudent but beneficial to all of us.

  2. Dawn - As someone who has been down the entire length of the Grand Canyon below the Glen Canyon dam, I can assure you that there aren't any new species that aren't found abundantly elsewhere and in fact, the species that do grow there are not substainable due to lack of siltation. Only in recent years with the temporary floodings have scientists worked to artificially substain what man took away. In fact, the only species that I can think of that would be affected would be humans in the form of tourism lost in one part but gained in another. And even tourism around Lake Powell and Lake Mead aren't what they used to be thanks to a severe drouth that has been going on for nearly a decade and leaving marinas high and dry.

    On a different note, I too have problems with Edward's ecoterrorism support if you can call it that. He really didn't support it but he didn't discourage it either. I think there are better ways to accomplish things and by the time ecoterrorism becomes an option, it is usually too late to stop anything.

    Sage - I'm kind of like Seldom Seen in the Monkey Wrench Gang in that I pray for a precision earthquake to strike the Glen Canyon Dam.

    Another good source of information on Edward Abbey can be found at

    A couple more books that I would suggest having read them all are

    The Brave Cowboy (a fictional story but an excellent one)

    Slickrock (which is more of a coffee table book)

    Down the River (the book that inspired me to float down the river as Abbey did in a wooden dory.)

    The Journey Home (which is based upon Abbey's personal life though is classified as fiction)

    The Place No One Knew (Though not authored by Abbey, he wrote a lot of what went into the book and for those of us who never got to see Glen Canyon before the bathtub called Lake Powell was installed, a poignant reminder of what we lost with that damn dam.

    Though you mentioned it, my personal favorite is always Desert Solitaire.

  3. i'd never heard of him.. though that doesn't suprise me.

    he sounds pretty interesting, i like contrary poeple generally :)

  4. Dawn, I agree with Ed that Edward wasn't really a supporter of eco-terrorism, but then he really didn't do anything to stop it. I see the Monkey Wrench Gang as being a comic tale, I don't think he really believed or wanted the Glen Canyon dam blown up--just like we weren't going to blow up the Jordan Dam, but writing (and our talking) about blowing up the dams was a way to vent flustration--however, after Oklahoma City and 911, such vents are no longer acceptable.

    Ed, great suggestions. BTW, The Brave Cowboy was made into a movie in the late 50s or early 60s. The movie is titled Lonely the Brave or something like that--it's in B&W.

    Keda, pick up one of his books and read it, if you like contrary, you'll like 'em!

  5. Your comments on Abbey's comments on nature out living us reminded me of my month long journey down the Grand Canyon. I went a couple years after the manmade flood and was surprised to see how much was restored and refreshed in such a short period of time. However, it was obvious that it would never last if the flooding wasn't repeated seasonally. When down on Lake Mead, which I figured would pretty much destroy the canyons along with Lake Powell, I was surprised to see the 'bathtub ring' already flaking off and side canyons once underwater already being 'flushed' of silt and trash. It was beautiful, right up until I got down to the canyons still under water and where oil slicks and trash covered the surface.

    I do believe Abbey was right that the Earth will live on long after we have killed ourselves off.

  6. By the way, excellent post. You really awakened something in me today.

  7. This fellow does sound like a rather interesting character. But I often like folks who neither fit on the left or the right or the center for that matter. I don't think life allows us to be categorize so neatly at least if we are healthy human beings in soul, mind, and body all together.

  8. I need to get cracking on my 'Sage's Book Club' list before I have a full page of titles.

    Thanks for teaching me more about Ed's namesake.

  9. sounds like a character worth reading

  10. The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

    The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

    Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
    Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
    Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
    Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

    Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

    If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

    Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

    When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

    There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

    People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

    Emotion ends.

    Man becomes machine.

    A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





    To read the complete article please follow either of these links :




  11. Wow, that was interesting, sushil.

    I've tried to read Abbey, but I find him a little impulsive and cranky, and I seem to remember him saying things about women that didn't sound very accurate/deeply-considered.

    Because his opinions are so forceful and he's generally charismatic, I find that younger readers who might not yet have the maturity to know their own ideas (as opposed to their ideals) take the philosophy behind his words a little too far. I won't give an example right now, but. . .

    I've been to Lake Powell. The shores were covered with garbage. Death's shore. I don't know why people take their families there to drive their motorboats. Very sad.

  12. Ed, it looks like i've awakened all kinds of things.

    Tim, I should note that Abbey is also harsh, his language is--let's say--colorful, and he does--as Ing points out--says some harsh things about women. But he's also fun to read.

    Murf & Kontan, enjoying reading!

    Sushil, thanks for stopping by, interesting thoughts.

    Ing, good point about people acting on his works... Lake Powell is beautiful, but as you say also a mess--which is why you get when you have so many motorboats, houseboats and those blanky-blank jetskis.

  13. I have collected all his works except for Jonathon Troy which I haven't been able to find a copy in my price range and Slumulligan Stew for the same reason. I also have quite a few books about him or that he helped create in one way or another. Most of them I have read more than once, some quite a few more times than others.

    Not all are great but most are good if for no other reason than his writing style which I envy and the reason I chose his name as my moniker. He used to write a book and then spend an equal amount of time slashing and dicing unneccessary wording out until it was tight and masterfully woven together. I have tried for years to immitate his style and I am still nowhere near to doing so.

  14. Why, Sage, do you have issues with jet skis? I'll have to add that to my list of what I hope you write about someday. That falls a distant second behind stories of ex-girlfriends though.

  15. ((((jeff!!!!)))) as i was reading this entry, i was telling myself to try white water rafting soon. that of course had been in my mind since last year.

    on the serious side, it's a common problem ~ how do we conserve this natral treasures of the earth for the future generation.

    I've scanned your entries...((((wow)))) you've been out on the road again. must really be a good climb.

    was really good to hear from you. i seldom update these days. toastmasters has really been another venue for self expression.

  16. Ed, I haven't read J. Troy, Fire on the Mt or the Slug Stew book--I think I've read most of his other books and have all but a few that I borrowed and at least one that I lent out and hasn't returned.

    Murf, should I also write about my disdain for snowmobiling?

    Transient--yeah, i've been on the road a bit, but no more trips till 2007.

  17. *sits back and watches someone's cover blow by*

    So you hate things with engines and skis, eh? Interesting.

  18. My only experience with the work of Edward Abbey is what I've read on your blog Sage. As others have mentioned this is a great post introducing Abbey and his philosophy to the novice. And, of course, tying in the new letters of his that the Sun Magazine has published. Abbey seems to be a prominent author/figure in your own biography Sage. And that speaks highly of the man. I'll definitely have to check out his books.

  19. Murf, things that make a lot of noise and are not enviromental friendly do then to get me upset.

    V, I'm chewing on your comment about Abbey playing a prominent role in my biography. Having read so much of his work, he certainly has had an influence. And there is no doubt that I enjoy being outdoors and am very much at home in the wild. Yet, much of my life is spent in offices, behind the computer screen, nose in books, etc. I wonder if Abbey might be my Alter-ego. Here in this blog, I tend to post only pictures of me outdoors, dirty and sweaty, not like I am today with an oxford shirt, tie, wingtips, wool trousers, etc. I can't see Abbey dressed like this--and I'm envious.

  20. Wow Sage. You always bring me out of myself and into another world

    Now I want to take the Abbey quote and put it on my sidebar--and front apartment door

    The only people worth knowing have contrary pov's. To follow a line, any line, makes a person unable to turn corners, and think for themelves.

  21. Is a jet ski or snowmobile that much louder than a full-sized American-made pick up truck?

  22. By the way, Sage..that's still quite a fetching picture of yourself.

  23. a new author to check out at the used book store, thank you
    michele thanks you

  24. I've never heard of him, but now I'm intrigued.

    Michele sent me.

  25. I will look for some of his books, Sage.

    I haven't seen The Sun magazine for about 30 years. Thanks for the link; I will check it out.

  26. Pia, sometimes I wonder if I'm too contrary

    Murf, yes, they're louder than MY TRUCK and pollute more too--these imported two cycle engines don't have to meet very rigid codes

    David and Susie, thanks for stopping by

    Kenju, good to see you back home! I didn't realize Sun was that old.

  27. Wandered over here from Tim Rice's blog, and lo and behold a whole stew-pot burbling about ol' Ed.

    Ed Abbey made the desert intelligible to me (not that the desert needed to be explained to anyone, but his Desert Solitaire helped me "get" its ornery beauty.)

    Ed Abbey made me laugh so hard if I had been drinking a beer while reading him I would have snorted it out my nose.

    One of my brothers saw Ed Abbey in a used bookstore in Flagstaff Arizona, looking like he'd been sleeping under a rock...which he may very well have been.

    Anyhoo, more fave related authors:
    Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces, and don't forget John Wesley Powell's The exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons.

    I like Abbey's work because he generally wrote well, was a bristly contrarian, and could shape a story where place was as much a vital character as any of the characters -- and so, viva Ed!

  28. Lori, thanks for stopping by. I loved Ehrlich's book! I've read only parts of Powell's.