Ed Abbey, Reimagined

I’m not sure what’s more revealing: that the 20-year anniversary of Ed Abbey’s death goes unnoticed in leading environmental outlets, such as Grist, or that it has occasioned a largely respectful tribute here.

Like Bill Croke, the writer of that piece for The American Spectator, I’ve read Desert Solitaire twice. It remains the most mind-altering environmental book of my life.

Readers may be surprised by how much Croke gets right about Abbey’s literary legacy.  For example, he calls the “sharp landscape renderings” in Desert Solitaire “some of the finest writing extant about the desert Southwest.” Most Abbey fans will also nod in agreement with Croke’s assessment that Abbey’s “greatest strengths as a writer” are displayed in his many essays.

The one real false note by Croke is his parroting of the “eco-terrorist” label when discussing The Monkey Wrench Gang and the tactics used in the 1980s by Earth First! Maybe if the Unabomber was still on the loose I could see where the term would apply, but not for a bunch of guys running around in the forest spiking trees.

There’s also some factual inaccuracies, such as the line about Abbey’s cronies “absconding” with his body after he died.

It’s not until the final paragraph of Croke’s retrospective that we finally learn why The American Spectator, of all publications, would be interested in taking a second look at Abbey’s life. Those of you familiar enough with Abbey know what’s coming:

Cactus Ed was a prickly sort; a conservative anarchist, if you will, who on one hand could support eco-terrorism (a favorite motto was: “Keep America Beautiful — Burn a Billboard!”), and on the other supported the National Rifle Association (NRA), and restrictions on immigration.

Ah, yes, Abbey’s views on brown people. They were quite well articulated. Too bad the American Spectator didn’t see fit to let Abbey speak for himself on the matter of immigration, since the conservative magazine is apparently interested in co-opting Cactus Ed as a fellow traveler. Suffice to say that had Abbey been around the last few years, he might have joined that silly militia group that sat around on lawnchairs in the middle of the Arizona desert, binoculars in hand. In any case, here’s what he thought when he was alive:

It might be wise for us, as American citizens, to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically, impoverished people…Why not [support immigration]? Because we prefer democratic government, for one thing; because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful–yes beautiful!–society, for another. The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.

I’m surely not the only one who has conficting emotions about Ed Abbey’s full legacy. Some people, though, aren’t conflicted in the least.

It’s too bad Abbey isn’t around today. He would have been a hellava read during George Bush’s two terms. And because he was a habitual letter writer (this recent collection is a must-read for diehard fans), I’m certain he would have taken to blogging with a gusto.  Just imagine that.

3 Responses to “Ed Abbey, Reimagined”

  1. Keith,

    Perhaps more enviro pubs haven’t commemorated the 20th anniversary of Abbey’s death because it’s all been said before: On the first anniversary of his death, the fifth, the tenth and even the 15th. Those of us who have been in the West for awhile have had forced upon us every paean imaginable to old Cactus Ed, in every outdoor-oriented publication there is, from Mountain Gazette to Outside to Orion. An entire generation of writers, it sometimes seems, has made a living off of Ed Abbey eulogies. When I was in high school, I devoured every word of Abbey’s that I could get a hold of. When I was 18, I attended his memorial service on a fine spring morning in Arches. And while I still acknowledge his importance to the environmental movement, I have to admit that I find it a bit refreshing not to see a bunch of articles commemorating his death (once again). My hope is that the next generation of writers — instead of worshipping Abbey — can learn from him, and find their own voices, and apply them to the West of today, which, for better or worse, is much changed from that of Abbey’s day.

    Jonathan (www.hcn.org)

  2. Eli Rabett says:

    Perhaps Eli’s appreciation of Abbey is held in limits by his and Ms. Rabett’s being close enough in time to groups of forebunnies who were, in their day considered ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically, impoverished as well as incapable of democracy (meaning disagreeing with Cactus Ed).  Never ceases to amaze the old Rabett how people whose ancestors were reviled by the know nothings try and admire them.

    Meneken was another one.  It’s time to let those clowns go.

  3. […] when I see a few new RSS subscribers each week. (I seem to have lost so many of you right after I dissed Ed Abbey. Come back. It’s not my fault Abbey was a racist […]

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