Letters from a Desert Prophet

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

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
, 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
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 4×4 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

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

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,

(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

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

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.


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