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  • Matthew Kerns

Ed Abbey

Today we wish a happy birthday to writer and wilderness advocate Edward Abbey, who would have been 93 years old today. This is the benediction he wrote for his book Desert Solitaire, considered by many to be the equivalent of Thoreau's Walden Pond for the American West:



“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”



If you, like me, are a reader, then you will encounter in your life a few authors whose influence will be elevated above all others. While you will enjoy, if you are lucky, a great many books, you will be changed by just a handful. Edward Abbey was for me one of those writers and wrote three of those books—Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and his journals, collected as Confessions of a Barbarian. Abbey was a rare talent and a rare man, a passionate defender of the pristine wilderness and an advocate of tossing empty beer cans out the window of his car as it sped along the highway. It was the highway rather than the can, he reasoned, that had spoiled the view. Abbey wrote movingly about the wilderness of the American West, but couldn't understand "why so many want to read about the world out-of-doors, when it's more interesting simply to go for a walk into the heart of it." Abbey's politics tended towards anarchism—not the kind espoused by teenagers scrawling the circle-A on various articles of clothing, but the belief that if the better government is the one that governs least, then the best government must then be the one that governs not at all. "Anarchism is not a romantic fable," wrote Abbey, "but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners."

This anarchic view was most prominent in Abbey's advocacy of wilderness protection. Characters in his books set fire to billboards, blow up dams, pour Karo syrup into the tanks of earth moving equipment, and spike trees. "I come more and more to the conclusion that wilderness," Abbey wrote, "in America or anywhere else, is the only thing left that is worth saving." "If wilderness is outlawed," he concluded, "only outlaws can save wilderness."


Yet even in his passion in defense of our wild spaces, Abbey was hypocritical in the best way. To his friends and those who would take up their arms and follow him, Edward Abbey offered "one final paragraph of advice:"


"Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”


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