10 July, 2008

Edward Abbey


Edward Paul Abbey was an American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues and criticism of public land policies. His best-known works include the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has been cited as an inspiration by radical environmental groups, and the non-fiction work Desert Solitaire. Writer Larry McMurtry referred to Abbey as the "Thoreau of the American West".

Abbey was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Home, Pennsylvania, where there is a Pennsylvania state historical marker in his honor. In the summer of 1944 he headed west, and fell in love with the desert country of the Four Corners region. He wrote, "For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same." He received a Master's Degree in philosophy from the University of New Mexico and also studied at the University of Edinburgh. In the late 1950s Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger for the United States Park Service at Arches National Monument (now a national park), near the town of Moab, Utah, which was not then known for extreme sports but for its desolation and uranium mines. It was there that he penned the journals that would become one of his most famous works, 1968's Desert Solitaire, which Abbey described "...not [as] a travel guide, but an elegy."

Desert Solitaire is regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature, and has been compared to Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Thoreau's Walden. In it, Abbey vividly describes the physical landscapes of Southern Utah and delights in his isolation as a backcountry park ranger, recounting adventures in the nearby canyon country and mountains. He also attacks what he terms the "industrial tourism" and resulting development in the national parks ("national parking lots"), rails against the Glen Canyon Dam, and comments on various other subjects.

Abbey died in 1989 at the age of 62 at his home near Oracle, Arizona. He is survived by two daughters, Susie and Becky; and three sons, Joshua, Aaron and Benjamin.

Abbey's abrasiveness, opposition to anthropocentrism (sometimes characterized as misanthropy), and outspoken writings made him the object of much controversy. Conventional environmentalists from mainstream groups disliked his more radical "Keep America Beautiful...Burn a Billboard" style. Based on his writings and statements--and apparently in a few cases, actions--many believe that Abbey did advocate ecotage or sabotage in behalf of ecology. The controversy intensified with the publication of Abbey's most famous work of fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel centers on a small group of eco-warriors who travel the American West attempting to put the brakes on uncontrolled human expansion by committing acts of sabotage against industrial development projects. Abbey claimed the novel was written merely to "entertain and amuse," and was intended as symbolic satire. Others saw it as a how-to guide to non-violent ecotage, as the main characters attack things, such as road-building equipment, and not people. The novel inspired environmentalists frustrated with mainstream environmentalist groups and what they saw as unacceptable compromises. Earth First! was formed as a result in 1980, advocating eco-sabotage or "monkeywrenching." Although Abbey never officially joined the group, he became associated with many of its members, and occasionally wrote for the organization.

Sometimes called the "desert anarchist," Abbey was known to anger people of all political stripes, including environmentalists. In his essays the narrator describes throwing beer cans out of his car, claiming the highway had already littered the landscape. Abbey even had an FBI file opened on him in 1947, after he posted a letter while in college urging people to rid themselves of their draft cards. He differed from the stereotype of environmentalist as politically-correct leftist by disclaiming the counterculture and the "trendy campus people", saying he didn't want them as his primary fans, and by supporting some conservative causes such as immigration reduction and the National Rifle Association. He devoted one chapter in his book Hayduke Lives to poking fun at left-green leader Murray Bookchin. However, he reserves his harshest criticism for the military-industrial complex, "welfare ranchers," energy companies, land developers and "Chambers of Commerce," all of which he believed were destroying the West's great landscapes. Abbey refused to be pigeon-holed by the left or the right; above all he was a staunch advocate for wilderness preservation and ecological protection. Abbey thrived on controversy; his popularity has proven to span generations.

Edward Abbey died on March 14, 1989 due to complications from surgery. Abbey died after four days of esophageal hemorrhaging, due to esophageal varices, a recurrent problem with one group of veins. Showing his sense of humor, he left a message for anyone who asked about his final words: "No comment."

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