Wild Country: Remembering Edward Abbey

The author and environmental activist Edward Abbey, who passed away in 1989, would have been 88 today. Abbey—who Larry McMurtry dubbed “the Thoreau of the American West”—was known for his searing love of wilderness, particularly the deserts of the Southwest, and his progressive views. An excerpt from Desert Solitaire, his most famous non-fiction work, can be found here.

According to the historian Douglas Brinkley, “Abbey’s motto came from Walt Whitman—’resist much, obey little’–and he was delighted that everyone from the FBI to the Sierra Club derided him as a ‘Desert Anarchist.'” Below is an excerpt from a 2004 Outside magazine piece titled “Chasing Abbey,” written by Abbey’s close friend and fellow author and outdoorsman Doug Peacock:

By the time Ed died at age 62, he was renowned, the author of 20 books, including Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, whose protagonist, George Washington Hayduke, was a former Green Beret medic who greatly resembled myself. Published in 1975, The Monkey Wrench Gang sold half a million copies, and the character of Hayduke became famous in a lowbrow sort of way. This was hardly an endorsement of excellence, nor was it flattery of any kind; Hayduke was a one-dimensional dolt. To the extent that I was seduced by the hype, it placed enormous strain on my friendship with Ed, which from the start carried the imbalance of paternalism.

I met Ed in the winter of 1969 at the home of a mutual friend, the writer William Eastlake; we talked about mountain lions. He was very funny, yet there was a stubborn finality to his judgments, which tended to be misanthropic toward adults and gentle toward children. Like myself, Ed had little use for religion of any variety, but he nevertheless believed there were observable guidelines for living, an accessible wisdom that resided in the land. He called the Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu — who viewed government as deadly not only to mankind but all of creation — the first anarchist.

It was the love of wild country, and the need to protect it, that brought us together and kept us together through the two bumpy decades of our friendship. Ed, who was 15 years older, became a guide in my life, introducing me to some of America’s greatest desert spots, and I tried to return the favor. After I began to closely study the biology and sociology of grizzly bears in the midseventies, Ed and I made many trips to Glacier National Park in the hope that he would spot a bear. He traveled to Alaska and the Arctic but was fated never to lay eyes on one. To the end, Ed called the silver-tipped bear “the alleged grizzly.”

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