Edward Abbey – muddling his way toward simplicity, liberty, and community

American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues and his anarchist political views, Edward Abbey was a voice of reason in a world that had lost its way. We can still learn much from him.

Edward-AbbeyEdward Abbey (1927-89) fell in love with the desert country of the Four Corners – a region of the United States consisting of the southwestern corner of Colorado, northwestern corner of New Mexico, northeastern corner of Arizona and southeastern corner of Utah – during a hitchhiking and train hopping trip in 1945. The Four Corners is the only location in the United States where four states meet.

He rediscovered that passion in 1956-57 when he worked two summers as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument – a national park in eastern Utah, USA. The journals he wrote there eventually became one of his most famous works of non-fiction, Desert Solitaire, described by The New York Times (28 January 1968) as “a voice crying in the wilderness, for the wilderness.”

The third sentence of Desert Solitaire nails his colours to the mast. It reads: “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

Later in the book Abbey states his personal credo: “A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins. … If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss.”

Four-CornersAbbey suffered recurrent health problems. Terminally ill in 1989 he was hospitalised, but managed to get himself kidnapped and taken home. After he died on 14 March, and in keeping with his last wishes, he was buried in a secret desert location – doubtless somewhere around the Four Corners – with the epitaph “No Comment” carved on a nearby headstone made of volcanic-rock.

Desert Solitaire (1968) remains his chief monument along with The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), a novel about using sabotage to protest against activities that damage the environment of the American Southwest. Less well known but equally compelling are his many postcards to friends, writers, critics, publishers, politicians, celebrities and fans.

A collection was published in Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast (2006). Full of insight and wisdom, they deserve reading and re-reading in today’s socially and environmentally challenged world. One gem from 1988 asks:

“Does the human race deserve a final chance? Considering what we’ve done to each other and to life in general during the past five thousand years, I’m tempted to say that we do not. But I am the father of two small children. The children are innocent until proven guilty. For their sake, not ours, we must soldier on, muddling our way toward frugality, simplicity, liberty, community, until some kind of sane and rational balance is achieved between our ability to love and our cockeyed ambition to conquer and dominate everything in sight. No wonder galaxies recede from us in every direction, fleeing at velocities that approach the speed of light. They are frightened. We humans are the Terror of the Universe.”

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