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Know the West

EJ activist Ed Abbey?


Spring semester is winding down, and the students in my course Rhetoric of the Environmental Movement are reading Edward Abbey’s 1968 memoir, Desert Solitaire. After having duly investigated news reports, scientific studies, websites, and environmental impact statements, they appreciate Abbey’s lively and eccentric voice and his vivid descriptions of the landscape of Arches National Park. As we discuss Abbey’s contribution to environmental discourse in the U.S, it’s a treat for me, too, to revisit Cactus Ed each year.  I’m always confronted with fresh perspectives and layers that have eluded me in previous readings.

Like my students, I have difficulty pinning any particular genre to Desert Solitaire. It contains, in varying degrees, nature writing, Montaigne-style essay writing, scathing polemic, satire, instruction-manual-style directions, travel narrative, and confessional memoir. Where does Abbey stand on environmental preservation? I ask in class.

At first, students want to pin him as a liberal, a libertarian, a primitivist, an anarchist, a romantic, or a radical, and they can find passages that seem to support all of these contradictory labels. Likewise, passages are dug up that refute them all. He was a wily, unpredictable dude, both in his writing and his storied personal life and death, and to underscore this I sometimes share “Ed anecdotes” with the students, such as that about his secretive burial in Southern Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta wilderness.

A puzzle piece that’s eluding me this year is Abbey’s views on environmental justice. You might understandably Monkey Wrench Gangwonder why such a thing would matter in the larger scheme of things. One reason is that Abbey’s works, especially Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, have likely reached more people than almost any other written material on environmental preservation, many of them outside what might be considered a normal or target audience for such pieces. Both are accessible and somewhat hip and edgy (the latter especially). Both can also be read as parables against technology and its effects, especially pollution, the scourge of the land but also the poor and ill.

So was Abbey a kind of voice of justice? I’m not sure it’s that easy. In one remarkable passage in Desert Solitaire, Abbey opines that preservation is not only necessary for the usual reasons of ecological and spiritual health, but as “a refuge from authoritarian government.” Sounding eerily like one of my cousins who has watched Red Dawn a few too many times, Abbey lists what he sees as harbingers of impending totalitarianism: urbanization, population growth, mechanization of agriculture, military aggression, gun control, and depletion of wilderness.

If we are to preserve “freedom and innovation,” he writes, we may need wilderness areas to stage “guerilla warfare against tyranny.” Such a diatribe does certainly advocate some sort of justice of a violent and anarchist nature, but what happens when the sought-after personal liberty is achieved? Will it protect the very wilderness that nurtured it? Will it safeguard the interests of the downtrodden?

I’m sure there are plenty of Libertarian folk who will be happy to school me in this area, but I’m skeptical: our current liberties haven’t been especially fruitful in these areas. So, I remain torn on Abbey’s contribution to environmental justice, but I’m going to keep on reading him -- after all, the guy can certainly turn a phrase -- and maybe the students and I can hash something out.

Essays in the A Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Dr. Jacqueline Wheeler is the Writing Programs Associate Director at Arizona State University.

Monkey Wrench Gang image courtesy Flickr user earthlightbooks