A few years back, in March 2010, I presented a talk at the La Veta, Colorado Public Library for their “Two Peaks, One Book” program. The presentation was on their book selection, Ed Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang. Around 50 people attended and lively discussion followed my talk. I had planned to rework the talk for possible publication, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen, so I thought I’d post it here.
Anxiety of Influence: A Lifetime of Haggling With Cactus Ed
I grew up in Pittsburgh, in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania. Like a lot of kids raised in the heyday of the space race, I was a serious astronomy geek. When it came time to go to college, I headed west and south, to the University of Arizona in Tucson. My conscious reason was the clear skies and one of the best astronomy programs in the country, and at the time I fully expected that I’d be living on Mars by now. But having consumed a steady diet of “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” and “Bonanza,” I suspect I was also motivated by an incipient hankering for the Wild West.
Arriving in Tucson, it didn’t take me long to bomb out of the Astronomy program. The math made my head spin. I wanted to sit on a mountain top and look at stars, not run calculations in a windowless room. Having been an avid reader, and lacking any real career ambitions now that going to Mars was off the table, I switched to English.
And in Tucson, besides confirming my math aversion and discovering Walt Whitman and Loren Eiseley in my English classes, I also discovered the desert. The University had (maybe still does) a very active hiking club, the Ramblers. I joined those folks many a weekend for outings to the Chiricahuas, the Santa Ritas, the Grand Canyon. I also rode my bike or hitchiked regularly out into the desert mountains that surround Tucson and took weekend-long backpacking trips into the Rincons and the Catalinas.
On these outings I developed a strong and, as it turned out, life-long love of the desert, and I could also impress my campfire mates by identifying all of the constellations for them, so my astronomy interest wasn’t entirely squandered.
I have to say, the amount of time I spent on mountain and desert trails significantly impaired my grade point average, but not, truth be told, my education. Really, for the most part, that time on the trails was my education.
After two years at the University of Arizona, however, and now an English major, I couldn’t really justify paying out of state tuition. There were plenty of decent English programs back home. So for my Junior year I transferred to a school 50 miles from Pittsburgh, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a mid-size school in a college town surrounded by coal country and rolling farmland.
Searching through the shelves in the nature section of a local bookstore one day, I noticed a book titled Desert Solitaire. Longing for the desert, I snapped it up and began to read, enrapt. Desert Solitaire struck just the right chord in the cynical outdoor loner that I was at the time. I’d read Thoreau in high school, not for classes but on my own–if you can imagine such a thing–so I was primed for Abbey. Desert Solitaire validated and sanctioned the romantic impulses I had. The crazy desire to throw a pack on my back and strike out, often alone, into desert mountains or deep forests no longer seemed so crazy. And Abbey’s disdain for conventional culture was perfect confirmation for my own sense of alienation from much of what I knew at the time as American culture, mid 1970s.
A while later, there was a party at the house where I was living, and one of the guests, noticing the book on a table, removed the beer bottle from his mouth, and announced, “hey, did you know that guy grew up around here?” “No, “I said, “I didn’t.” “Yeah, and his old man owns a rock shop outside of town, up near Home.”
A few days later I was pedaling my bike through the green countryside, along the windy roads, while massive loaded coal trucks rushed past my left shoulder. I could hear them coming a long way off, and always cringed as they passed. Sometimes I thought the truck drivers liked to see how close they could come to the hippie on the bike, without actually hitting him, of course. I was headed north along route 119 towards the improbably named town of Home.
Sure enough, beside the road, I spotted an old farm house with a sign out front “Rock Shop: Open.” As I recall, a detached garage adjacent to the house held the rocks, chaotically arranged in boxes and wooden crates. I sauntered in. An elderly man greeted me, Paul Revere Abbey. I cannily admired some rocks. At some point I mentioned Ed’s book, and he replied, “Oh, you’ve read that book, have you?” And we began to chat, about Ed, and about rocks. I’d taken a few geology courses so I wasn’t a complete dunce. “Hmm, nice chunk of porphoritic rhyolite ya got there, sir.” “Oooh, cool obsidian, sharp, ain’t it.” The senior Mister Abbey collected most of the rocks and other artifacts on display during a yearly road trip to the Southwest, where he visited with his son, worked at times as a fire lookout, and regularly hiked across the Grand Canyon, rim to rim, even into his 80s.
Starving student that I was, I don’t think I actually bought anything. Frankly, I doubt he sold many rocks to anyone. Clearly the purpose of the rock shop was to give him a plausible excuse to head southwest every year. He gave me a few, as well as an Anasazi pottery shard, which, though I now suspect was illegally gathered, I still have as one of my most cherished possessions.
Over the next few months I read the books Abbey had so far published, The Brave Cowboy and Fire on the Mountain. I even tracked down a very rare copy of Abbey’s first novel, Jonathan Troy. It was in the covetous possession of a local bookshop owner, who loaned it to me on pain of death if I damaged or failed to return it. It wasn’t half bad, though Abbey disliked it and refused to allow a second edition to be published.
In the summer of 1976, in need of a desert fix. I hitchhiked from Pennsylvania, first to Rocky Mt. National Park, where I recall sitting on a ridge high in the park and watching fireworks for the bicentennial 4th of July blossom silently far out over the prairie.
I was heading for Tucson, but of course, having read Desert Solitaire, I had to stop at Arches National Monument. I disdained camping in the official campgrounds, and since I was hitching and didn’t have a car, I found it easy enough to wander outlaw-like off into the rugged juniper, pinyon, and boulder filled landscape, prop my pack against a juniper, and roll out my sleeping bag in its shade.
Heading back towards the park facilities to fill my water bottles, I spotted a trailer through the trees. Aha, I thought, what luck! There’s Abbey’s trailer! I reverently approached. As I got closer, I spotted a hand-written note on the door:
“Attention: This was NOT Ed Abbey’s Trailer.”
I turned away chagrined and embarrassed, and resumed my search for a water pump.
While funny, this experience is also suggestive. Within 8 years of its publication, Desert Solitaire had made Arches enough of a pilgrimage site that the rangers were becoming annoyed. This suggests the remarkable power of the book, but also the ironic consequence that Abbey may have begun to encourage the very tourists that he had railed against. A mixed legacy, to be sure. And one has to wonder what role Desert Solitaire played in the evolution of Moab from a sleepy desert mining town into a poster-child for new western extravagance and the commodification of the desert.
Years later, when Jim Cahalan was researching his biography, Ed Abbey: A Life, I shared the anecdote of the trailer with him. He later informed me that while doing interviews with Abbey’s friends, he had discovered that the note had been put there by Jim Stiles. Jim, like me, had been an impressionable young man when he read Desert Solitaire, and had moved from Kentucky to Arches the year before I visited to become a ranger there. He lived in Moab, became friends with Abbey, his illustrations are on the cover of several of Abbey’s books, and he later founded the curmudgeonly newspaper The Canyon Country Zephyr. In October 2009, I finally met Jim at the Western Literature Association conference in South Dakota, and we shared a good laugh about the sign.
After Arches, I continued my trip, hitching to the north rim of the Grand Canyon and hiking across to the south rim, just like Paul Revere Abbey did. Then on to Tucson.
Later, back in Pennsylvania, during my senior year, with a few other English majors I had started a little literary magazine on campus, the New Growth Arts Review, (which is still being published). But if being editor of a campus literary magazine wasn’t heady enough, in December of 76 I heard that none other than Mr. Edward Abbey himself would be visiting our campus, his alma mater, on a promotional tour for his new novel, something called The Monkey Wrench Gang. And, luck of luck, as editor of the literary magazine I’d have a chance to interview him. I was in hog heaven. And just the sort of shameless groupie Abbey later claimed to dislike though I think was always a bit pleased about.
What do I recall: I remember a big guy, and instead of the tie most other men his age wore around campus, he was wearing a red bandana around his neck, not typical garb in Western PA. then or now. And for a guy whose literary persona was so blustery, he had a very gentle demeanor and handshake. Others have written about that too, it was so unexpectedly gentle.
Abbey gave a reading, I guess from The Monkey Wrench Gang though frankly I can’t remember, probably from being in awe. Afterwards, he, I, and another editor went to our magazine offices for the interview. But as we closed the door, the first thing Abbey said, before we even sat down, and true to form, was “can we get some beer before we get started.” So we had to break for a ½ hour, traipse off to get a 12-pack at the local distributor, and return with the beer, clandestinely shrouded, to our campus offices, where the interview at last commenced, lubricated by cold Iron City Beer. Looking over the interview now, all these years later, I have to laugh. Most of the interview was about environmental activism and monkey-wrenching techniques, not about literary matters at all.
After the interview, my co-editor departed and Ed and I were destined to have dinner together at one of the fine local eating establishments. To my surprise, a young lady whom I’d never met before joined us as we left the office and accompanied us to dinner. I guess she’d been waiting in the hallway.
I was a bit peeved. She was honing in on my action with my hero, but, alas, her charms were more alluring than mine, and at dinner she and Ed increasingly chatted as I become a third wheel. Finally I got the hint, and left the two of them together. What occurred after that, I couldn’t say. But when I later heard of Ed’s reputation with the ladies, I was not surprised. That was the last I was to see of Cactus Ed.
Despite the minor disappointment of having my hero dump me for a young lady who seemed to know nothing about either literature or eco-sabotage, The Monkey Wrench Gang had a huge influence on me. For one, it transformed the 4 corners region into a numinous landscape. Though I’ve never actually spent a lot of time there, it’s a place that retains a powerful hold on my imagination, becoming one of the sacred landscapes in my personal geography.
And it authorized taking a stand, not just griping. A buddy and I were inspired to practice a little bit of monkey wrenching ourselves. On a camping trip to the Allegheny National Forest, we came across a sign on the edge of a field of gas wells. The sign extolled the virtues of gas drilling in the forest as a good example of “multiple use” and explained the minimal harm the drilling would cause. We were not persuaded. We took out our trusty bow saw and, after considerable hard labor, managed to saw through the supporting posts, give the sign and nudge, and down it toppled. Ah, outlaws. Take that Forest Service toadies! Take that Catalyst Energy! We showed you, T. Boone Pickens!
Later we heard that gas wells were going to be drilled in an area called Whites Woods, a patch of semi-wild forest on the edge of Indiana PA, where I went almost daily for hikes. My first effort to prevent this desecration was to pass a petition on campus. When I presented the petition, signed by several hundred students, to the board of County Commissioners, I was sure they would see the error of their ways and suspend the drilling project. Alas, they did not. Little did they know, however, that I had read The Monkey Wrench Gang and had something else in my bag of tricks.
Soon, a road was being punched into the forest. Strangely, survey stakes kept disappearing. Then, one spring evening, my co-conspirator and I, packs heavy with bottles of Karo syrup, marched into the woods. Along the way, sneaking through the underbrush, I was stung by a wasp. It hurt like hell, and I remember thinking, “some thanks from you, Mother Nature.” But still I persevered. Before us in the clearing sat a caterpillar bulldozer, even more yellow in the yellow evening light. And no one was around. We crept up with much more stealth than was required, and began searching for the gas cap. Frankly, neither of us knew the first thing about bulldozers, and it took us a long time to find it, but find it we did. But then, try as we might, the damn thing wouldn’t open. Stymied. What to do? Off to the side, we spotted a little, innocent wood chipper. And that gas cap did open. Voila, down glugged the Karo syrup. And we slunk off into the night, triumphant.
We didn’t expect to hear any more of the matter. But through the small town grapevine we heard the following story. The next morning, the crew showed up for work, began cutting trees and brush. Someone fired up the wood chipper to shove the branches down, and all went well for a few minutes. Then the engine began to smoke and misfire and gobs of burnt sugary goop oozed out its pores. The workers were happy to get the day off while the chipper was replaced. Suspicion focused on an employee who had been fired a few days previously, though I don’t think he came to any harm.
By the summer of 77, I had graduated, but had no job prospects or even ambitions to find such prospects. Typical English major. Why wouldn’t someone pay me to read, write, and hike? I did know I wanted, once again, to “go west young man.” But I was torn between heading back to Tucson, where my fantasy was to pitch a tent in the Catalina Mountains and live there, writing on my manual typewriter, while biking to odd jobs in town. Seemed a perfectly sensible plan to me, especially if I ignored the student debt I had built up. But my other idea was to go to Oregon, and check out the mysterious mountains and deep old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was close, but Oregon won, and I spent July of 77 hitchhiking from Indiana PA, up to Toronto, across the trans-Canada Highway, with a jaunt up to Jasper, and then on to Vancouver, a ferry ride over to Vancouver Island, and a week camping on the coast at Pacific Rim National Park. Then down the coast of Washington, with a side hike up into the Olympics, arriving at last in Eugene, where I knew no one, and was nearly penniless, at the beginning of August.
Some of you may recall that this was a time when protesters were gathering at the sites of proposed or actual nuclear power plants, and committing civil disobedience, being arrested en masse for symbolic trespass. Earlier in the year, a massive protest and arrest had taken place in New Hampshire, at the Seabrook Nuclear plant, by a group calling itself the “Clamshell Alliance.” I was inspired by their approach, direct action civil disobedience, which, though not monkey-wrenching, seemed to have much in common with it. And I had read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” numerous times, so needed no convincing.
As luck would have it, I wandered into the local hippie health food restaurant and general ne’r do well cultural center, known as the Homefried Truckstop. Searching the bulletin board for a place to crash and job prospects, I spotted a sign: Join Us: Civil Disobedience Protest at the Trojan Nucear Power Plant, August 6. I was ready.
Within a week of my arrival in Oregon I had been arrested at the plant near Portland, along with about 50 others, and had found a community. I got a part-time job at the Homefried Truckstop, and spent most of my spare time, of which I had plenty, organizing. I also began reading intensively in the theories of nonviolent civil disobedience, especially Gandhi’s writing and Gene Sharp’s 3 volume Politics of Nonviolent Action.
And so the haggling with Cactus Ed began in earnest. What was I troubled by? It wasn’t Ed’s advocaty of property destruction that bothered me. The risk to life caused by the explosives was definitely a concern. But the main issue was the secrecy.
I heard of a fellow named Sam Lovejoy. Sam lived near the proposed nuclear plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. As part of the initial weather monitoring for the environmental impact studies of the plant, a tall tower had been erected. Sam went out one day, loosened the guy wires holding the tower up, and it toppled to the ground. So far, this seemed like solid Monkey Wrench Gang activity. But Sam then did something different. Instead of hiding out in the hills for a while, Sam drove to the local sheriff’s office and turned himself in, demanding a trial by a jury of his peers to which he could explain and seek to justify his actions. Oh, what would Hayduke think of that? But I was coming to believe that this was a better way. One still took direct action to oppose wrongs that seemed unable to be stopped by more conventional means, but one also avoided an anarchic-free-for all of escalating lawlessness. Sam Lovejoy had a documentary made about him, “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War,” and even came to Eugene for a fundraising event.
As folks like Gandhi and King saw it, choosing to break a law in order to pursue a higher good might well be justified, but it carried with it certain serious risks. If everyone got to choose which laws they wished to obey, and felt justified in breaking those they found offensive, society could drift quickly towards chaos. And there was no reason to think this chaos would further the good cause, whether that cause was social justice or environmental protection. There was also something a bit, and dangerously, arrogant about it, as though one felt above the law, entitled to impose ones will on the law-abiding others. Gandhi and King thought a few basic guidelines could avoid this problem. The gist of these are: 1) Your actions should be nonviolent. (This might include destruction of property, but it should not risk harm to others, so explosives are probably a bad idea.) 2) You should engage in your actions openly, without guile or secrecy, even to the point of notifying the authorities ahead of time of your planned action. And 3) you should be prepared to accept the consequences of your conduct should a jury of your peers eventually decide you deserve punishment. These moral safeguards were, for the most part, missing from the activities of the Monkey Wrench Gang.
On the other hand, however, I realize that in a work of literature, chase scenes are a lot of fun, and the ones in the Monkey Wrench Gang are especially well written. I still laugh at the low speed chase up the 4-wheel drive jeep trail. Face it, you can’t get that kind of comic hijinks from Gandhi or King.
I don’t want to argue that there’s a slippery slope that inevitably runs downhill from George Hayduke to the Unibomber or to Timothy McVeigh. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think you could peer down that hill from where Hayduke romps to where McVeigh slinks. Certainly Abbey takes pains to emphasize, mainly through the conscience of Doc Sarvis, that the gang should avoid risking harm to human life. Still, the kinds of humbling moral safeguards that Gandhi and King take pains to maintain are not in place, and so I became wary of using The Monkey Wrench Gang as any sort of template for social action.
Now I realize that Abbey was, indeed, a philosophical anarchist, had studied anarchist philosophy in graduate school. And so respecting the rule of law was not necessarily a high priority for him. There was a time I was tempted by the individualist idealism of this sort of anarchy myself. But I never have been able to understand how Abbey’s professed anarchism could, for example, keep the ATVs out of the wilderness. It seems to me to that in order to protect the environment you need laws and regulations, strictly enforced; you need, in short. government.
For the next 12 years, I was involved in organizing numerous civil disobedience protests, at the Trojan Nuclear Plant, at the Trident Submarine base in Bangor, WA, and eventually at the Nevada Test Site, where I was one of the founders of the American Peace Test. All of these activities followed the guidelines for nonviolent direct action previously outlined, including notifying the authorities of the details prior to each action.
While I was involved in all these activities, I had decided to return to school, and was stumbling through a graduate PhD program in English at the University of Oregon, which I eventually completed in 1989.
After that, I spent six years in the San Francisco Bay area, teaching at a variety of schools. My life at this time seemed far from Abbey, stuck as I was for hours in rush hour traffic. But in the early 1990s a new field of literary study suddenly emerged, which folks had decided to call “ecocriticism.” Even before starting college I had been reading nature writers, and over the years folks like Thoreau, Sigurd Olson, Henry Beston, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder had become important to me. Yet, except for Thoreau, none of these writers was being studied in a serious academic way. But why couldn’t they be? Yes, I realized, I was an ecocritic, I had found my tribe. And, best of all, maybe I actually could get paid to read, write, and hike.
At the same time, I had been teaching a lot of courses in ethnic literature, and thinking about the way different cultures, especially Native Americans, perceived nature. This led me to write two essays. The first looked at Henry Thoreau’s book The Maine Woods, and analyzed the different ways he and his Penobscot Indian guide, Joe Polis, perceived the world around them. The second was an essay about Abbey, and again I found myself haggling with him. In the essay I contrasted the way Cactus Ed portrayed the deserts of the Colorado Plateau country with the way that same landscape was portrayed by three Native American writers: Leslie Silko, Luci Tapahonso, and Simon Ortiz. Though I may have exaggerated a bit for emphasis, the contrast, to me, was striking.
Also, I was startled to discover that when Abbey spent his two years working as a ranger at Arches, immortalized in the now suspiciously named Desert Solitaire, that not only was he married, but he had actually had a son only days before departing for his first gig at the Monument. During his second year at Arches his one-year-old boy and his wife even spent time with him there in the trailer. None of this is recorded in the book, which seems, to me, a notable absence.
I began to feel that, as Abbey describes the wilderness and wildlands, they are mainly a playground for adventurous men, and sometimes their girlfriends. Over and over he describes wilderness as a place of freedom. Freedom from government, freedom from consumerism, freedom from urban life, freedom from conformity, freedom from confining cultural conventions, and, also, alas, freedom from wife and kid.
The gist of my essay was that: “Our understanding of Abbey . . . can be enriched and challenged by contrasting him with Silko, Ortiz, and Tapahonso; unlike Abbey, they portray the natural world of the Colorado Plateau as a place imbued with the presence of family and ancestors, and their experience of those places is valuable precisely because of, rather than in spite of, that familial presence. “
Now I admit I felt guilty about criticizing Abbey. He had to a not inconsiderable degree inspired the very course of study I had followed to reach the point where I now felt that I was qualified to criticize him. But I had to go where my intellectual endeavors led me. I had to be honest with myself. And in some ways I think Abbey would appreciate that. Surely thinking for oneself is among his highest virtues. His dislike of his own groupies no doubt stems from this. He was never a fan of followers, even followers of himself.
In my recent book, Xerophilia, Abbey is sometimes praised and sometimes critiqued. My main critique, which may seem odd, involves his disdain of ants, something that appears not only in The Monkey Wrench Gang, but in nearly all of his published books. You may recall a scene early in the book, during the gang’s raid at Comb Wash, in which Doc Sarvis stumbles into an ant nest:
[Seldom Seen] Smith circumvented an anthill, a huge symmetric arcologium of sand surrounded by a circular area denuded of any vestige of vegetation. The dome home of the harvester ants. Smith went around and so did Bonnie but Doc stumbled straight into it, stirring up the formicary. The big red ants swarmed out looking for trouble; one of them bit Doc on the calf. He stopped, turned and dismantled the anthill with a series of vigorous kicks. [. . .]
“Doc hates ants,” Bonnie explained. “And they hate him.”
“The anthill,” said Doc, “is sign, symbol and symptom of what we are about out here, stumbling through the gloaming like so many stumblebums. I mean it is the model in microcosm of what we must find a way to oppose and halt. The anthill, [. . .] is the mark of social disease. Anthills abound where overgrazing prevails.” (69-70)
This is an enjoyable scene, well written with fine examples of Abbey’s pleasure in humorous characterization and clever word play, but its portrayal of harvester ants is entirely lacking in ecological understanding. Doc is simply wrong. Harvester ant nests are neither sign, symbol, nor symptom of what the gang opposes. Indeed they are part of what the gang ought to be defending. I go on to quote from several entomologists about the important role of harvester ants in desert ecosystems and berate Abbey for letting sloppy symbolism get in the way of accurate ecological awareness. I expect better of nature writers, especially ones who are advocating direct action in defense of natural systems.
But elsewhere in Xerophilia I praise Abbey for his skill at evoking the environment, especially his ability to appeal to all of our senses. And, in retrospect, I probably should have praised him, too, for his willingness to fight for environmental protection, even if that fight was carried out in ways I now find questionable.
The literary theorist Harold Bloom coined the phrase “anxiety of influence.” He used it to describe the situation of writers who have the misfortune to write in the generation following a major figure. How can one possibly be a playwright after Shakespeare? How be a poet following Milton? The influence of such figures is both a blessing and a curse. They break new ground, but later writers have a tough time flourishing in their shadow and inevitably seem imitative and derivative. I wouldn’t claim that Abbey casts a shadow as large as Shakespeare’s or Milton’s, but he has certainly had a major effect on how later authors write and think about nature, especially in the Southwest. And he’s certainly had a big effect on me, and I’m anxious about that influence.
Walt Whitman, a poet whom Paul Revere Abbey could quote by heart, and whose line “resist much, obey little” Ed uses as an epigraph to The Monkey Wrench Gang, makes the startling claim in “Song of Myself” that “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” Now I have no interest in destroying Ed Abbey, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. But I think Whitman’s point is that students do their teachers no honor by remaining under the spell of the teacher. At some point, if the teachers have been successful, the students challenge them, begin to think for themselves, even if that means quarelling and haggling. In my haggles with Cactus Ed, I trust I have also honored him.