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).