Many environmentalists have sterling reputations: They’ve used peaceful tactics to preserve nature, written beautiful prose to celebrate it, and inspired others to defend it. Edward Abbey is not one of those environmentalists.
Sure, he fiercely loved nature, wrote awe-inspiring accounts of it, and garnered a huge following — but he also threw beer cans out car windows, penned stories about blowing up dams, and married five times, earning quite the reputation as a womanizer.
He was one-of-a-kind, a conservationist of his own making, described by The American Spectator contributor Bill Croke as “equal parts Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, with an added dash of Mikhail Bakunin.”
The Pennsylvania native was born to a schoolteacher mother who played the organ in church, and a farmer father who was a socialist, an anarchist, and an atheist. Shortly before Abbey’s 18th birthday in the mid-1940s, when he would face the draft, he set out to explore the American West, getting there through a mix of hitchhiking, walking, freight train hopping, and bus riding. When he saw the desert landscape of the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet), he’d found his home.
After returning from World War II, graduating from the University of New Mexico (his master’s thesis topic: “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence”), and working as a park ranger, he rose to prominence with the 1968 publication of Desert Solitaire, a nonfiction book melding nature writing, philosophy, and political observations about the management of national parks. In it, he wrote:
“Beyond the side canyon the walls rise again, slick and monolithic, in color a blend of pink, buff, yellow, orange, overlaid in part with a glaze of ‘desert varnish’ (iron oxide) or streaked in certain places with vertical draperies of black organic stains, the residue from plant life beyond the rim and from the hanging gardens that flourish in the deep grottoes high on the walls. Some of those alcoves are like great amphitheatres, large as the Hollywood Bowl, big enough for God’s own symphony orchestra.”
Seven years later, he followed that book with one even more popular, The Monkey Wrench Gang. A novel centered around a group of anarchic environmentalists who conspire to blow up Glen Canyon Dam and sabotage builders’ efforts to develop in the desert, it inspired the founding of Earth First!, a radical green group.
Solace in the Desert
Abbey believed that humans would never know true freedom until they spent some time in wild, unexplored lands, and so he spent his life doing — and writing about — just that.
“Edward Abbey is one of our foremost Western essayists and novelists,” read an article in The Denver Post. “A militant conservationist, he has attracted a large following — not only within the ranks of Sierra Club enthusiasts and dedicated backpackers, but also among armchair appreciators of good writing. What always made his work doubly interesting is the sense of a true maverick spirit at large, within it — a kind of spirit not imitable, limited only to the highest class of literary outlaws.”
When he died in 1989, friends and family fulfilled Abbey’s burial wish by taking his body in a sleeping bag in the back of a pickup truck and laying him to rest in the wilderness as soon as possible, without embalming fluid or a casket (or regard for the law).
“I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree,” he wrote. Somewhere in the dusty Arizona desert, it’s doing just that.