A Few Reflections

by Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecotopia

Ernest Callenbach is the author of Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging, Publisher’s Lunch, Ecology, A Pocket Guide and other works. He coined the term ecotopia for his 1975 novel of that name, which is required reading for all ecotopians.

Edward Abbey was the greatest environmental writer since John Muir. Abbey was not your kindly, gentle, neat, clean sort of environmentalist. He did not go in for transcendental meditation. He threw beer cans on the roadside. He made fun of Indians. He drove perfectly usable cars over impassible desert tracks until their engines fell out. He wrote gleeful fantasies about the blowing up of dams and bridges and the sawing down of roadside billboards. He loved the hot, dangerous, spiny, relentless desert. He despised not only civilization as we know it but the soft life of temperate, forested, rainy areas. He even gloried in the southwestern desert lung-fungus (which I admit is not all bad: lesions it produced kept me out of the draft). If he had been religious, which in a way he was, he would have preferred the avenging Jehovah to the all-nature-encompassing Buddha.

Reports from people who knew him well tell us that in person Abbey was a low-key and friendly fellow. But he was a notorious womanizer. He had five wives (and five children); his last wife called him “a damned difficult man.” His enemies called him a reprobate; what he called them fills a dozen books. His angers were channeled into some of the loveliest (and sometimes loopiest) polemics in the English language. But late in life, probably already seriously ill, he wrote the long, morose Fool’s Progress: An Honest Novel chronicling the unfortunate life of a depressed, alienated, lonely, miserable man — who must have had many connections with Abbey’s interior emotional life. His environmental work may have been his way of escaping from this grim secret persona. As a writer, he could deploy demolitions skills, rural guerrilla organization techniques, and the rage to destroy the madness that threatens to destroy us first. He was even willing to tamper with that holy of American holies, private property, if that was necessary to preserve undisturbed natural order (and it is, it is). It’s easy to imagine Abbey echoing the wry words of the old socialist George Bernard Shaw: “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”

Maybe growing up in rural Pennsylvania does something strange to people. My own home village of Boalsburg (pop. 300) was pretty much the same sort of place as Abbey’s village of Hope (pop. unknown — and not on ordinary maps either). Appalachia may have been poverty-stricken, but it was still a working folk society adept at making do and living close to the land. Boalsburg has been suburbanized; Hope has been strip-mined. The Big Woods where Abbey adventured as a boy, playing vanishing Indian, have been butchered.

“Something like a shadow has fallen between present and past, an abyss wide as war that cannot be bridged by any tangible connection,
so that memory is undermined and the image of our beginning
betrayed, dissolved, rendered not mythical but illusory. We have
connived in the murder of our own origins.” (The Journey Home)

This profound sense of loss made Abbey a cynic, a stoic. He was in Yosemite once, in the summer, and found it dry — but not nearly dry enough for him. Later he went back, expecting to find total tourist devastation, and reported, “Things are not as bad there as I’d expected; I was disappointed.” He was an ironic apocalypticist, the environmental variant of the revolutionary who believes true Progress can come only after a fatal descent to total crisis. (And maybe we’re closer than we think — did you know that Yosemite has its own jail? “I’ve seen worse; I’ve been in worse,” said Abbey.)

Abbey was fiercely eloquent; there’s a wiry snap to his writing.

Arizona is a desert country . . . a hideous Sahara with few oases, a grim
bleak harsh overheated sun-blasted God-damned and God-forgotten
inferno. . . . I am describing the place I love. Arizona is my natural
native home. Nobody in his right mind would live there.” (The Journey Home)

A beautiful spirit of workmanship is everywhere in Abbey’s prose; he seldom wrote an uninteresting line. There is also a kind of demented Calvinism. Before finding his true home in the desert, he frequented the more noisome parts of the Hoboken (NJ) waterfront, long before Hoboken became a haven for bohemian refugees from Manhattan. In his sense of things we are redeemed — perhaps, and never entirely, of course — mainly by experience of the worst that nature or humanity can offer. He was, in short, a fundamentally comic writer, and it is a rare Abbey sentence that doesn’t have an irony lurking in it somewhere, like a rattlesnake waiting for the unwary rabbit reader to hop by. He is also, of course, an anarchist — a Tolstoyan, Kropotkinian, American one, believing “that government is best which governs least; and the ideal government governs not at all, except to preside over its own demise.”

The thesis of his classic and best-known work, The Monkeywrench Gang, is that “You don’t argue with engineers — you derail them.” Unbelievably, this breezily suspenseful tale in which an ad hoc cell made up of a doctor, a nurse, a river-tour operator, and a Vietnam veteran conspire to eliminate the ultimate engineering atrocity, Glen Canyon Dam, has apparently been made into a movie. Inevitably, the movie was suppressed; perhaps someday prints will surface, and be projected on the ruins of the dam, as Citizen Kane clandestinely was on the walls of Hearst’s San Simeon. (We can easily imagine Abbey grinning wickedly out from some nearby canyon.)

As far as we know, Abbey was not himself much of a Direct Action guy. He did write of doctoring up some bulldozers, cutting down a billboard, and shooting insulators off a strip-mine’s power line. But when the FBI’s provocateur sting netted Dave Foreman and several other Earth First!ers from Tucson, Abbey was not involved. Still, it is clear that he believed the evil empire must all be destroyed, just as feudalism once was; the new order must bring down the monuments of the old.

“The working people live in plasterboard boxes, in fiberboard apartments, in mobile homes of tin, aluminum, and plastic; but the banks rise up in gleaming stone and glass and steel, dominating the surrounding mass of huddled hovels precisely as the medieval lord’s castle brooded above his vassal village.” He brings us close to the ultimate revolutionary weapon, the wire-cutter: if each and every one of us systematically cut every wire we came across, the engine of environmental destruction and oppression would be totally inoperative in a few days — though for 400-volt transmission lines, of course, something a bit more sophisticated might be required.

At any rate, after a long tour of the National Sacrifice Area which much of Montana and Wyoming is becoming, Abbey concluded that neither capitalism — which “sounds good in theory but just doesn’t work” — nor socialism offer any true hope. What is needed “in our perishing republic is something different. Something entirely different.” He himself never worked out what this might be; his mind was not hypothetical in the Ecotopian mode. To my knowledge he never expressed any sympathy for the novel Ecotopia. It might have seemed either too compromised with technology for him, or simply too literally green for a desert rat like himself. Still, I seem to detect an Ecotopian resonance occasionally. We may even, he thought, achieve for a thousand years or so, just for the fun of it, “some sort of steady-state economy, some sort of free, democratic wide-open society.”And similarly: “I believe it is possible to find and live a balanced way of life somewhere halfway between all-out industrialism on the one hand and a make-believe pastoral idyll on the other . . .”

But quite possibly he just never came across Ecotopia. Some writers don’t read much; they are too busy writing, and Abbey’s output was large — more than a dozen books (including one of poetry). Besides, Abbey was fundamentally a man of righteous angers, of stern exhortations, of wild desperate humor (as in a hilarious diatribe on cows that he allegedly delivered at a cattlemen’s meeting). He left it to other people to figure out what should be done in place of the muddling toward catastrophe that is the predominant mark of our time. And he probably had the sense to realize that if a decent future were ever to be achieved, it would be the work of many minds and energies somehow coming together over centuries, not just something in a book.

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