Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight

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In 1956 and 1957, a young, iconoclastic writer with a GI Bill education and an FBI dossier found employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in remote and desolate southeast Utah.  While working there, he lived alone in a trailer.  He met and conversed with tourists and a few rangers and ranchers, but he was alone for most of the time.  His solitude allowed him to do a lot of observing and thinking.  Ten years later he published a book about his time at Arches, entitled “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.”

I just finished reading the book.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as evocative and hard-hitting.  So I’m devoting this post to “Desert Solitaire” and the philosophy of Edward Abbey, who died 25 years ago Friday at age 62.

Wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.

Abbey’s writings contributed to modern radical environmentalism; he was a spiritual father to both Earth First! and Greenpeace.  But he was around long before the word “environmentalist” even existed.  Blunt in his opinions, a man whose pen was both poetic and fierce, and who raged against government, the military-industrial complex, unrestrained technology, industrial tourism, and agri-business, Abbey recognized as far back as the 1950s that America was rapidly losing large chunks of pristine wilderness areas… and that desert wilderness isn’t just barren wasteland, but it possesses its own unique vibrancy, mysticism, and spirituality.

Motionless and silent (the desert) evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed… Once caught by this golden lure, you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.

cartoon abbeyAbbey found grandeur everywhere he looked: in the “red-walled canyons” and “smoke-blue ranges” that stretched out hundreds of miles around him; in the constellations that provided a canopy at night; even in a lone juniper tree that grew outside his trailer.  He was one of the last humans to raft the Utah stretch of Colorado River before “bureaucrats” and “pencil-pushers” erected Glen Canyon Dam so that motorboats could buzz over what used to be ancient grottos, natural tunnels, emerald pools, and the pictographs and petroglyphs of mysterious, indigenous societies of long ago.

Half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it is an integral part.  When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.

solitaireAt the end of “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey talks about meeting a park visitor who accuses him of being opposed to civilization, science, and humanity (familiar accusations levied at those of us who feel wilderness should exist on its own terms, and not on man’s terms).

We were not communicating very well.  All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process… With his help I discovered I was not opposed to mankind, but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology; and not to civilization but to culture.

Regarding the difference between civilization and culture, Abbey offers some analogies:

Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;

Civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;

Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement.

(Ed. note: regarding the second quote above, longitudes does NOT endorse acts of terrorism against living things)

There are many sections of “Desert Solitaire” that left me with my mouth agape.   I was astonished at the John Muir-like care and detail that Abbey took when discussing desert flora and fauna; what he termed the “rare furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning,” and “weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.”

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After burning up those pine logs and parting with his tourist friend, Abbey says the man disappeared from Arches sometime before the following evening.  But he did leave “a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn’t have fooled anybody – J. Prometheus Birdsong.  He won’t be back.”

Then Abbey closes the chapter:

“But don’t get discouraged, comrades – Christ failed too.”

Although Abbey may have sent this tourist packing with tail tucked between legs, I wonder how quickly the guy returned to his job in the city – emboldened with blueprint dreams of monolithic dams and soulless asphalt thoroughfares.

Regrettably, comrades, many are the J. Prometheus Birdsongs in this world.

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A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

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(I submitted this essay to the NPR series This I Believe several years ago, after our dog Brownie died.  Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows how difficult it can be)

 

I open the front door and step onto the tiled hallway floor.  I grasp the brass doorknob of the coat closet, turn the handle, then reach in and shuffle the hooks on the coat rack.  Before draping my jacket over the wire, I hear a flurry of rapid clicking sounds on the porcelain.  By the time I hang my jacket, he’s lunging at my waist, panting heavily, gaping jowls and eyes afire.

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While he was alive, I never thought of Brownie as being my best friend.  He was the one, more than anyone else, who anticipated my arrival home. Sometimes, instead of accosting me at the coat closet, he’d rush into the den, and I’d hear his big paws thumping the carpet, in joyful harmony with the sound of his favorite squeaky toy.  Happy because I’d finally returned.

Brownie and I both loved to run, and he treated every evening jog like an exotic vacation. There were all sorts of smells to be investigated, squirrels to be corralled, fenced-in dogs to strut in front of, shrubs and street signs to be marked. As we approached home, I always felt refreshed, but also relieved that my exercise was over. I’m not sure how Brownie felt. But I have a feeling he’d delay even his evening meal to do it all over again.

One often hears the expression “unconditional love.” I believe that phrase was coined over a dog. Yes, children too offer love without condition. But eventually they mature, lose their innocence, and often grow distant. One time my temper got the best of me after Brownie became, shall we say, “casual” with the carpet. He patiently tolerated my yelling until I made the mistake of grabbing his neck fur. Then, only in defense, he let me have it (I still bear the scarlet letter, on my right palm). But only seconds later, he was nudging up to me, pleading for my love and forgiveness.

Brownie was an Australian Shepherd, or “Aussie.” This breed is very family-oriented and protective. Brownie was happiest when the whole family was together. He expressed his contentment by laying at the nucleus of our little circle in the den and licking the carpet. “Brownie, stop licking the carpet!” my wife would scold. It didn’t bother me. Perhaps this was his way of licking all of us at the same time.

We didn’t know Brownie had cancer until it was far advanced. One evening I led him out the front door on his leash.  But this time he didn’t prance in front of me.  The leash suddenly became taut.  I turned around, and saw Brownie sitting like a lump on the front walk.  Something was wrong.  “I’m leaving Brownie inside tonight,” I yelled inside to Lynn.  “I don’t think he feels good.”  As I walked down the driveway, Brownie gazed after me through the glass, his fluffy ears upright as if to say “Why aren’t you taking me with you?”  I walked slowly until I was outside his range of vision.  Only then did I start to run. When I returned home, he was waiting for me by the driveway.  While I stretched my legs on the grass, he ambled over to me, his head lowered. The vet later said that the moisture under his eyes was probably caused by a fever. But I don’t know.

So now I’ll be running alone. I knew this day would come.  But, as when a close family member dies, I never expected it to hurt so much. My partner, my compatriot – my best friend – is gone.

I believe that, even though I didn’t know it when he was alive, Brownie knew he was my best friend. That thin little pink line on my right palm reminds me. Strangely, the scar doesn’t elicit a bad memory. The brief anger I felt toward my friend – a very human moment of weakness – was obliterated by what transpired immediately afterwards.  Something far more powerful: Brownie’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

Canine Madonna