Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Edward Abbey, RIP

Years ago I met Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkeywrench Gang, in Tucson. Abbey was a legend by then - an ailing one - and he provided me not just with contacts but also with a vision of the West and what he thought was at stake there, all of which was immeasurably helpful. I had read his book and later he read mine - The Kingdom in the Country - and sent me the note above, unsolicited, that hangs on the wall of my study today.
Here's the section of the book devoted to that meeting with Abbey:
     There was another side to the environmental movement, one unconcerned with "the system." Its members would have scoffed at the orderly meeting on the banks of the Escalante, and such civilized objectives. They favored something called ecotage — ecological sabotage, a leafy version of bomb-throwing.
I heard about ecotage first from the Western writer Edward Abbey, a former Forest Service employee. In 1968 Abbey had written a book called Desert Solitaire, which found a wide audience. The book was an evocative narrative of canyonland life in the service of the federal government, and it aroused my interest in the arid West. The author seemed fractious but informed, moved by an old sixties countercultural impulse. He had greatly augmented his following with the subsequent environmental thriller, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which was an inspiration for ecotage —  uncivil disobedience that included shooting holes in the radiators of FS bulldozers, all in the interest of the untrammeled land.
I telephoned Abbey when I was in Tucson, where he lives. We made arrangements to have lunch the next day at the Holiday Inn. It seemed odd to meet one of the foremost advocates of the undeveloped West in the symbol of instant American ease, but Abbey liked the stir-fry there, and the Holiday Inn was convenient.
The restaurant was deserted when we arrived together. I had expected a brawny embodiment of the voice of Desert Solitaire, not a rangy fifty-eight-year-old in a Cat hat and wrinkled cords. The waitress appraised Abbey's beard and rubber sandals but showed us to a table anyway. I had heard stories about Abbey: he was a hard-drinking, four-square extrovert with four wives and five children, or five wives and four children; he hated cities and Eastern reporters and refused to be interviewed; a bleeding pancreas had almost killed him a few months before.
That last story was true, he said. "Too much booze, too much aspirin."
He lived with his fifth wife and two of his four children,
one of them a baby girl. He was writing a novel and teaching part-time at the University of Arizona. "It keeps me from becoming a hermit," he said. "I'd prefer to live out in the country, but my family likes it here."
From his back yard ten miles outside Tucson he could see plenty of public land; its development had been the focus of most of his writing. "The public lands have been exploited and continue to be. It's important to resist, to slow it down, hoping against hope that people will change their views, or that we'll have an economic collapse. I'm counting on biology to bail us out — famine, plague, anything short of nuclear war."
Desert Solitaire had made him slightly famous; renewed movie options on The Monkey Wrench Gang kept him slightly rich, at least by the standards of retired seasonal rangers.
In The Monkey Wrench Gang, a group of ecotagists attempt to destroy a dam on the Colorado River. "I wrote it to vent my spleen and indulge my fantasies. It's a funny book, but I'm serious about ecological sabotage. At readings I advocate illegal action, and catch hell from editorial writers.
"Politics isn't enough anymore. Our representative democracy has broken down, the politicians represent only those interests that finance their elections. You must have some recourse — free-lance sabotage is the only thing left."
I asked about what seemed to be a violent aesthetic.
"I see it as a force against violence," Abbey said. "I've attacked machines in the national forests threatened with logging. I've spiked a few trees offered by the Forest Service to the highest bidder — a commercial buzz saw can be ruined with a single heavy nail. After you spike trees, you call up the logging company about to bid on the timber and tell them about it. That way we save both the buzz saws and the trees."
The Forest Service then had to go around with a metal detector, trying to find the spikes. "We have a little war going on out here between the preservers and the developers. Sugar and sand in crankcases, handgun blasts to radiators. I wouldn't urge anyone to do what I wouldn't do myself."
He asked the waitress to warm up his stir-fry.
"I think of the public lands as a whole, administered from Washington," he went on. "I wish a century ago we had had enough sense to set aside the entire West as a wilderness preserve. I'd move back east right now if everyone else would. I'd go back to Europe if the Indians would go back to Siberia."
He came west from a hardscrabble farm in western Pennsylvania forty years before, hitchhiking, and fell in love with the country. With money from the GI Bill he studied philosophy at the University of New Mexico, Yale, and Edinburgh University, and he worked summers for the Park and Forest services. "I had academic ambitions, but I gave them up when I realized I could make a marginal living as a seasonal ranger. I used to be able to pick my park out of half a dozen choices every spring. It was a good life, and a good life for a writer."
The journal he kept, which became Desert Solitaire, carries the immediacy and detail of something written quickly, in the heat of discovery; in fact it took ten years. "I've been a welfare case worker in Brooklyn. I lived with a painter once in Hoboken, and New York. I've seen the bottom side of the urban world. We should limit our numbers and demands, and let half the planet remain undisturbed — a fifty-fifty split. We should reduce the population of the United States to, say, fifty million through incentives and tax bonuses for fewer children. But we'll keep drifting from disaster to disaster, as humans always do."
"You haven't set much of an example of population control." 
"Four children by five wives is a modest rate," he said. "Every woman is entitled to one child. If she's able and willing to be a full-time mother. Women who prefer other careers should not have babies."
The waitress was pouring more coffee; Abbey's comment sent her eyes rolling back in her head. "We're trying to close," she said.
"I don't want to leave you with the impression that life is all gloom and doom," Abbey told me. "Personally, I'm very happy. I have a good life, I make my living as a writer, and I don't work too hard. I'll be a father to a teenager while in my seventies — a fantastic prospect.
Abbey died in 1989 and was buried by friends in an unrecorded grave somewhere in the desert near Tucson. He was 62 years old.
  Paul Worsterberg has left a new comment: "very cool. i'll check this out. there is something about the west, the land, a car (or van), and freedom. it's a magic combo." 
To order go to: http://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Country-Journey-through-American-ebook/dp/B00HOHRJPQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1389127371&sr=8-2&keywords=james+conaway+kingdom+in+the+country

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