Dear Abbey: Thank You Note to a Desert Philosopher

A Fan's Notes


| November-December 2001


Dear Edward Abbey,

I apologize for barely taking notice when you died 12 years ago. Please accept my belated thanks for your novels, nature essays, and journals. Your words have goaded and inspired me.

Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951–1989 got me started. Reading your diaries was like opening a door. I no longer felt so alienated, sensing a kindred spirit when I learned you’d put the French philosopher Diderot’s maxim on the cover of the college literary magazine you edited: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Perhaps it was the attribution to Louisa May Alcott that got the magazine suspended.

After Confessions, I devoured three of your novels, rolled my eyes at your posthumous poetry collection Earth Apples (doggerel at its finest, with a few exceptions), and poked around Abbey’s Web (www.abbeyweb.net) for more accurate biographical background than James Bishop’s enthusiastic but errant Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey (Atheneum, 1994). I liked James Cahalan’s new biography, Edward Abbey: A Life (University of Arizona, 2001). Cahalan seems better at showing what a complex person you were: desert contrarian, born and raised in the Pennsylvania foothills of the Appalachians, contentious, playful, principled, lusty, courageous, and happily paradoxical.

Now I’m dipping into your essays, which have been sitting on my shelves for years. I’ve just finished reading Desert Solitaire, published in 1968, a year in which assassinations and riots dominated the news. Thirty-three years later, by sheer coincidence, my Utne Reader colleague Karen Olson happened to start reading that book at the same time I did. Stranger yet, on the day I discovered this fact I got two e-mail newsletters, one with an epigraph by you and the other with references to your Confessions and to a hummingbird dubbed “Cactus Ed” in your honor. Then, when I walked outside, I saw a truck with Utah plates—on a street in Minneapolis. Why all this synchronicity, Ed? Actually, I think I know. We need your words now just as we need wilderness.

Because of your influence, the color red makes me picture those slick rock canyons in southeastern Utah with walls striated like muscle. Thanks to you I know my boojum from a hole in a Joshua tree. I can even hear the grunt of a javelina, though I’ve not set foot in Arizona for more than two decades. I just unearthed some notes I jotted a few years ago, and your influence pervades them. “Enough of self-imposed constraints,” I wrote, vowing to go for a long walk in the desert, write poetry, breathe fresh air, slow down, laugh more, and hang out with friends.