Novelist Edward Abbey Would Still Love to Tear Down Tucson City Hall
Edward Abbey lives in the Sonoran desert, surrounded by things he loves--and, increasingly, by things he hates.
When the 60-year-old author of such cult classics as “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and “Desert Solitaire” moved to this 4 1/2-acre lot 10 years ago, the city of Tucson hovered in the distance like a brick-and-steel mirage. Now civilization is closing in on Abbey, whose latest collection of essays, “One Life at a Time Please,” is due out this month.
Renegade environmentalist George Washington Hayduke, Abbey’s most famous character, professed the credo “Always pull up survey stakes. Anywhere you find them.” But pink strips of plastic flutter atop wooden stakes all along the roadways leading up to the Abbey family’s modest spread.
Abbey’s ’73 Ford pickup, geranium hood ornament twitching, bucks through the dry arroyos like a raft through big rapids. And, as the dust settles, one sees that realty signs--the descendants of survey stakes--have sprouted like garish weeds among the tall saguaro cacti.
Aircraft of every description drone across a sky that’s often silty with smog and the alkaline dust of development. And the police training facility, golf course and “desert ashram” nearby can’t sit well with this anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, anarchist denouncer of all mystical pretensions.
Given Abbey’s hatred of most everything the past couple decades engendered, it’s little wonder that reviewers of Abbey’s six novels, six previous collections of essays and five coffee table-type photographic collaborations have tended to draw from the same section of the thesaurus in describing him: “ornery,” “irascible,” “cantankerous,” “iconoclastic,” “crusty,” “atavistic,” “cranky.”
Face to face, though, Abbey’s sculpted sandstone features melt more frequently into gentle expressions than angry ones. About the only thing that really seems to tick him off is the suggestion that perhaps he’s mellowing.
“I feel rage and outrage quite often,” he said. “I’d gleefully take part in a violent revolution--I’d love to go down to city hall in Tucson and tear it down. I’m getting more radical as I get older.”
There’s some evidence to support that contention.
Abbey isn’t choosy about where he launches his hit-and-run intellectual attacks.
An Abbey-inspired skirmish over the environmental impact of AIDS in the January-February issue of Utne Reader has prompted that publication to devote a coming issue to address the conflict between “social justice and population/environmental concerns.”
Highs, Lows of Decade
Last October, Outside magazine asked Abbey, who it headlined “Cactus Ed,” to write an almanac of the high and low points of the last decade. It went like this:
“LOW POINT--Beef ranchers in Montana and Wyoming harvest 155 ‘troublesome’ grizzlies.”
“HIGH POINT--Grizzlies in Montana and Wyoming harvest 22 ‘troublesome’ tourists. . . .”
“HIGH POINT--A drunk in the process of systematically felling cacti on the outskirts of Tucson by blasting them with a shotgun is crushed by a gutshot saguaro. . . .”
And long-time Abbey detractors will find potent fuel in “One Life at a Time Please,” which has something to offend just about everyone.
Some folks, for instance, probably won’t like his essay, “The Future of Sex,” in which he declares, “A world of androgynes, encapsulated in beehive cities, fiddling with buttons penile, electronic and clitoral--that is the future beloved alike by the technocratic futurologists and the thoroughly logical radical feminists.”
And his opening essay, “The Cowboy and his Cow"--which barbecues the most sacred bovine of the American West in calling cattlemen “nothing more than welfare parasites"--drew an epistemological fusillade from such respected Western writers as Ralph Beers and Gretel Ehrlich when it appeared in Harper’s magazine.
Erlich and other recent arrivals to the Western deserts, mountains and rangelands are “instant rednecks,” Abbey said.
Abbey was born in 1927 on a small farm in Appalachia. His father drove a school bus, worked in the coal mines and did small-scale logging to help make ends meet.
After a stint in the Army, in 1946 Abbey hitchhiked west. He studied English and philosophy--the classical Greeks--at the University of New Mexico, then set out on a life of writing, financed by laboring at other jobs part-time or part of the year.
He worked for the Forest Service and the Park Service off and on for almost two decades. He also worked as an asphalt inspector on highway projects, as a television and automobile assembly line worker, ditch digger, roughneck in the oil-fields, public welfare case worker.
“For most of those years,” he said, “I was living right around the official poverty line. . . . I pounded survey stakes before I ever got the notion to pull them out.”
But he did eventually get that notion, perhaps during his first tour of duty with the Park Service, which he turned into “Desert Solitaire,” a 20th-anniversary edition of which will be released early next year.
“Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions,” he wrote in that account.
But Abbey’s appreciation of nature’s power to elicit such fear has only deepened his commitment to saving the remaining wildlands. And this, he concedes, can sometimes pose an intellectual dilemma, given his respect for those who earn a living from the land.
“I have a deep, instinctive sympathy for the rancher and the small miner and the small logger. But our society is so huge, and so totally overpopulated, in my opinion, that there’s no longer enough room on public lands for a privileged minority--cattle ranchers and to a lesser extent, miners and loggers.”
‘Invading Our Public Lands’
Abbey is much less sympathetic to what he terms, borrowing from Lewis Mumford, “the industrial megamachine.” In his “Forward!” to Earth First!'s “Handbook on Eco-Defense,” he writes:
“With bulldozer, earth mover, chain saw and dynamite, the international timber, mining and beef industries are invading our public lands--property of all Americans--bashing their way into our forests, mountains and rangelands and looting them for everything they can get away with.”
Since this wilderness is “the primordial homeland of all living creatures including the human,” people have the “right and obligation” to fight back with whatever means necessary, he says.
When fighting back in prose, Abbey resists the urge common among naturalists, to sink into what he has called “rhapsodical prose, purple as the bloom of the sage.”
Conceding that Annie Dillard, whose “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” won a Pulitzer in 1975, is a better writer than he is, he faults her for “gushing about finding God in every bush.”
“I sat on a rock in New Mexico once, trying to have a vision,” he said. “The only vision I had was of baked chicken.”
In resisting “sentimentality,” one can also go “too far in the other direction,” he said, citing another master of the craft, John McPhee, as being “too impersonal, too self-effacing . . . too objective.”
Like Thoreau, Abbey prefers to be thought of as someone who writes about life. Politics is his greatest interest, he said.
And the political job of the honest writer is “to speak the truth . . . especially truth that offends the powerful, the rich, the well-established, the traditional, the mythic, the sentimental.”
“Smug, complacent acceptance of American culture just as it is,” in the “boutique fiction” of John Updike and other authors makes Abbey’s “skin crawl with revulsion,” he said, as he hiked through an arroyo near his home, which he has fenced off with an old cable and a sign scrawled on tattered plywood: “Horses and hikers welcome--Off Road Vermin keep out.”
“True human freedom--economic freedom, political freedom, social freedom--remain basically (linked) to physical freedom, sufficient space, enough room, enough land” Abbey said. “When you become an employee, you lose a basic amount of your freedom right there. When you become dependent upon an institution for your daily bread, you’re no longer a free man.”
Abbey admits that he has been lucky--that by accepting near poverty for much of his life, he’s been able to write his way to a measure of freedom not easily attained by most working men and women in America.
Nowadays Abbey isn’t hurting for cash. Five hundred thousand copies of both “Solitaire” and “Monkey Wrench Gang” have sold over the years, he said. His novel, “The Good Cowboy,” became a Kirk Douglas film, “Lonely Are the Brave,” and there’s talk again that “The Monkey Wrench Gang” will find its way onto the screen. But he still lives simply.
The house he and his wife, Clarke, and two children (he has three others from his four previous marriages) live in is neat but unpretentious. A chain-link enclosed backyard is an oasis of palms and green cement. A doll hangs by its red hair between pairs of pants on a clothesline.
Out back, overlooking the wash, past the relatively untamed garden of barrel cacti, mesquite and creosote, past a swatch of imported white sand littered with children’s plastic dump trucks and toy construction equipment, is Abbey’s writing studio.
Over one window are an old Winchester, a shotgun, a bow and a hat with a pull top headband. A Buck knife has been implanted in his old wooden desk.
“People have been hypnotized into believing they must have this and that, more and more,” Abbey said. It’s this rampant consumerism that dictates the destruction of the wild, he believes. Which is not to say there aren’t material things Abbey covets.
“Even me, I want a 1956 El Dorado Cadillac convertible and maybe an old houseboat on a lake.”
Before anyone writes Abbey off as another casualty of consumerism, however, they may want to go back and reread “The Monkeywrench Gang.” His characters in that book also dream of owning houseboats.
Notice too that their dream--the ultimate dream of all monkey wrenchers--is to fill the boats with explosives, then use them to blow a whopping hole in the Colorado River’s $750-million, 792,000-ton Glen Canyon Dam.