By James Bishop, Jr.
September 25, 2012
In “Postcards from Ed,” a welcome volume of Mr. Abbey’s thoughts and dreams, hopes and fulminations, the distinguished Terry Tempest Williams writes “I miss you. We all do.” She is not alone. Charles Bowden, Abbey’s friend and fellow author observes that “Ed taught us to see the Southwest as something else besides real estate to butcher. And now we have to see it without him.”
Twenty three years have passed since the twentieth-century polemicist and desert anarchist, whose often sardonic, always lyrical words delighted or infuriated his readers, died of an incurable disease and was buried secretly in the desert he loved. “I love it so much that I find it hard to talk about,” he wrote. “Nothing but desert, nothing but the silent world…both agonized and deeply still. Like death? Perhaps.”
Impossible to label in political terms—left, right or center– Abbey was a genuine rebel whose life-long motto was borrowed from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “Resist much, obey little.” Beginning in the 1950s, in 20 books, lectures, and countless magazine pieces, he portrayed Arizona and the Southwest as a region under siege because of government incompetence, corporate greed and citizens who never bothered to value nature’s gifts.
With the zeal of a Biblical Ezekiel, he exclaimed time and again, “God bless America, let’s save some of it,” and he warned in many different ways that unless we become reconnected with nature, we run the risk of being cut off from the primary wellspring of our spiritual strength—the wild places.
“No more cars in national parks,” he proclaimed in Desert Solitaire. “Let the people walk. Or ride horses. Bicycles, mules, wild pigs…we have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, private bedrooms; we should treat our national parks with the same deference for they, too, are holy places.”
Faced with a dam on the Colorado River at Glen Canyon that created “Lake Foul,” coal-fired polluting power plants, gasification plants, vehicle pollution, sprawling housing developments, he knew that the odds were against him—and that his love for wild places was the beginning of pain.
Nonetheless he never gave up believing in his heart that our spiritual resources, after all, may be the most valuable and potent, and the least renewable once cut off irretrievably from the last destroyed wilderness. “Somehow- now or never,” he said so often, “we must draw a line and announce in plain language: enough is enough.”
In his lifetime, this Appalachian country boy of Swiss and German extraction put forward numerous poses to the world; alternatively he was the Lone Ranger, Pancho Villa, a “green” Jesse James, river rat, radical crank, mountain man, scholar, angry lover, and father—but always the writer. Often he tell audiences that the radical crank image in most of his books bore no resemblance to the “shy, timid, reclusive rather dapper little gentleman who, always correctly attired for his labors in coat and tie and starched detachable cuffs, sits down each night for precisely four hours to type out the further adventures of that arrogant blustering macho fraud that counterfeits his name.”
Why did he become so popular? Peter Wild, a disputatious colleague of Abbey’s at the University of Arizona in the 1980’s hit the bulls eye in my view: “We needed Abbey to show us how preposterously the nation had become tangled in the century’s glitter. He often spoke the truth that lay in our hearts, unrecognized until he brought it to the surface from his.”
Abbey went to his death confronting the arrival of Koyaanisquastsi. That’s a Hopi word meaning life out of balance, despair, turmoil as the U.S. careened away from the hopes and dreams of true conservatives such as Henry Adams, William James, Walt Whitman, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Were he to return to celebrate his 85th birthday, the first thing that would please him is that if politicians have forgotten his warnings, book readers have definitely not. To the contrary reports Joe Neri of Sedona’s Well Red Coyote. In stock he’s got seventeen Abbey titles, both fiction and nonfiction and all are selling well, most particularly The Monkey Wrench Gang, a satiric postmodern pulp Western that “lampooned everything from the Lone Ranger to John Wayne to the woman’s movement,” wrote historian Douglas Brinkley in the forward to the latest edition. Indeed, so popular are Abbey’s books that Neri plans an open house reading soon at his independent bookstore in West Sedona.
Truth be known, that could be only delightful highlight of his Abbey’s birthday. Someone will surely show him a photo from the Ahwatukee Republic slugged PEERING THROUGH THE GUNK—a smog attack. When alive he worried that if Phoenicians kept selling to day too profit the hour, L.A. basin’s polluted air would be replicated in Phoenix—and why no one in high-priced office awakened to reality. Filthy air is not good for tourism. Then he’d be told that Arizona plans to spend hundreds of millions on new highways so that people can drive faster in U.S.-made vehicles that get 50 percent fewer miles per gallon than vehicles from South Korea.
Next he’d hear that our man in the White House lifted a ban on oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, an area known for its endangered whales and the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon. The action clears the way for the Interior Department to open 5.6 million acres of the fish-rich waters northwest of the Alaska Peninsula as part of its next five-year leasing plan. “What about security for the whales and the salmon?” Abbey might ask.
But before he got an answer he’d likely be told about government plans to weaken protection for the Bald Eagle and that a governor in the Northwest wants to organize a program to kill wolves. What’s more new missile installations are being constructed in Alaska at a cost of $9 billion a year and a new program is underway to build nuclear warheads. Beyond that the Pentagon and the CIA have shattered precedent by breaking into peoples’ bank accountants and credit records. To that he might ask, “Why aren’t the people marching? Is George the Third back on the throne?”
Closer to home, he hear that the Sedona District in the Coconino National Forest is becoming a dumping ground for hazardous materials, and that officials in charge have no funds for clean-up. Is it expected by most of our elected officials that a new bridge at Red Rock Crossing will facilitate the long standing imbroglio.
“Not that bridge again?” Abbey would bellow. “ADOT doesn’t even want it. Well, guess my time is up. Sounds like nothing much as changed since I departed. Koyaanisquastsi! Then as now we need patriots who are always ready to defend their country against their government. They say that I was a myth in my own lifetime. I say that Phoenix and Tucson and Sedona will become myths too unless enough citizens realize that unchecked growth may leave them parched and dry sooner than they think. Adios companeros. I won’t be back again.”
Before he vanished into the canyons he left us a message:
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome,
dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.
May your rivers flow without end,
meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells,
past temples and castles and poets’ towers
into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl,
through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock,
blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone,
and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm,
where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs,
where deer walk across the white sand beaches,
where storms come and go
as lightening clangs upon the high crags,
where something strange and more beautiful
and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you –
beyond that next turn of the canyon walls.