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|Born||January 29, 1927
Indiana, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||March 14, 1989 (aged 62)
Tucson, Arizona, United States
Edward Paul Abbey (January 29, 1927 – March 14, 1989) was an American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues and criticism of public land policies. His best-known works include the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has been cited as an inspiration by radical environmental groups, and the non-fiction work Desert Solitaire. Writer Larry McMurtry referred to Abbey as the "Thoreau of the American West".
Abbey was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Home, Pennsylvania, where there is a Pennsylvania state historical marker in his honor. This Appalachian upbringing remained an influence on him throughout his life, and he addressed it at various points in his writing, most extensively in The Fool's Progress and Appalachian Wilderness. In the summer of 1944 he headed west, and fell in love with the desert country of the Four Corners region. He wrote, "For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same." He received a Master's Degree in philosophy from the University of New Mexico and also studied at the University of Edinburgh. In the late 1950s Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger for the United States National Park Service at Arches National Monument (now a national park), near the town of Moab, Utah, which was not then known for extreme sports but for its desolation and uranium mines. It was there that he penned the journals that would become one of his most famous works, 1968's Desert Solitaire, which Abbey described as "...not a travel guide, but an elegy."
Desert Solitaire is regarded[by whom?] as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature, and has been compared to Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Thoreau's Walden. In it, Abbey vividly describes the physical landscapes of Southern Utah and delights in his isolation as a backcountry park ranger, recounting adventures in the nearby canyon country and mountains. He also attacks what he terms the "industrial tourism" and resulting development in the national parks ("national parking lots"), rails against the Glen Canyon Dam, and comments on various other subjects.
Abbey died in 1989 at the age of 62 at his home in Tucson, Arizona. He is survived by two daughters, Susannah and Becky; and three sons, Joshua, Aaron and Benjamin.
Abbey's abrasiveness, opposition to anthropocentrism, and outspoken writings made him the object of much controversy. Conventional environmentalists from mainstream groups disliked his more radical "Keep America Beautiful...Burn a Billboard" style. Based on his writings and statements–and in a few cases, his actions–many believe that Abbey did advocate ecotage or sabotage on behalf of ecology. The controversy intensified with the publication of Abbey's most famous work of fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel centers on a small group of eco-warriors who travel the American West attempting to put the brakes on uncontrolled human expansion by committing acts of sabotage against industrial development projects. Abbey claimed the novel was written merely to "entertain and amuse," and was intended as symbolic satire. Others saw it as a how-to guide to non-violent ecotage, as the main characters attack things, such as road-building equipment, and not people. The novel inspired environmentalists frustrated with mainstream environmentalist groups and what they saw as unacceptable compromises. Earth First! was formed as a result in 1980, advocating eco-sabotage or "monkeywrenching." Although Abbey never officially joined the group, he became associated with many of its members, and occasionally wrote for the organization. The National Observer wrote that the book was "A sad, hilarious, exuberant, vulgar fairy tale... It'll make you want to go out and blow up a dam." The New York Times wrote: "Since the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Mr. Abbey has become an underground cult hero."
Sometimes called the "desert anarchist," Abbey was known to anger people of all political stripes, including environmentalists. In his essays the narrator describes throwing beer cans out of his car, claiming the highway had already littered the landscape. Abbey even had an FBI file opened on him in 1947, after he posted a letter while in college urging people to rid themselves of their draft cards. He differed from the stereotype of environmentalist as politically correct leftist by disclaiming the counterculture and the "trendy campus people", saying he didn't want them as his primary fans, and by supporting some conservative causes such as immigration reduction and the National Rifle Association. He devoted one chapter in his book Hayduke Lives to poking fun at left-green leader Murray Bookchin. However, he reserved his harshest criticism for the military-industrial complex, "welfare ranchers," energy companies, land developers and "Chambers of Commerce," all of which he believed were destroying the West's great landscapes.
Edward Abbey died on March 14, 1989 of complications from surgery; he suffered four days of esophageal hemorrhaging, due to esophageal varices, a recurrent problem with one group of veins. Showing his sense of humor, he left a message for anyone who asked about his final words: "No comment." Abbey also left instructions on what to do with his remains. These instructions were described in an Outside magazine article written by David Quammen in June 1989:
He wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck. He wanted to be buried as soon as possible. He wanted no undertakers. No embalming, for Godsake! No coffin. Just an old sleeping bag... Disregard all state laws concerning burial. "I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree." said the message.
As for his funeral: He wanted gunfire, and a little music. "No formal speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief." And then a big happy raucous wake. He wanted more music, gay and lively music. He wanted bagpipes. "And a flood of beer and booze! Lots of singing, dancing, talking, hollering, laughing, and lovemaking." said the message. And meat! Beans and chilis! And corn on the cob. Only a man deeply in love with life and hopelessly soft on humanity would specify, from beyond the grave, that his mourners receive corn on the cob.
A 2003 Outside article described how his friends honored his request:
"The last time Ed smiled was when I told him where he was going to be buried," says Doug Peacock, an environmental crusader in Edward Abbey's inner circle. On March 14, 1989, the day Abbey died from esophageal bleeding at 62, Peacock, along with his friend Jack Loeffler, his father-in-law Tom Cartwright, and his brother-in-law Steve Prescott, wrapped Abbey's body in his blue sleeping bag, packed it with dry ice, and loaded Cactus Ed into Loeffler's Chevy pickup. After stopping at a liquor store in Tucson for five cases of beer, and some whiskey to pour on the grave, they drove off into the desert. The men searched for the right spot the entire next day and finally turned down a long rutted road, drove to the end, and began digging. That night they buried Ed and toasted the life of America's prickliest and most outspoken environmentalist.
In late March, about 200 friends of Abbey's gathered near the Saguaro National Monument near Tucson and held the wake he requested. A second, much larger wake was held in May, just outside his beloved Arches National Park, with such notables as Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry speaking.
In the late summer of 1988, an interview with Abbey appeared in "Western Winds Magazine," a newsletter for an outdoor company called Western Mountaineering. The interview, written by Paul Bousquet with some help from editor Fred Lifton, contained two quotes that were especially poignant coming so soon before his death:
ww: According to my calculations you turned 60 this year. How did this affect you?
Abbey: Haven't given it much thought. It's one of those things that happen when you keep hanging around. I expect my life to become an easy downhill slide from here on. My father is 86 and still working–alone–out in the Appalachian woods every day, cutting down trees and hauling them down to the sawmill. Barring accidents internal or external, I'll probably end up doing something like that. Longevity, like intelligence or good looks, is largely a matter of heredity: choose your parents with care. Also, it helps to have a mean, rancorous, rotten disposition; us mean and ugly types are hard to kill.
ww: Have you ever come close to death? Tell us about it.
Abbey: In my youth I did fool things on rock, on snow, on mountainsides and deep down in slickrock canyons, but never suffered more than the usual thrill of utter terror. Rode motorcycles for a few years. Got on a few horses I didn't understand. And again never lost anything but some skin. About five years ago some medical doctors gave me six months to live, saying I had pancreatic cancer. But they were wrong, their machines had deceived them: the dark blob on the X-ray screens and CAT-scans turned out to be some kind of portal vein thrombosis, which means that I may die at any moment of a massive internal hemorrhage. But in the meantime I feel fine and carry on as usual, having no particularly appealing alternative, and am ready for whatever happens so long as it's quick, violent and economical. And if it's not, I'll do my best to make it so. Like everyone, I've lived close to death all of my life.
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