Letters from a Desert Prophet

Ed Abbey's prescient voice rings out again

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Edward Abbey contained multitudes. Born in 1927 in rural Pennsylvania, 'Cactus Ed' lived most of his life in the desert West, a magical place he first saw as a boy riding the rails, land he loved and honored in such books as Desert Solitaire (McGraw-Hill, 1968). Though he was eventually known as a nature writer, Abbey rebelled against pigeonholing. Novelist, poet, diarist, saboteur, and political philosopher, Abbey also worked seasonally at more than a dozen national parks, monuments, and forests from the mid '50s through the late '70s, as a ranger and fire lookout. More than anything, though, Abbey was a lover. 'Love can defeat that nameless terror,' he once wrote. 'Loving one another, we take the sting from death. Loving our mysterious blue planet, we resolve riddles and dissolve all enigmas in contingent bliss.'

Since his death in Arizona in 1989, Abbey's writings-urging that cars be forbidden in national parks, advocating removal of dams, forecasting the erosion of civil liberties, and decrying unchecked growth-seem more prophetic than ever. His range is apparent in Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast, edited by David Petersen and due out from Milkweed Editions in September. These missives to friends, family, politicians, editors, publishers, and others, dating from 1949 to 1989, show that Abbey was cantankerous and passionate, but also wanted to engage in real and respectful debate about politics, literature, and life itself. We've selected the letters that follow from more than 230 that will appear in Postcards from Ed.
-The Editors

 

Abbey seemed to revel in railing against the devastation of wild lands, almost as much as he hated the destruction itself. Postcards from Ed includes several letters of this type, one suggesting that every 4x4 on earth be driven into the Marianas Trench and parked there 'for the duration.'

To Esquire magazine,
New York City

(September 11, 1976)

Dear Sirs:

I read with interest your two stories in the September issue promoting 'Traction'-ORVs or 'escape machines,' as your writers call them.

Let me tell you what a lot of us who live out here in the American West think about your goddamned Off-Road Vehicles. We think they are a goddamned plague. Like the snowmobile in New England, the dune buggy on the seashore, the ORV out here in the desert and mesa country is a public nuisance, a destroyer of plant life and wildlife, a gross polluter of fresh air, stillness, peace and solitude.

The fat pink soft slobs who go roaring over the landscape in these over-sized over-priced over-advertised mechanical mastodons are people too lazy to walk, too ignorant to saddle a horse, too cheap and clumsy to paddle a canoe. Like cattle or sheep, they travel in herds, scared to death of going anywhere alone, and they leave their sign and spoor all over the back country: Coors beer cans, Styrofoam cups, plastic spoons, balls of Kleenex, wads of toilet paper, spent cartridge shells, crushed gopher snakes, smashed sagebrush, broken trees, dead chipmunks, wounded deer, eroded trails, bullet-riddled petroglyphs, spray-painted signatures, vandalized Indian ruins, fouled-up water holes, polluted springs and smoldering campfires piled with incombustible tinfoil, filter tips, broken bottles. Etc.

It is not the bureaucrats back in Washington who are trying to stop this motorized invasion of what little wild country still remains in America; on the contrary, the bureaucrats are doing far too little. What feeble resistance has so far appeared comes from concerned citizens here and there who are trying to prod and encourage the bureaucrats to do their duty: namely, to save the public lands for their primary purpose, which is wildlife, habitat, livestock forage, watershed protection and non-motorized human recreation.

Thank God for the coming and inevitable day of gasoline rationing, which will retire all these goddamned ORVs and 'escape machines' to the junkyards where they belong.
Ed Abbey-Moab

 

Abbey's philosophy drew heavily from the Thoreauvian tradition, valuing individual human freedom highly, even as he went further and saw through the eyes of lizards and 'buzzards' (as he referred to vultures).

To High Country News,
Lander, Wyoming

(October 4, 1986)

Dear Editor:

Sorry to intrude upon your columns once again, but I would like to correct a few errors in the account of my remarks at the Telluride 'Ideas Festival.'

About growth, I said that 'Growth is the enemy of progress.' (Figure that out for yourselves.) I said, furthermore, that 'every normal, healthy organism, plant or animal, human or otherwise, grows to a certain optimum size (not 'space,' a meaningless notion); and then, having reached maturity, stops growing physically.' Anything which grows without ceasing we call a monster-or a tumor.

As to reason and common sense, I believe in both. What I said at Telluride was that, judging from human history, so far, I have little hope or faith that reason and common sense will be applied in our attempts to resolve our ever-growing problems. (One more example of the self-contradicting nature of 'healthy growth.') What will probably happen, I said, is that nature will solve our troubles for us in the traditional manner: through plague, famine, civil war, earthquake, flood and climatic changes. Since we humans choose to breed and multiply like rabbits, mule deer, fruit flies or bacteria in a culture dish, we must expect to enjoy a similar fate-over and over again, as in the past. Nothing to regret here, it's simply one aspect of the grand pageant of life. I merely wish to insist that we must stop pretending that we are somehow different from, or in some fashion superior to, the other animals on this planet.

Did I really say that 'an ice age would be nice'? Actually, I'm in favor of expanding desertification. I'd like to see North America become a dry, sunny, sandy region inhabited mainly by lizards, buzzards and a modest human population-about 25 million would be plenty-of pastoralists and prospectors (prospecting for truth), gathering once a year in the ruins of ancient, mysterious cities for great ceremonies of music, art, dance, poetry, joy, faith and renewal. That's my dream of the American future. Like most such dreams, it will probably come true. That is why I'm still an optimist.

Sincerely, Edward Abbey-Moab

 

Trickster was another of Abbey's roles. A letter to 'Mizz magazine' in 1973 needled that 'Some of us menfolks here in Winkelman ain't too happy with this here magazine of yourn' (and drew a good-humored response from Ms. founder Gloria Steinem). The letter below was addressed to Abbey's friend David Petersen, who would later edit selections from Abbey's poems (Earth Apples) and journals (Confessions of a Barbarian), as well as Postcards from Ed.

To David Petersen
(circa March 1989)

Dear Friend:

Perhaps you have heard of me and my nationwide campaign in the cause of temperance. Each year, for the past fourteen years, I have made a tour of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Texas and have delivered a series of lectures on the evils of drinking.

On this tour I have been accompanied by my young friend and assistant, Clyde Lindstone. Clyde, a young man of good family and excellent background, was a pathetic example of life ruined by excessive indulgence in whisky and women.

Clyde would appear with me at the lectures and sit on the platform, wheezing and staring at the audience through bleary, bloodshot eyes, sweating profusely, picking his nose, passing gas and making obscene gestures to the ladies present, while I would point him out as a perfect example of what over-indulgence can do to a good man.

Last fall, unfortunately, Clyde died.

A mutual acquaintance, Dr. Stan Silberman, has given me your name and suggested that you may be seeking employment in the near future. I wonder if you would be available to take Clyde's place in my forthcoming lecture tour?

Yours in Faith, Rev. Edwin P. Abbott

 

One can imagine Abbey's response had he lived to know that former Cyprus Pima Mine Company president Paul W. Allen was awarded a Medal of Merit at the 1999 American Mining Hall of Fame and Annual Awards Banquet.

To Paul W. Allen
(July 24, 1976)

Dear Mr. Allen:

In reply to your letter of July 20th:

Yes, the smoke from a copper smelter looks white as it leaves the stacks. But as those gases level out and form a plume they react with sunlight and take on a yellowish-brown color. Anyone who lives in southern Arizona knows this. I have seen it for years from Tucson, from the Catalina Mts, from the air, from Table Mt above the San Pedro Valley, where I worked for three years on the Whittell Ranch, and from Organ Pipe, where I worked several winters as a park ranger. I have a friend working now as a fire lookout in the Tonto Forest; he sends me regular reports on the extent and distribution of smelter smog. The Group Against Smelter Pollution (G.A.S.P.) in Tucson has been trying for years to get the goddamned EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act in southern Arizona. Everyone knows the problem exists, except the state politicians and their employers, the officials of the copper industry.

Your response is so typical. Instead of doing something constructive about smelter pollution, you attempt to deny that it exists. Instead of attacking the problem, you attack your critics. Instead of installing the B.A.T., you build higher stacks, dispersing the filth over a wider area rather than keeping it out of the public air entirely.

It is this concern for profit above the public good that makes me question the practice of absentee or out-of-state ownership of the Arizona copper industry. Perhaps if you and other copper industry officials and the major stockholders made your homes in southern Arizona you would show a little more concern for human health, not so much for your profit margins. We can live with less copper, or with no copper at all, but we cannot long survive without clean air.

Yours sincerely, Edward Abbey-Moab

 

Abbey may have been a sovereign state of one, but his social concerns ran deep, as the following 'no, thank you' letter attests. 'Without courage, all other virtues are useless,' he once wrote, and he was acutely aware that speaking in dissent was easier (and more cowardly) than taking action.

To the Arizona Daily Star,
Tucson

(December 29, 1972)

Editor, the Star:

After winning the election with the fraudulent promise that 'peace is at hand,' the Nixon-Kissinger team have now revealed the true depth of their intellectual dishonesty and moral corruption. Through the tangled cobweb of official lies comes the thunder of the bombs falling on the people of Vietnam. After eight years of defoliating forests, poisoning rice fields, burning villages, napalming civilians, and torturing prisoners, our Government is now engaged in an apparent effort to obliterate the cities and destroy the population of the northern half of the little peasant nation of Vietnam.

Nothing in American history, not even the wars against the Indians, can equal the shame and brutality and cowardice of this war. It makes an obscenity of our Christmas holidays and sinks our own Government and all who passively consent to its atrocities down to the moral level of Stalinist Russia and Hitler's Germany.

Our so-called leaders speak of an 'honorable' withdrawal from Vietnam, but there can be no honorable conclusion to such a dishonorable war. The only decent thing we can do now is to somehow compel those moral degenerates in the White House and Pentagon to stop their cowardly attack on Vietnam and then begin at once, as best we can, to help the survivors in that devastated land rebuild their farms, homes, villages, and cities, and reconstruct their shattered culture. If, that is, they would even be willing to accept aid from our bloody hands.

Edward Abbey

 

Ultimately, no one mattered more to Abbey than family, including his anticapitalist father. One letter in Postcards from Ed addresses the compiler of a history of 'distinguished citizens' of his home county in Pennsylvania. 'Their contributions certainly exceed mine,' Abbey writes of his parents. 'Therefore . . . I would prefer not to be included in your book unless you also include them.'

To Paul Revere Abbey,
Home, Pennsylvania

(March 14, 1975)

Dear Dad,

Got your long letter and feel very bad. I am terribly sorry if I hurt your feelings. I did not mean to; I was responding to a letter from Mother in which she said you seemed to be wasting away, in effect, by staying in bed all the time. At least that was my impression of what she said, though I'm not sure where I put her letter now.

You know damn well you have always been my hero, and I know damn well you have worked very hard most of your life, and maybe you did, as you say, overstrain your heart at some time. Nor did I know that you have been to see two more doctors in addition to Bee. Of course, if all three doctors agree that you should take it easy, then I agree with them: you should. I guess it is unrealistic of me to think that you could continue to do the extraordinary things you used to do right up to the end of your days.

Painful subject-but surely we can be open with each other. I know that you are going to have to die sometime, probably before I do, and I hope very much that it doesn't happen to you in a goddamned hospital bed. Having witnessed that kind of end for someone I love already, I don't want to see it happen that way to you. On the other hand, I do want you to hang around as long as possible, just as I plan to do myself.

I suppose each of us has his own fantasy of how he wants to die. I would like to go out in a blaze of glory, myself, or maybe simply disappear someday, far out in the heart of the wilderness I love, all by myself, alone with the Universe and whatever God may happen to be looking on. Disappear-and never return. That's my fantasy. And I suppose, unconsciously, I have imagined that kind of death for you. But why should you want to fulfill my fantasy?

And furthermore, by the time I'm your age (if I live that long), I'll probably see things in a different, not quite so romantic, light. Anyway, I apologize, and do look forward to seeing you here in Moab this spring. Then we'll go out on Grand View Point and talk the whole matter out, to the very end. I love you, old man, never mind all the stupid things I may have said.

Ed-Moab