Friday, 26 February 2010

The Users Guide to Edward Abbey

 I'm constantly amazed how in these 'green' times the language of every corporate mogul and government minister when dealing with matters of the natural environment appears to have been stolen from the vocabulary of the eco-warriors of yesteryear. As if these words actually carried any meaning coming from the mouths of spokesman who believe in economic growth over sustainability ; Who promote excessive consumption based on greed over consumption based on need. Who favour economic policies which use up the earth's finite resources and which are driven by artificially stimulated demand. Where The City is the master and the State its servant. It's all bogus Greenwash of course. As if a corporate friendly New Labour Apparatchik, The CO of Shell UK or the HSBC Bank could ever in a million years be described as 'green' in their relentless pursuit of profits. When I have restrained my urge to vomit at such hypocrisy, I turn to my guide and inspiration on all things environmental. The great US conservationist and writer Edward Abbey.

It always surprises how little known in the UK he is. I suspect that like George Orwell, Edward Abbey despite his position on the political left has always disturbed and grated against the sensibilities of  the 'right on'  liberal constituency. Something of a loose cannon to be sure. Here was a man like Orwell who ploughed his own furrow and wasn't afraid of offending political orthodoxy. For example, on immigration into the United States Abbey was unequivocal in his opposition on the grounds of ecological degradation through over population. He famously said that we should stop every illegal immigrant on the US/Mexico border give them each a rifle and send them back to their capital. Another area where he shocked the PC left was in his membership and support for the National Rifle Association. That gung-ho federation of conservatives and rednecks most of whom would quite frankly struggle with even the most basic Abbey essay!
However, these elements could be seen as minor aberrations when you consider his unrelenting opposition to big business and the over-arching state. Abbey was a registered Anarchist who in the words of The Levellers (the band, not the movement!) believed There’s only one way of  life and that's your own. Before we consider Abbey's political and environmental philosophy, the history bit.....

Edward Paul Abbey was born on January 29, 1927, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the son of a farmer and logger. After a 1944 hitchhiking trip west at 17, he served in the U.S. Army late in World War II and afterwards, then enrolled at the University of New Mexico in 1948 on the G.I. Bill, eventually earning a Master's Degree in philosophy. During this time Abbey started to write as he began concurrently to explore the back country of the Southwest in his spare time, specifically the Four Corners area (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet), otherwise known as the Colorado Plateau because it's drained by that great river.
It was among the last of Western regions to be surveyed and mapped. In 1869, John Wesley Powell was its primary explorer when he led a party in dories down the rapids-ravaged canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers from Green River, Wyoming, all the way through the Grand Canyon. It's an unforgiving region of deserts and mountains, much of it federal land, and home to a half dozen national parks. Here Abbey found the subject that was the focus of his four decades as a writer.

Abbey started as a novelist with a run into the 1960s with series of competently executed but forgettable books such as Jonathan Troy (1954), The Brave Cowboy (1956), and Fire on the Mountain (1962). The Brave Cowboy was made into Lonely Are the Brave (1962), a film starring Kirk Douglas, thus earning Abbey some much-needed Hollywood money. During this time he also churned out essays and journalism about his wanderings in "the back of beyond."
Money was tight, though, and Abbey also worked odd jobs through the 1950s and '60s. His most noteworthy employment was as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) near Moab, Utah, in 1959. This experience (along with others) culminated in the 1968 publication of Desert Solitaire, the book that made his reputation. After that, Cactus Ed became the Thoreau of the West.
Companions to Desert Solitaire are the essays found in such collections as The Journey Home (1977), Abbey's Road (1979), Down the River (1982), Beyond the Wall (1984), and One Life at a Time, Please (1988). The subjects of the essays (the form being possibly Abbey's greatest strength as a writer) vary from detailed accounts of his wanderings -- rafting the Colorado, exploring such landscape oddities as the San Rafael Swell or Big Bend National Park -- to passionate polemics against national park infrastructure development or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) policies on leasing grazing land to ranchers. The latter type showed that Abbey would have done well as an 18th-century pamphleteer. In an essay entitled "Eco-Defense," he writes: "Eco-defense is risky but sporting; unauthorized but fun; illegal but ethically imperative…Spike those trees; you won't hurt them; they'll be grateful for the protection; and you may save the forest. Loggers hate nails."

Abbey's most controversial role was only obliquely related to his work. In 1975 he published his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, a book that alongside Desert Solitaire enhanced his reputation as an environmentalist, but unlike the latter tome it has prose as purple as an Arizona sunset. The plot involves four anarchic eco-warriors who conspire to blow up Glen Canyon Dam. In a case of life imitates art, the book inspired the establishment of a notorious radical green group in 1980 known as Earth First! with Abbey as a charter member. Other noteworthy members were activist/writers Doug Peacock and Dave Foreman. Earth First! "membership" was and remains (to the extent that it even exists today) anonymous and shadowy, as it's known for acts of "monkey wrenching" of earthmoving and logging equipment, spiking trees, stealing survey stakes, cutting wire fences, and so on. "Earth First!" has spawned ancillary groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which was active before its downfall at the hands of the FBI in 2006.
 When he died of esophageal hemorrhaging on March 14th 1989 aged just 62. His closest friends packed him in his old sleeping bag, placed him on the back of a flat bed pick up truck and drove out into the desert, stopping off en-route to buy several crates of beer and whisky. He was buried illegally in a remote spot which remains secret to this day. Nearby lies a rudely carved stone which simply reads..' Edward Paul Abbey 1927-1989...No Comment' And there he lies to this day, pushing up the cactus and sage bush.
Thankfully Abbey was prolific in his literary output and has left us with a wide selection of fiction, poetry, conservation narratives ,essays letters, journals and photo essay tomes which preserve his unique voice with an enduring clarity and totally apposite perspective on these strange days we live in in the 21st century. 
Despite his spiritual and philosophical rootedness in the rolling expanses of the American South West, Abbey speaks for anyone who values the natural environment over its exploitation for crude financial gain and political expediency. As I write these words our corporate friendly government has given the energy corporations carte blanche to desecrate many of our most fragile iconic landscapes with industrial scale wind power plants. Such a policy would appall Abbey who I'm sure if writing The Monkey Wrench Gang in 2010 would have added these brutal structures which symbolise the great 'green' con to his gang's list of targets! In an age when the state and the global corporations in whose interests it governs, the so called 'Green' Movement and ALL political parties have coalesced into one faceless machine,at least I can only try and comfort my frustration by remembering what Abbey said on this vexing issue..........

Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion

Recommended Edward Abbey reading: Desert Solitaire: The Monkey Wrench Gang:  Down the River: The Journey Home: One life at a time please: Abbey's Road: Postcards from Ed:A voice crying in the wilderness.

John Appleby©2010