Dear Abbey: Thank You Note to a Desert Philosopher

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.

I have to confess I’m going back to Utah soon. Cripes. I know you think I should stay away. I can’t. But don’t worry. I won’t spray-paint “Abbey lives!” on a rock somewhere. You were a better teacher than that. Cahalan quotes your advice to Earth First! rally participants: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” You are an example of what it means to be fully human: engaged in a world of friends, family, and allies and part of a natural world away from mirrors, right angles, and cement.

But five wives, Ed? Sheesh. Pardon my directness: How did it feel to be older than your own father-in-law? I can understand why some people are a bit more comfortable with you now that you’re gone. Your old friend Doug Peacock seems to have come to terms with your using him as a model for Hayduke in your novel of eco-sabotage, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Still I wonder: Did Peacock and cohorts really bury you in the desert on March 16, 1989?

Are you really dead? I imagine you now in a place where life and death meet daily, in a wilderness of silence and potential, soaring with the turkey vultures, swimming with the “rosy-bottomed skinny-dippers” you so loved.

In any case, gracias, Ed. Thanks for your prickly aphorisms, ribald benedictions, and uplifting caveats. And thanks above all for your encouragement.

With gratitude and affection,

A Fan

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