activist, development, Economics, environmentalism, health, Road Books, The Yankee Road, Writing

On “Cactus Ed”

Perhaps the most notable character to inhabit the 1900s desert West was “Cactus Ed” Abbey, who died a few years before we took the first of our many trips to the Southwest. We loved what he saw and worried about its sustainability as well, but we were, sort of, part of the problem. Abbey worried about mass tourism, calling it “industrial tourism,” where people used the automobile and motels and shopping centers near sites of desert and canyon beauty as a kind of touring — a “been there, saw that, bought the T-shirt” kind of tourism.

Edward Abbey was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, in the coal country in the western part of that State, in 1927, and grew up near there in the small village of Home. Abbey’s father, Paul Revere Abbey, was a farmer, logger, and sometime traveling salesman whose politics were decidedly to the left, supporting the Socialists and the “Wobblies,” a radical labor movement in the early 1900s, and later praising Soviet communism. He knew Walt Whitman’s poetry by heart and passed on to his son a streak of aggressive non-cooperation with authority. His mother, on the other hand, was religious and a schoolteacher, and she bequeathed him his artistic talent. Abbey early on developed a liking for the woods and for writing. He was also a passable cartoonist.

Like his father, who had traveled as a youth to Montana, Ed went west at an early age, hitchhiking and riding the rails in the summer of 1944 between the eleventh and twelfth grades. He fell in love with the Southwest on that trip and, after graduation and a two-year stint in the postwar Army, ended up at the University of New Mexico on the GI Bill. Even as he took the government’s money, he went on an FBI watch list for encouraging young people to turn in their draft cards. Obstinacy, determination, and resistance seemed to be his hallmarks, both in life and in writing.

Over a decade of intermittent study, including a year in Scotland at Edinburgh University, he graduated with an MA in Philosophy. In 1956, Abbey’s second novel, The Brave Cowboy, was published and later made into a movie, “The Lonely and the Brave.” In 1957, he attended Wallace Stegner’s prestigious summer program for creative writing at Stanford University, preceding writers Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry and jurist/author Sandra Day O’Connor by a year. During his life, Abbey published over two dozen volumes, mostly non-fiction. His best known work, Desert Solitaire (1968), was his first non-fiction attempt. Its descriptions of desert flora, fauna, and landscape — along with a few tales of exploration— established Abbey, according to McMurtry, as the “Thoreau of the West.” Seven years later, he published his most influential novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, a story of eco-activism.

As a person, Abbey is hard to define. In private, he tended to be quiet, shy, and reclusive. His public persona was “Cactus Ed,” emerging from his study only for money, vice (he was a compulsive philanderer), and the possibility of applause. He was married five times and had five children. His professors labeled him, according to his FBI file, as “rash and immature” and “exceptionally brilliant and an individualist.” He favored gun ownership, opposed immigration that caused American overpopulation, detested officialdom, political and bureaucratic, loved classical music, and called himself a “redneck.”

As late as age forty, the year before Desert Solitaire was published and made him famous, he was working as a school bus driver in Death Valley, California, where his then wife was an elementary schoolteacher. In later life, he was a professor of English literature at the University of Arizona. He died of a condition commonly associated with alcoholism. Friends took his body out into the desert and buried him in an unmarked grave, as befitted a Romantic desert rat.

Abbey took to heart the basic American conflicts between the individual and the organization and between the Romantic notion of wilderness as the regenerator of the American spirit and the Yankee utilitarianism of land, wild or otherwise. His father’s anti-establishment politics and his mother’s religiosity melded into someone who could state that “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.’

Even though he regarded the notion of the rugged individualist as, basically, a lie, he did advocate for wilderness areas as places to which rebels to an authoritarian government might retreat and organize their resistance, something that others later took up in Idaho and elsewhere.

At a sunrise memorial ceremony at the Arches National Monument, Dave Foreman, a founder of the activist group Earth First!  summed up Abbey’s life and role. In primal cultures, he related, there have always been forces like the Zuni mudhead kachinas, tricksters who make fun during the most sacred ceremonies: “In every real society the planet has ever seen, we’ve had to laugh at our most sacred ideas, at our most honored personages”. Ed Abbey was the mudhead kachina of the environmental movement . .. .and it is to our everlasting shame as idealists that more of us didn’t understand that Ed was a trickster .. . .Ed was the wise prophet from the desert who tried to keep us on track and [tell us] not to take ourselves too seriously.”

Abbey’s writings about the natural desert resemble Thoreau’s about Walden Pond and its surroundings.  Abbey called Thoreau a put-on artist who loved to shock and exasperate, much like Abbey himself. Where Thoreau made occasional trips to the Merrimack River and to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, Abbey rafted the Colorado River through Glen Canyon before it was dammed for electric power generation, and spent weeks alone in the Havasupai Canyons leading into the Grand Canyon. Where Thoreau fantasized about destroying a dam on the Concord River and spent a night in jail protesting the Mexican War, Abbey resorted to anonymous minor sabotage of development projects, but dreamed in print of The Monkey Wrench Gang that would destroy the hated Glen Canyon Dam, liberating the Colorado River.

Though he resembled Kerouac in many ways, Abbey could not help being affected by living in the Southwest after leaving the military. Jobs and travels in the wilderness of southern Utah and northern Arizona gave him time to think and write, and he produced his best work as a park ranger or sitting in a fire watchtower. (Kerouac also spent some time as a fire ranger but, by then, On the Road was behind him.)

Both Abbey and Muir opposed the damming of rivers that coursed wilderness areas, and both lost their fights. He was appalled that Muir’s creation, the Sierra Club, did not oppose the Glen Canyon Dam at the outset, ostensibly because it would not flood a designated National Park or Wilderness Area. Where Muir saw the mountains as having a spiritual significance, Abbey saw ‘nothing’ in the desert. Nothing, the opposite of civilization, was just what he was looking for. He was not an atheist, he claimed, but a “nontheist” or an “earthiest”: as he advocated, “be true to the earth”.

Abbey’s style also bore some resemblance to environmentalist Aldo Leopold, in having considerable experience in the wildernesses of the Southwest and able to see the interconnections between various parts of the desert ecosystem. He shared Leopold’s feeling that “wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and is as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”

Indeed, a number of Abbey’s ideas either came from Leopold or paralleled his twenty years on, such as excluding cars from National Parks, preserving wild places intact, reintroducing predators to skewed ecosystems, and demolishing dams that have disrupted riverine ecologies. Today, most of these have come to pass. Where Abbey differed from Pinchot, Leopold, and Muir was in his willingness to entertain direct action to resist or eliminate publicly sponsored development.

There are parallels between the fight over the Hetchy Reservoir and the Glen Canyon Dam, and Muir and Abbey had similar reactions fifty years apart. Where the earlier case gave particular passion to the Sierra Club, Abbey’s Glen Canyon tale, The Monkey Wrench Gang, gave rise to the direct action of Earth First! and Greenpeace. He had hoped the book would “stir people into action to do things I am too cowardly to do myself.”.  It did. Abbey saw the effects of large-scale tourism in his stints as a park ranger or fire warden in his fifteen years working in the region.

The growth of the Interstate highway system in the1950s and 1960s meant that good access was created for large numbers of people and their use of park lands was harming the natural attractions even in remote southeastern Utah. Access would also lead to large-scale use of more remote areas as well, so that the sheer numbers of hikers, canoeists, rock climbers, and campers were having an effect on ecosystems that could not regenerate fast enough to repair themselves. Were Abbey to undertake a stint in Moab, Utah, today, his irritation would be heightened further by finding that the town had become the “Mountain-bike capital of the United States”.