Edward Abbey Essays Online


Outside magazine, October 1997


Edward Abbey
He loved to be in our face. Still does, no doubt.

By Terry Tempest Williams


With a pen in his right hand and a monkey wrench in his left, this native son of an Allegheny farmer named Paul Revere Abbey torqued and turned phrases that deepened and radicalized the environmental consciousness of the country. He was the Mark Twain of the American desert; he was bad behavior and big-hearted ideas. "I am ù really am ù an extremist," he declared, "one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another. That's the way I like it."

There was never any doubt about what Edward Abbey liked and what he did not ù his voice as a writer, philosopher, and full-time agitator is hardly subtle. Through his work we see a passionate and paradoxical soul "fueled in equal parts by anger and love," as he wrote. "How feel one without the other?"

Abbey's love and anger fill the pages of books that span the four decades he lived in the Southwest, his adopted homeland. He began with the novels Jonathan Troy and The Brave Cowboy in the fifties; put Moab, Utah, on the literary map in 1968 with Desert Solitaire; rose to subversive heights in the seventies with The Monkey Wrench Gang, bringing "eco-sabotage" into our vocabulary; and concluded, in the eighties, with a fervent outpouring of essays and novels such as The Fool's Progress. He remained true to his credo: "I write to entertain my friends and to exasperate our enemies.... I write to make a difference.... To honor life and to praise the divine beauty of the natural world."

W. H. Auden tells us that when a writer dies he becomes his readers. If this is true, then Edward Abbey has had an exceptionally spirited afterlife. He has become the redrock activists of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, who pledge allegiance to the Colorado Plateau. He is the Wildlands Project and the Wildlife Damage Review and the myriad voices defending ecological justice on behalf of landscape and animals. He persists as the sane wit who challenges the consensus-driven bureaucrats of the New West and the thoughtless powers behind industrial tourism. He is the fuel and fire for yet another generation falling in love with the desert. He survives as the hot-tempered muse jarring us out of complacency, reminding us that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." Edward Abbey has become our sacred rage.

Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.

Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.

Anyone who goes beyond the city limits of almost any Western town can see for himself that the land is overgrazed. There are too many cows and horses and sheep out there. Of course, cattlemen would never publicly confess to overgrazing, any more than Dracula would publicly confess to a fondness for blood. Cattlemen are interested parties. Many of them will not give reliable testimony. Some have too much at stake: their Cadillacs and their airplanes, their ranch resale profits and their capital gains. (I’m talking about the corporation ranchers, the land-and-cattle companies, the investment syndicates.) Others, those ranchers who have only a small base property, flood the public lands with their cows. About 8 percent of the federal-land permittees have cattle that consume approximately 45 percent of the forage on the government rangelands.

Our public lands have been overgrazed for a century. The Government Accounting Office knows it. And overgrazing means eventual ruin, just like strip mining or clear-cutting or the damming of rivers. Much of the Southwest already looks like Mexico or southern Italy or North Africa: a cowburnt wasteland.

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