Edward Abbey: My Time With The Contrary Truthsayer

by Jesse Wolf Hardin on March 26th, 2012
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Edward Abbey:
My Time With The Contrary Truthsayer

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

All italicized quotes by Ed Abbey
(gleaned from his essays, journals, and personal correspondence with this author and others)

We here at Anima get tons of letters and comments if we post a blog on the exemplary natures of house cats, or run virtually anything written by our incurably cute and temporarily young daughter Rhiannon.  What we do not get comments on are posts describing dire ecological realities or the fundamental inherent destructiveness of our generally cherished civilization, the dangers of imaging that a candidate from one political party will be any less odious and pernicious than those from the other party, our cultural illusions and common hypocrisies, or the inescapability of personal responsibility.  Not a single person, in fact, responded to my most recent post… revealingly on the importance of responsiveness.  We understand that some topics are more pleasant to ponder than others, but continue to produce a far reaching range and hopefully balance of subjects, perspectives and moods.

“I would prefer to write about everything; what else is there? But one must be selective.”

The rule for the successful “marketing” of ideas is to identify a specific audience and narrow one’s subject matter, useful advice that I – by my very nature – tend to ignore.  “Blogging on every conceivable topic” our Anima Blog header reads, and it is thus that we post on a medicinal herb one issue, and the obstreperous author and gadfly Edward Abbey in another.  One can help to heal the body, the other may prove an antidote to the gleeful sleepwalking, suffocating illusions and restrictively polite nice-isms that make possible our toleration of injustices and indignities we might best find intolerable.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”

In one case, the path of wordage has passed through a brightly flowering meadow while in the next it has dipped into the shadows, and only through all its twists and turns can we hope to recognize the many great and sometimes untidy and discomforting truths.

“It’s the writer’s job to speak the truth – especially unpopular truth.  Especially truth that offends the powerful, the rich, the well-established, the traditional, the mythic”.

It was precisely this approach and attitude that first drew me to him, as much as his demonstrative love for the same Southwestern bioregions I’ve so long made my home.  I’d read all his books, from Fire On The Mountain – the story of a White Sands rancher’s stand to protect his land from seizure by the U.S. Air Force – to what was back then his most recent,  the rollicking novel The Monkeywrench Gang, before initiating what would many short but sweet exchanges of correspondence.  Short, I say, because it was plain postcards that he most often mailed out, a few pithy or poignant lines printed on their backs in what was this Luddite’s equivalent of today’s Twitter. I was only mildly insulted, that some of the lines he wrote me had already appeared, or would soon appear, in his essays and books.

“Wolf, don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Ed Abbey said he wrote to encourage his friends and confound his enemies.  But even more than that, he seemed to me to write because it was his nature to do so, and because being a crafty, opinionated and controversial wordsmith brought him both the attention and the isolation that he craved… nipping any superficial relationship “in the bud” as he liked to say, pissing off the powers that be as well as alienating the literary establishment, winning the affections of twenty something year-old female backpackers and the respect of tree-hugging iconoclasts.  He was flattered by the dossier the FBI once compiled on him, and by his fictional Monkeywrench Gang inspiring the formation of a real-life eco-radical tribe, Earth First!, while unmoved by the praise and critiques of what he thought of as university do-nothings, fiction groupies, disembodied intellectuals and the effete cultural elite.  His very effective means for filtering the wild seeds from the civil chaff, was a candid and profoundly liberating political incorrectness.

Step 2 will be shooting a TV that isn't already broke....

“You (Wolf), are a poet, an artist, and a man… and good at all three.”

Even this bit of praise that he sent me proved problematic, as I had to omit the part about “man” in his quote to avoid being mercilessly and ceaselessly ridiculed but the strong and equally opinionated activist women that I worked with.  Women, however, that had all read and been inspired by his classic Canyon Solitaire.  What Abbey did most masterfully, was to communicate the total awesomeness of the natural world, free of the saccharine literary pretentiousness, saccharine sentimentality, liberal guilt and suffering whiny-ness all too prevalent in the “nature writing” genre, and to kick his readers minds into gear with fearsome passion, objectionable opinion and unpredictable perspective.  This resulted in a vociferous fan base of woods romping misfits, and also no small number of critics, detractors and outright antagonists.

“Beware of the man who has no enemies.”

Ed’s enemies were many and often loud, from humanist social ecologist Murray Bookchin and the editor of Green Anarchist, to indignant feminists and offended Hispanics to corporate developers and East Coast literati.  Some attacks flattered him, others seemed to hurt him more than the crusty author liked to let on.

“Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.”

Abbey was as true a man as I ever met, as truthful and wholly, unapologetically real, but he was also a bundle of contradictions, delightfully testy, exaggerated and obnoxious.  Like the character Hayduke that he created, Ed could be extolling the beauty of unspoiled wildlands while pitching a series of emptied beer cans out the window of his old gray truck.  While he loved to get out into the desert for up to weeks at a time, he did more driving than walking, and seldom camped out of sight of his rig.  While he was the best known celebrant of the purposeful sabotage of the machinery of development and wildlands destruction, from what I heard from him as well as his closest compatriots, he only rarely engaged in such illegal acts himself, and he admitted to me bungling much of the little vandalism that he did entertain.  He was disdainful of authentic Latin culture with what he say as its mix of repressive Catholicism, drug lords and corrupt politicians, yet decried the bland American burbs and “cultureless” Texas with its urban cowboy posturing.  He preached against organized religion and spiritual placation, while also holding that “Nothing could be more reckless than to base one’s moral philosophy on the latest pronouncements of science.” Ed was heavily criticized for his female characterizations in his books and his cavalier objectification of women as sex objects, and yet at the same time he spoke out often and strongly in defense of women’s right to make her own decisions regarding birth control or abortion.  He wrote about the virtues of one’s love for a woman and of fidelity to place, while cheating on each of his five wives and openly announcing that “loyalty to one would be to betray all the others”.  He asserted that people are the rightful top of the food chain, while insisting that he would rather kill a human than a coyote, identifying more with the free and furry than with his suited counterparts.

“It’s time this old wolf got out of his hole a bit.”

The postcards he frequently sent to myself and others over the years, invariably featured a return address of either “Wolf Hole” or “Oracle” Arizona, two authentically rural and totally cool sounding places nearly an hour’s drive north of the matching tacky tract homes that both he and his EF! activist sidekick Dave Foreman had purchased on the SE side of trendy Tucson, faux adobe structures featuring twin microwave ovens that no self respecting backwoodsman author or camo-clad ecoactivist could be blamed for wanting to keep quiet about.  And while Ed once served as a Military Policeman, and advocated strong central control of a militarized border with Mexico to prevent the migration of undocumented aliens years before Presidents Bush and Obama started positioning troops there, he was at the same time a self described “lifelong anarchist.”  He was fired as editor of his college paper after writing that “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” and satirically attributing it to Louisa May Alcott.

“Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.”

It was nonetheless an anarchist collective that gave him the greatest grief, at least outside of his tumultuous relationships with women.  In July of 1988, Ed showed up at the EF! Round River Rendezvous atop Arizona’s endangered Mt. Graham.  I was there to assume the teaching of Bill Devall’s deep ecology workshop, and shared the stage with Abbey and others before witnessing him being rudely heckled by the anarchic Alien Nation folks in the audience.  He devotes a chapter of his 1989 novel, Hayduke Lives!, to describing this scene and the remainder of the rendezvous, mentioning me by my stage name of Lone Wolf, and alluding to the bare skinned Tribal Jams concert and ecstatic “amoeba” hugfest that I instigated and from which he reasonably slipped away.  As an aside, the Alien Nation contingent’s camp was found emptied the following morning, having drove off in the middle of the night to escape what they shrilly described as “whip-cracking ecofascist vigilantes”… but that were actually only Green Rage author Christoph Manes, San Diego activist Van C. and myself looking to find and to agitate the retiring David Foreman.  It was a time of active resistance, both against the dominant technoindustrial paradigm of artificiality, conformity and destruction, and against Foreman’s secretive autocratic control of the group he helped found.

“Rebellion transforms slaves into human beings, if only for an hour.”

Foreman and Abbey used to talk about strapping dynamite on their backs once they know they are morally ill, and floating out to the center of Glenn Canyon Dam to liberate the long stagnating Colorado River, but Abbey died in his subdivision.  These days Foreman is a white haired anti-immigrant activist who has smartly avoided all use of the word “explosives” since his arrest and plea bargain.  Ed nonetheless hit the nail on the head, when it comes to the limitations of us housebound writers, and the redeeming value and utter necessity of action.

“Philosophy without action is the ruin of the soul.  Now as always we need heroes and heroines!”

The last time I saw Ed, it was in his house, in a small room he used as his study and den, a place for writing, conversation and cigars, and free from anyone telling us he had to put it out.  He played an album of classical music, while teasing me about the global rock n’ roll of my Deep Ecology Medicine Show act, the elder pouring a glass of whiskey, the younger seated far from his alternative culture of hippies and mountain men, medicine women and pipes filled with a relaxing herb.  Ed ranted about the self indulgence and trivial tangents of modern poets, while admitting he’d tried his hand on writing poetry his self.  We commiserated about the intense feelings of magic and mystery that the wild Gila forest of S.W. New Mexico excites, while regretting we could not use the word “magic” without being lumped with the carefully quaffed, gentle speaking peddlers New Age foolishness.  He remarked about the restraint and boredom inherent in marriage, told me how much he would like to come visit me in my Gila canyon home and bemoaned that probably never would.  He wistfully mentioned the handful of road graders parked unattended just up from their street, set to begin ripping the life out of the desert again come the following Monday, before pouring another drink and settling deeper into chair.  I rode off into the warm Arizona night on my motorcycle, compelled to emphasize in my mind a particularly useful bit of Abbey advice.

“It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”

The art of doing wasn’t just a matter of resistance, I knew, an insight I had only slowly learned to apply.  Along with the resistance and struggle, the activism and wilderness restoration, we needed to also nourish ourselves with wild ideas and wild places, well prepared and fully tasted meals.  We needed, and still need, a balance point somewhere between mournful resignation and desperate reaction, a place alive with both ideas and acts, silence and song.

“One brave deed is worth a hundred books, a thousand theories, a million words.”

That said, Abbey’s words were an action in themselves, accelerants feeding the fires of so many others’ passions and causes.  And when he was asked what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, he cited not the joys of writing so much as those of food and flesh, family and friendship, in all cases most ideally shared far from pavement and in the illumination of the unbowed desert night’s boundless flurry of stars.

“I shall continue… for as long as it gives me pleasure.”


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Categories: Advocacy & Activism, Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales

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