Burying Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey died thirty years ago today.

Although I did not know it at the time, I first met Edward Abbey through a book about the Great Smokey Mountains. He was the book’s author. Being a Pennsylvania boy like me, Abbey appreciated the soft round fullness of the Appalachian Mountains. So he spoke well of the place—in his own prickly style. And why not? With Clingmans Dome poking into the clouds at 6600’; with the historic hollow of Cade’s Cove deep in one of its valleys, with hillsides seeped in the eternal mist of untold exhaling trees; with the half-buried secrets of the Cherokee and Scotch-Irish settlers, you won’t find a finer example of the Appalachians than the Great Smokies.

Like me, Abbey also suffered from wanderlust, that itch you scratch with new place names on new maps, the next river bend, the next flank on the next trail. Before I was born he had wandered west. When I couldn’t hike or paddle, I had armchair adventures back in our little house in Grindstone, Pennsylvania. At one point I picked up another book called Cactus Country. There was that cantankerous voice again, ringing this time like a clapper in a bell—the clarion call of twisted spiny plants, broken down porphyritic rocks, gaudy sunsets, and a sere, always thirsty land. If I had slipped the previous book back on its shelf, this time I did not. This was new. And it was fascinating.

I was lured west. Or I should say ‘we‘ since I had a family by then. Admittedly, Cactus Country had an impact on where we pushed our pin into the map. And it was here in Tucson at the Haunted Bookshop—now a ghost itself—that I discovered Desert Solitaire. This time it took only Abbey’s name on the cover to make me read it. By the time I closed the book, it had transformed how I looked at wilderness; how I looked at writing; and how I looked at authors.

Abbey’s simple wilderness ethics and spare writing style followed a single guidon: his fierce independence. Well, maybe two, since he was a hopeless romantic as well. His approach to wilderness was  pedestrian, clear-eyed and uncluttered, save the necessary allowances for laziness and economy. His writing, too, was stripped to the essence. He had little tolerance for adjectives, placing them as carefully as an artist fitting tiles to a mosaic. He simply wrote down what he saw. If he described a landscape too fantastic to be true, it was because it was too fantastic to be true. He became the first author who made me want to read everything he wrote.

So I started in on his fiction. By the time I’d read most of it, he’d finished his “fat, American novel,” The Fool’s Progress. It was printed the same year as the 20th anniversary edition of Desert Solitaire. As a concession to being a Tucson resident, Professor Abbey stepped off his dais at the university and wandered into The Haunted Bookshop to sign copies. I handed over my fresh hardback copy of Desert Solitaire and, while he scribbled in it, explained that he had been sort of responsible for my kids, then aged 6, 4 and 2, being dragged all over the state of Arizona. We switched books, and when he handed back A Fool’s Progress he had written, “to Gerald & Kelly and three great kids! from Ol’ Uncle Ed Abbey, Tucson 1988.”

And then just like that he was gone.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then, traveling in ever widening circles, chasing his ghost. Or maybe using it as an excuse to simply wander in ever widening circles. The circles grew, in time, to include rivers and canyons in Utah. Then, just a few years ago, Arches National Park itself. And finally, just this past year, a river journey through Grand Canyon. It’s been an amazing journey. My plan, before the 50th anniversary of his passing, is to romp through it all again, with some well-worn copies of his books along for the ride. I suspect, at the end of it all, his ideas will still be valid. Which brings me to one other thing I want to say.

Abbey needs no apologists. I doubt he cottoned to that sort of thing. But I’d like to clear up one little misunderstanding about where he stands among today’s philosophers. Quite a few believe, maybe because of his unflinching advocacy of wilderness preservation, that he was a bit of a socialist. He might admit to that on an off night. But that’s far from the truth. He was a salt-of-the-earth hillbilly and a rock-ribbed conservative. I’m not calling him a right-winger. I can already imagine him bristling at being lumped with those pustular, rabid dogs, eager to fatten themselves selling our planet off to the highest bidder. Nope, Abbey pointed out often enough how to keep that fat mixed into the stew. I say conservative in that he actually believed in conserving things. The more irreplaceable it was, the more loudly he spoke out for it. And, he is also differentiated from the piss-ants of current conservatism by a sense of humor. In other words, he knew what should be shared; what should be kept; and he faced the psychotic babble of the world outside of those safe mountain valleys with a bit of sardonic wit. In short, he reminds me of home, of the people I grew up around.

Do I have a point? Probably not. I just wanted to say that I miss Cactus Ed, that my life has been a bit better because of him. When I sometimes forget that it’s good to be out there, out in the empty spaces, trudging along—cold, wet, tired, thirsty, hungry, lost—there is that voice again reminding me why it’s all worthwhile. And since there’s no sense in me offering a second-hand reminder, I’ll let Ed finish this:

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. 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. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
—Edward Abbey, Missoula, Montana, 1976

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