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.