Abbey’s Bastard Children: A Few Final Thoughts

by lizard

(original art by Michael McCurdy)

Of the dozen books I brought home from my trip to Kansas City, the one I’ve been picking up the most is Edward Abbey’s Earth Apples (edited by David Petersen). The reason, of course, is because the continuing noise/flash-point of the little EF protest (rife with littering, strong fragrance, and banjo playing) is apparently a difficult topic to put down.

On the drive home from the Spokane Airport, I had the chance to let my thinking wander a bit, and as I negotiated the twists and turns of I-90, I started formulating a slightly more extensive post on a writer I deeply admire, a writer who we can blame for the “useless” antics on display at the Governor’s office.

I was first exposed to Ed’s writing in a literature class I took 13 years ago at the University of Kansas. The class focused on the literature of retreat—not retreat as in the act of pulling back from a fight, but a meditative retreat into nature. Of course the book I read was Desert Solitaire.

“Wilderness. The word itself is music.

“Wilderness, wilderness . . . We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.

“Why such allure in the very word? What does it really mean? Can wilderness be defined in the words of government officialdom as simple as “A minimum of not less than 5000 contiguous acres of roadless area’? This much may be essential in attempting a definition but it is not sufficient; something more is involved.

“Suppose we say that wilderness invokes nostalgia, a justified not merely sentimental nostalgia for the lost America our forefathers knew. The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit, Romance–but not to be dismissed on that account. The romantic view, while not the whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth.

“But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need–if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us–if only we were worthy of it.”

Not happy with college, or the midwest, I fled with my future wife to Colorado, and spent a couple of weeks traveling around the four corners area. Arches National Park brought Ed’s words into full bloom. We ended up living in Colorado for 9 months, and when I wasn’t working my shitty dishwashing job or out hiking, I was reading lots of books, and two important ones were The Monkey Wrench Gang and Fool’s Progress.

But all that was a long time ago. Before September 11th, 2001. Before the magic word terrorism became powerful enough to justify assassinating American citizens, and is now applied to any destructive direct action undertaken in defense of the shrinking wild lands beneath the banner of ECO-TERRORISM!

Now there are much more severe consequences for engaging in direct action, and not just for the destructive kind. Just ask Tim DeChristopher. Here’s an interesting hmmmm piece by Kirk Johnson in the NYT, titled “Do Motives Matter?”:

The American legal system tends to pay obsessive attention to a person’s motives and mental state. A hate crime, for example, only becomes a hate crime at all with motive. Premeditated offenses often get harsher treatment than impulsive acts of rage or passion. The capacity to understand right and wrong is a fundamental threshold of competency in a courtroom.

But in the federal trial of Tim DeChristopher, who was convicted on Thursday in Salt Lake City on two felony charges for trying to derail an auction oil and gas leases in southern Utah in late 2008, discussion of motive – at least so far as the jury got to hear – was almost entirely stripped away.

Judge Dee Benson told the lawyers that the case would not be about why Mr. DeChristopher did what he did, but only whether he did it. Federal energy policies and concern about climate change, which were in fact the core drivers of Mr. DeChristopher’s actions, as he has said in many interviews, would not be put on trial, Judge Benson ruled.

Does it matter? In covering the case for The New York Times, I found myself pondering a pretty deep question: In assessing offenses driven by environmental concerns, is an understanding of the “why” crucial to the truth? Or is it a huge distraction because of the politics and complexity and controversy that swirl around the subject?

Who remembers back in June of 2002, when 7 EFfers got arrested for halting a logging truck as it was crossing the Madison street bridge, allowing two EFfers to attach, then repel over the side?

We could be having the same flame war about that incident, where two of the seven arrested faced felonies. And what were they protesting? Deforestation stemming from globalization. Was it effective? Not as effective as the market crash five years later, which killed demand for that wood (at least domestically) when the housing bubble blew. Maybe China will give us a good price for the Tester-mandated increase of supply.

That this conversation continues to truck on (pun intended) thanks to the efforts of everyone involved in this little kerfuffle could start tipping the needle from the protest being totally useless to slightly not-so-useless. Kind of ironic, huh.

And to bring it back around to old Ed, I’d like to conclude this post with a final poem. Enjoy.



to lie alone in the desert
and stare at the sun
until the sun goes black…

Black sun, black sun of my heart—
Strike down your shaking blaze of fire
Eat up my eyes and brain
Burn me clean and dry of all desire.

Black, black, sun in my heart—
Rain down your murderous love
Your flash and carbon, cancer and heat
Bake me sweet as a dove

Sweet as a stone, black as a bird
Flay me with fire to the bone
wrap me and wash me in flame
And leave me clean and alone

On the lost shore of a river I know
In the strange-lit country of stone.

—Edward Abbey

  1. Matthew Koehler

    Totally feeling you on this one Lizard. Thank you for sharing some powerful words from Abbey and adding a bunch of your own. I agree…Fool’s Progress, although not as well know, is one of Abbey’s best.

    • some of us grok you, MK. fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke….

    • MK- you and i have often disagreed vehemently but i checked out the way rob treated you on left in the west. and i cannot recall a more childish exhibition by a grown man ever.

      what the hell is the matter with rob? has he lost his mind? i’m beginning to actually get concerned about his mental health. what good can come from his behavior? who does he attract with his unbelievably boorish behavior? except perhaps some hangers on

      i can’t possibly think his behavior reflects well on the democratic party. most of us already begrudgingly support it and its cowardly candidates because the choices on the right seem to be straight from hell. so what is the strategy here? or is it just a creeping insanity like mark tokarski’s?

      i personally won’t allow either of them to respond to anything i write any more. i have had it. and the insults toward j-girl are the last straw. if either rob or mark darken my doorstep again i will escort them both out. i simply will not waste my time or the time of our readers on their sophomoric dick-measuring vapid discourse obviously stemming from a paranoid sense of deep -seated insecurity.

      they both need a shrink – bad!

      • Steve W

        Rob was just as big of an asshole three years ago when I first started posting to litw. You just didn’t notice because your ox wasn’t being gored at the time, P Bear.

  2. Pogue Mahone

    Lizard, I disagree. I couldn’t care less about the guys arrested hanging off the bridge. Was it effective? I dunno. Was it offensive? Absolutely not. And good for them. But you’re wrong about Abbey. He originated monkey wrenching, which is quite different than a flash mob in the guv’s office.

    A friend of mine was a friend of Abbey’s for a brief time. He knew Abbey pretty well. Abbey was a work in progess when he died. He was basically still evolving his tactics. We’ve discussed this many times. Monkeywrenching simply does not work, and Ed would have realized this. It’s built into the cost of doing business, into the corpo’s budget. It’s kinda like a snow day for schools. If you need it, you use it. But it’s in there.

    Nope. Abbey was above all a realist, and that is part of the reason he was hated by many enviro types. He was blunt as hell. Abbey talked about overpopulation and immigration when those were considered taboo topics.

    I believe that Abbey’s thinking would have evolved into some real hard core resistance, NOT just protests, for essentially, they don’t have much in the way of results. Abbey would have come to the conclusion through his own evolutionary process that what is now needed is resistance, REAL resistance that works. It’s time. It’s imperative. In other words, bad things need to be STOPPED, not simply protested. That’s where Ed would have been.

    p.s. The west is a far different place now than when Abbey was writing Desert Solitaire, one of my all time favorite books. I picked up a copy in an airport somewhere on my way to Nam. I needed something to read, and I read the book jacket and thought that it sounded interesting. I was blown away when I read it. Ed captured it. I had always liked that desert country in Utah. I traveled through it every summer as a kid headed to granpa’s farm in Paonia, Co., which is now the headquarters for the High Country News. Before HCN was around, it was where my grandpa and most of my relatives lived. Some up in Crestted Butte too. But I spent my entire sixty years in the west. Actually, I’ve never been east of the Montana line. And I don’t really care to go beyond that.

  3. JC

    Eco terrorism is a much maligned and mangled phrase. Terrorism is the use of violence to achieve political goals. More precisely, terrorism is the use of violence against people to achieve political goals.

    Earth First! makes the distinction in their actions to be nonviolent–use non violent civil disobedience. To equate EF!’s actions with those of terrorist organizations (which at times includes the U.S. government) is just another way to marginalize the organization and disrupt it.

    Non violent civil disobedience scares the hell out of the government and they will go to any lengths to stifle it. LIkewise, middle america–and that includes all who pan EF!’s actions for not adhering to their strictures–is aghast at non violent civil disobedience because it pits what they see as the forces of anarchy against a civilized approach to change. EF! sees what they do as a test of the status quo to see where it might bend, and where it might break. To see who more truly cares about the issue than the civility with which it is thrust into the limelight.

    And those two hanging off of the truck? Yeah, I remember them. It was a great action, well planned and carried out.

      • Pogue Mahone

        It’s a shame that they got arrested. I hope like hell there’s a hundred more to take their place. I wish I was smart enough to be a hacker. But God I’d do it!

        • Tell me, hopefully-drinking-shots-of-tequila-soon-with-you- friend: How is what LulzSec and Anonymous different from dancing on tables in the Capitol?

          • Pogue Mahone

            Easy. They dissed a friend. Scwheitzer NEVER ran as an enviro. They did what didn’t need to be done. That’s all. I prefer to save my ammo for REAL bad guys, and that’s what I’ve done. But the kicker for me was that they were stupid. They couldn’t hold their own with the guv. Theys lose. Big fail. I’m not used to hangin’ around with stupid enviros, which I thought that these folks were. I have sat through ENDLESS hours of testimony on one environmental issue or another over the last twenty years, and I have been absolutely AMAZED at the intelligence of the folks testifying. I didn’t see that in Helena. Now, maybe it was there, but it was not reflected in the video I saw.

            But tequila??? ANYthing but tequila! That’s stuff is toKILLya. Bad stuff. VERY bad stuff. How bout some nice Scotch or brandy? You see, the ONLY alcohol that makes me crazy it tequila.

  4. ladybug

    One approach is generally inclusive, embracing democratic principles, the other tends toward exclusion and authoritarian solutions. The problem is convincing either side which is which. This conundrum seems to chafe most who have convinced themselves they have their finger on the pulse of “reality,” but who wouldn’t know denial if it drove over them in an 18-wheeler. I dare say America’s mental health challenges are not limited to a couple bloggers from God’s Country. Open the heart to “the other” if you really want to see fear and panic in establishment circles.

  5. Dem Antidote

    I disagree on the quality Abbey’s fiction, as I think that his characters are more caricatures and his symbolism hardly subtle. I much prefer The Brave Cowboy, as loss of freedom is felt but not voiced, and the mountains are used as a metaphor for the lie we were losing. And even there, Abbey could not resist the sledge hammer having the Cowboy killed (?) by freeway traffic.

    But that'[s merely personal taste. I prefer to only realize the symbolism in retrospect than to be hammered with it.

    But I’m not much for fiction or poetry, and much preferred Abbey’s essays, which are like comfortable slippers and a fire on a winter evening. Down the River with Henry David Thoreau is a wonderful essay.

    But I must ask, not knowing, did EarthFirst! confuse metaphor with a real call to action? Abbey was not stupid, and surely knew that real crimes land real jail sentences. There was a group of friends there, and Abbey did know that group, but did he actively participate or just look on in wonder? Did the ever encourage them?

    And, as much as I love Abbey’s words, I cannot overlook his protestations about the population explosion and his own contribution – seven offspring.

  6. lizard19

    I’m going to put this comment here, but it’s in response to a comment on another thread.

    i’m not going to get into specifics, but the term “highbrow” was used to denigrate, or at least cast a certain negative light on the poetry and poets i bring attention to here at 4&20BB.

    it’s too bad that this particular commenter sees it that way, because part of my advocacy of poetry in general comes from my belief that everyone can benefit from poetry, whether reading or writing it, and that poetry has suffered from being locked away in academia.

    i wouldn’t have facilitated several workshops at a homeless shelter if i believed poetry was some highbrow medium only the sophisticated intelligensia could understand and appreciate.

    taking shots at that advocacy is a desperate reach, in my opinion, from a biased perspective clearly trying to tarnish all aspects of my blogging here.

    but i think poems kick ass, and i got a few hundred books of them, so poetry ain’t leaving these virtual pages any time soon.


    • JC

      No need to apologize, liz. Keep ’em coming… you rock!

    • Dem Antidote

      Poetry only reaches me when read aloud by James Earl Jones. and the highwayman came riding, riding, riding… …

      Not everyone is equipped to appreciate poetry. Different strokes …

    • Steve W

      Poems are one of the things that make worth living. Liz.

      Thanks for sharing. I like them.

  7. Pogue Mahone

    Poetry for highbrows??? Hell, even us lowbrows love poetry! Poetry, the “spontaneous overflow of feelings and emotions”. ONLY one who has never lived, loved, lost, or cried cannot appreciate poetry. My favorites? I think the Romantics. But I LOVE poetry. In fact, the entire WORLD loves poetry except for Americans. We are much too coarse a people to apprecriate it. Neruda, Garcia Lorca. I love them all!

    You know this one, Lizard? It’s our enviro manifesto from the sixties.

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; (1)
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, (2)
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus (3) rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton (4) blow his wreathed horn.

    • Pogue Mahone

      p.s. Some of the greatest poetry I’ve ever heard was when my Native American friends were testifying on environmental issues. The poetry was unwritten and unrehearsed. It was simply their way of speaking. Incredible stuff. Coming right from the Creator. They were infused with His spirit.

    • lizard19

      i do not know that one, but i like it. who is it?

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