Is Abbey worth finding?

There is a swirling controversy about Ed Abbey. Was he an alcoholic? He died of a condition related to cirrhosis of the liver, a bleeding esophagus. His friends are highly defensive of him, almost making him out to be a teetotaler.

But wait! Who was Ed Abbey? I spent quite a few years in Montana Wilderness Association, before it was body snatched, and during that time everyone I knew had read Abbey, or claimed to have read him. During and since that time I have read most of his work.

Abbey died in 1989, at age 62. By literary standards, he left behind only a modest body of work, fiction and essays. His most famous was The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). It’s forgettable, in my view. The Brave Cowboy (1956) is better, as the characters are more real and less caricature. The Cowboy in that work reappears in later works, but is never named as such. Fools Progress, I am told, is modeled on Don Quixote, so that if you have read the latter you’ll see it in the former. I have not read the latter.

Sometime in the early 90s a friend of mine in California just up and surprised me with a book in the mail, one called Desert Solitaire. It’s a collection of essays by Abbey published in 1968. I had never heard of it or him. It is riveting. In part of it crews are staking out roads for Arches National Monument. Abbey, working the booth at the entrance, would go around behind them, and pull their stakes out. Whatever Arches was, when the roads came, he knew it would be no more.

Desert Solitaire is a lamentation of the disappearance of the American West. It’s one of those books that can be read again and again, never losing flavor. Maybe like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, maybe … Abbey had no idea he was writing a classic. He was just writing.

I learned to love Abbey. I found his essays, especially his river trips, far more enjoyable than his fiction. I found him brutally frank. Honest is the word I am looking for. He pursued truth. His motto was to do that, to follow truth, no matter where it takes you. I think that is my motto too, though I do not know that I have one. I do pursue truth. I do not care where it takes me. Maybe I am like Edward Abbey. That would please me immensely, even to be somewhat like him.

Ed Abbey went to Missoula to speak one time. He spoke out against welfare ranchers, the men in big hats and egos with big fat subsidies. Like every town, the power structure in Missoula is built around land and private wealth. People are allowed to imagine their town to be characterized by the people that live there. Missoula is perceived to be liberal, as are many of its residents.

But Missoula is right wing and redneck. Abbey learned that. No. Abbey already knew that. He just did not care to be polite to the power structure while there. He left a mark.

Abbey always managed to have an existing wife and prospective one at once. He complained of population as he fathered five children. He confessed to being “manic depressive” in his private journal. He is sometimes credited with founding Earth First!, though he did not. I have long suspected that EF! served government interests more than environmental, serving to brand the movement as violent, behaving as agents provocateur. But what do I know?

I have a computer file full of Abbeyisms … “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell'” “It is true that wolves eat sheep. They question is, do they eat enough sheep?” Or coyotes. He once observed that losing a few Boy Scouts each year in the wilderness was a necessity … if it was not dangerous, it was not truly wilderness.

I was told one time that Aldo Leopold did the best justification for having wilderness in his Sand County Almanac. I read it, found it syrupy, even wimpy. Abbey, I suppose, has specific words on the subject, but testimony to wilderness is his life in and near it. He never compromised. It challenged him, he never backed away from the challenge. He said earth had nurtured his body for six decades, and he owed earth a meal. His own body.

When he died his friends and family put his body in a pickup truck and took him to an undisclosed location in his beloved desert and buried him under a pile of rocks. His hand-carved headstone reads “Edward Abbey 1927-1989. No Comment.” It’s location is still unknown to any but friends and family.

I am reading “Finding Abbey,” by Sean Prentiss, a Montana State University graduate with Colorado roots. It is a search for self, Abbey’s grave as the metaphorical destiny. Abbey affected Prentiss just as he affected me and so many others, knocking our city comforts aside, making us long for the rugged life outside of the confines of civility and law. I suppose you could call it anarchism – in fact, Abbey’s friend and editor claims his greatest achievement to be the marrying wilderness and anarchy.

Oh – I almost forgot – was Ed Abbey an alcoholic? I don’t know. Who cares.

About Mark Tokarski

Just a man who likes to read, argue, and occasionally be surprised.
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11 Responses to Is Abbey worth finding?

  1. steve kelly says:

    Abbey also earned a masters degree in philosophy. He was a much-needed philosopher for a generation forced to watch the strangulation of art, music, dance, philosophy and most everything else with any connection to pursuit of the “liberal arts.” Abbey articulated our connections to nature and free-thinking, outside the corrupt institutions of our day that exist to exploit, enslave and monitize all lifeforms. Anarchist or explorer, writer or creative thinker, no category does the man justice — an ordinary individual with an extrordinary gift he shared with grace.

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  2. JC says:

    I have a hard time with the romanticizing and pedastalizing of Abbey. I just got done reading a piece about Doug Peacock in Salon (I know, I know… Salon) by David Gessner. There is a whole lot of historical revisioning going on. What all this writing about “finding oneself” like Prentice and Gessner tells me is that people have forgotten the immediacy and impact authors like Abbey and Peacock had. They spurred a generation into action. What is all this self-discovery doing but validating that one cares about history?

    Abbey didn’t “found” EF! Though his writings did help other people do so. Many of us were well on our way to a different form of activism as a result of Abbey and others’ writings. EF! was just an opportunity to coalesce that activism into a new breed of organization. And yes, EF! was a convenient place for the government and industry to infiltrate for a variety of reasons. But the truth is that several generations of activists who whittled their environmentalism around themes that Abbey popularized (Wilderness and biodiversity) are still hard at work protecting the landscape. Abbey’s legacy is carried through them, and the organizations they work for (no name dropping here, the list is extensive), not through the navel gazing of the likes of Gessner and Prentice, and a whole host of others in the “finding Abbey” movement.

    If people want to find Abbey, read his books, and get involved in activities working to preserve wilderness and biodiversity. All the rest is make-believe feel-good pablum meant to sell books, magazines and blog posts. Abbey is best found fighting for the values he stood for and wrote about.

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  3. Thank you both for chiming in here. I guess a point I did not make clear enough, regarding his alcoholism, is “so what?” His philandering? His hypocrisy? It is all there for us to find, and easy to find. The only thing that matters is his writing.

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    • JC says:

      To you your “so what” I would answer that Ed Abbey was human. And being so, he is prone (as are we all) to the problems associated with it. While it may be easy to say that the only thing that matters is his writing, to those of us who met him, it was a lot more than that. His inspiration came not just from his writings, but from his personage and dedication to his life’s work.

      It is no small coincidence that alcoholism is rampant around the creative souls, and among people who are sensitive to the world around them. It is a defense from the atrocities that have been perpetrated against a defenseless ecosystem.

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      • reading Desert Solitaire my first year in college smacked me good. and I love Fool’s Progress. His writing in critically important because he saw and described in stripped-away detail how sick our society was, and he knew what we would continue to do.

        one thing I’m curious about, Mark, is your seemingly callous opinion of addiction. I’m thinking of something you said in another post, but I’m not going to waste my time trying to find it.

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  4. rightsaidfred says:

    But Missoula is right wing and redneck.

    That tends to go with places that have low crime and a low cost of living. We should have more such places.

    He complained of population as he fathered five children.

    I would suggest he should have had 15 children. In an overpopulated world, quality trumps quantity. We need more thoughtful and literate people, not what we seem to be getting with modern demographics.

    It is so blazingly backwards that those who are concerned with overpopulation stop having kids. We need to encourage the irresponsible not to fill the earth some more, while more Edward Abbeys could help us to a better stage. It is like announcing there are too many cars in the world, then crushing your new hybrid. Meanwhile, fleets of rusted out Fiats and smoking Suburbans roar around the countryside.

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