4 votes

On Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and other works

I recently finished reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and prior to that I read his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. I was left feeling quite differently than what I was expecting to feel. I'm an outdoorsman, a conservationist and an activist. I spent a good portion of my time last year on The Colorado Plateau, much of it in the places Edward Abbey has been and discusses frequently in his work. There is a distinct emotional connection I feel to this land, so my mental conflictions are especially notable. I recently wrote a friend a letter, much of it including my thoughts on Abbey thus far, and I felt posting the relevant excerpt here would be a good conversation starter. Let me know what you think!

"I just finished Abbey's Desert Solitaire, while I enjoyed many aspects of the work, it also left me feeling conflicted. I wholeheartedly concur with many (but not all) of his views on conservation. He challenged my views in some positive aspects as well, his disdain for the automobile in national parks, for example. Other views of his I cannot ignore or absolve him of. His views on traditional family values (read: misogyny) are quite apparent in The Monkey Wrench Gang and seep into this work as well. Furthermore, his views on indigenous peoples are outdated, even for his time. His incessant diatribe on the blights that impact Native Americans and other indigenous populations, blaming their own attitudes (victim blaming, if you will), while simultaneously railing against the federal government and The Bureau of Indian Affairs is at best hypocritical (while also patently racist).

Edward Abbey's actions also do not reflect his writing. The man continually rants about the ongoing destruction of this Earth, he blames everybody (The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the modern consumer, tourists, oil and gas corporations, mining companies, logging businesses and wannabe outdoorsmen) but himself. He went so far as to work for the NPS, while admitting their culpability in their own decimation. During his time there he constantly capitulated to the tourists, the modern consumers in their iron contraptions. Some federal employees I've met have set out to change their respective agencies from within, but what did Abbey do? He left. He saw a problem, railed against it, and left.

So I ask: Why didn't he do more? It has been suggested that Ed had engaged in some less-than-peaceful activities, "eco-terrorism" they call it. I personally don't believe it, I believe that any actions taken were never near the magnitude of the happenings of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Ed's books were his personal fantasies, which while not a guide, a reference point. He prefaces Desert Solitaire, describing it as an elegy. Almost as if he is passing an extinguished torch on to our time. It is frustrating and demoralizing to say the least. While grateful to read his words and as much as I concur with his notions, I disagree with hits actions (or lack thereof). I finish this book left feeling angry."

1 comment

  1. EscReality
    I have lived my entire life on the Colorado Plateau and I will never leave. Abbey was introduced to me at a young age and has always been a part of my life. I agree with almost all his views on...

    I have lived my entire life on the Colorado Plateau and I will never leave. Abbey was introduced to me at a young age and has always been a part of my life. I agree with almost all his views on conservation, even the more extreme ones. I have spent my lifetime, and my father before me, watching these lands be destroyed in the name of tourism, greed and profit. Colorado especially has taken a hard hit over the past decade as our population has boomed and the values and culture our state has been built on is slowly dying.

    To answer your question though, he inspired multiple generations of people with his writing (I personally did two seasons as a ranger with the BLM on the Upper Colorado River because of him). He was not really in the position to do anything himself, his words were (are) his weapon and they are effective.

    Also, to touch on the Native views. I agree with him, the Native populations in this area are both oppressed by their government and held back by their own attitudes. That's not really hypocritical, it's just how it is and was even more so how it was then. I have a friend that grew up on the Southern Ute Reservation and a lot of the things he told me echoed the way Abbey talks. Abbey is more blunt about it, but he is not wrong.

    His misogyny is honestly just a generational thing, my father was from the same era as him and shared the same views. 'Traditional Family Values' might be faux pas now, but you have to understand that is a recent thing and they were commonplace a few decades ago.

    The Monkey Wrench Gang and Hayduke Lives are both his personal fantasies of the extremes of what he would do if he could. I would even push to say they are the fantasies of a lot of the local population of the Plateau that cares about conservation.

    The issues Abbey addressed in all of his work is 110 times worse now than it was then.

    2 votes