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Thirty Years Gone: Remembering “Cactus Ed”

“Freedom begins between the ears.”

-Edward Abbey

“What do old men who don’t believe in Heaven think about?” queried Edward Abbey rhetorically in his masterpiece Desert Solitaire. “. . . they think about their blood pressure, their bladders, their aortas, their lower intestines, ice on the doorstep, too much sun at noon.” In other words, they think about postponing dying, though many may never have gotten around to actually living.

To die well, one must live fully, Abbey thought, and dedicated himself to the task.

Anarchist, wilderness defender, story-teller, truth-lover, industrial saboteur, sex fiend, river runner, poker lover, beer guzzler, cantankerous social critic, part-time fanatic opponent of unrestrained growth, full-time desert rat, Edward Abbey went at life full throttle, forsaking a long, half-lived, half-life for a shorter span of years indulging his hearty appetite for bourbon, bacon, cigars, and countless nights out under the stars. (Abbey died at 62, before his own father.)

Faced with terminal illness in late middle age, he never bargained with God for more time or experienced any of the alleged “stages” of accepting death that psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says we all inevitably pass through. The reason? For Abbey it was not death or dying that was tragic, but rather to have “existed without fully participating in life – that is the deepest personal tragedy.” He was philosophical, not horrified, by the inevitability of his own death, which he accepted decades ahead of time while communing with the desert: “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

You owe the earth a body, he believed.

A shy man infuriated by the devastating effect of industrial “progress,” Abbey’s rage was an expression of love for all that it destroyed: wilderness, freedom, free-flowing rivers, the pre-Stone-Age desert that his spirit would not leave even in death. And perhaps it was this passionate bond with the earth that gave Abbey his extraordinary poise, which never abandoned him, even in tragic moments. When he collapsed at a friend’s house in 1982 doctors gave him only a few months to live. Quipped Abbey, then fifty-five: “At least I don’t have to floss anymore.”

In a 1957 journal entry Abbey wrote that we don’t come into the world so much as grow out of it: “Man is not an alien in this world, not at all. He is as much a child of it as the lion and the ant.” But though we emerge from nature, its importance, especially in the desert, is that it bears no reflection of us: “In the desert, a man comes directly upon a world that is not a projection of human consciousness, a world that has not been interpreted by art or science or myth, that bears no trace of humanity on its surface, that has no apparent connection to the indoor human world.” Just this is its essential value. “In the desert one comes in direct confrontation with the bones of existence, the bare incomprehensible absolute is-ness of being. Like a temporary rebirth of childhood, when all was new and wonderful.” The city, for all its treasures, cannot reveal this.

Born in 1927, Abbey’s adult years were lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation, among other ominous signs of massive destruction, but while others fretted over looming social disaster, Abbey actually looked forward to the end of human misrule, taking solace in the fact that his beloved Grand Canyon had already outlasted thirty failed civilizations.

“Be of good cheer,” he wrote in Down the River (1982), “the military-industrial state will soon collapse.” Although our “military industrial” state is now more of a military financial state, Abbey felt its approaching demise represented “good news,” the actual title of a novel he wrote on the topic, which critics took to be an ironic comment, whereas Abbey intended it as nothing more than the literal truth. Given that human population had vastly overshot its land base, progress required catastrophe, he thought, and he hoped that in the ruins of former cities “a small society of friends in a community of mutual aid and shared ownership of land” might manage to “rebuild the simple farming and pastoral economy that had been destroyed by the triumph of the city.” A Jeffersonian anarchist vision for the 21st century.

Though broadly cultured and obviously possessed of a lively intellect, prolonged visits to the city always produced in Abbey a longing for prompt return to “light on rock, the sun on my bones, the smell of a sweating horse, the bright thirsty air of the high plateaus.” Only a small scale civilization could be compatible with Abbey’s yearning for vast unspoiled wilderness, and then only if it recognized the primacy of nature. “A world without wilderness is a cage,” said environmentalist David Brower, and Abbey fervently concurred.

He flatly rejected the view that his deep urge to preserve what remained of humanity’s ancestral home was a marginal or superfluous concern. Wilderness, he wrote, “is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” Only in wilderness could one find an abundance of life’s essentials: clean air, pristine sunlight, pure water, unbounded space and time, grass and woods to play and get lost in, solitude and silence, “alien” life and the risk of death. “A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original,” warned Abbey, “is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” And the danger part was not to be omitted. Abbey agreed with his friend Doug Peacock that one was not truly in the wilderness unless one was at risk of being eaten.

An original thinker unafraid of honest examination of any issue, Abbey inevitably ran afoul of multicultural dogmas. He felt that liberal taboos against criticism of official minority groups was a form of censorship, and he was regularly accused of sexism, racism, “eco-fascism” and xenophobia for violating those taboos. Abbey rejected these rejections of his work. In response to a suggestion that he remove the “Archie Bunkerisms” from his then forthcoming novel The Fool’s Progress, he ranted: “I’m not going to toady to chickenshit liberalism anymore; fuck it. I’ve already been called fascist, racist, elitist, as well as communist, terrorist, misanthrope, bleeding-heart etc. so often it doesn’t bother me anymore. To hell with all those petty, taboo-ridden dogmatic minds.”

The critics “hate my books,” he went on, because “almost all reviewers, these days, are members of and adherents to some anxious particular sect or faction . . . . As such, any member of any one of those majority minorities is going to find for certain a few remarks in any of my books that will offend/enrage’s/he’ to the marrow.” Thirty years after Abbey’s death Donald Trump is the arsonist in charge of our ideological fire department, eagerly flinging gasoline in the faces of identity politics dogmatists, setting off an ever-widening sectarian conflagration. Maybe we should have paid more attention to Abbey’s criticisms when he first made them.

Although it is difficult to see Abbey as outright hating anyone (except the rich, whom he loathed), it’s easy to detect double standards in his work and life. While enjoying the benefits of monogamous marriage, he cheated on four out of five wives, using his celebrity to help bed attractive women. Though he was convinced that (1) “girls should be encouraged from infancy on to see the world as a playground of potentiality,” and (2) women’s under-representation in most fields was regrettable, and (3) “no man who is really a man will feel his manhood demeaned or threatened by the act of washing dishes,” he nevertheless disapproved of novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s having left young children at home in order to attend a 1989 writing conference that Abbey also attended (Kingsolver says Abbey was “respectful to the point of deference” in his treatment of her, however).

Abbey’s justification for the double standard was uncharacteristically unoriginal. Women are morally superior to men, caring for others, while men crave sexual variety out of selfish pleasure. (“I’ve never met a nymphomaniac I didn’t like,” commented the hero of Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress). The vast majority of men are polygamous, bogged down and frustrated with monogamy, which they submit to only out of sloth. So why did Abbey, hardly a slothful type, get married five times? His fifth and final wife (Clarke) said that he was seriously conflicted: “There was always the real complex issue of wanting to be married and have a family and wanting to be totally on his own and doing what he wanted.” One illustration of just how serious the conflict was for Abbey is provided by his fourth wife, Renee, who remembers a time she sent him to the store for groceries and had to wait two days for his return.

On feminism, Abbey had a very mixed response. Three years before Roe v. Wade his unpublished “Some Second Thoughts on Women’s Lib” contained the opinion that “a woman’s womb is not the property of the State . . . She must be mistress of all that’s enclosed within her skin.” On the other hand, he saw feminism as androgyny-promoting and contemptuous of working class men. And though he supported the Equal Rights Amendment and reviewed, counseled, and befriended several women writers, his negative portrayal of feminism in The Fool’s Progress offended his father (a lifelong socialist who appreciated the social gains of the Bolshevik Revolution) to the point that he stopped reading the book, and also his wife Claire, who hated the depiction, saying that Abbey never treated her in the sexist manner he sympathetically portrayed in his books. At a book event in 1987 a number of women who apparently shared this dislike walked out of an Abbey reading of The Fool’s Progress.

On the issue of race, Abbey very clearly did not sympathize with the multiplication of victim minorities, which he claimed were “advance men for planetary majorities.” However, it should be kept in mind that Abbey’s misanthropic convictions (in one book he commented that what the world needed to solve the overpopulation problem was a vast, painless plague) made him portray nearly all groups in a negative light, white people included. For example, in a 1956 journal entry he wrote: “On the Negro question: I don’t like ’em. Don’t like Negroes,” which seems to be an openly bigoted statement. But the next sentence is: “As far as I can see, they’re just as stupid and depraved as whites.” Similarly, in one breath Abbey depicted (American) Indians as alcoholic welfare bums, while in the next he had the hero of one of his novels say, “Indians are just as stupid and greedy and cowardly and dull as us white folks” (The Monkey Wrench Gang).

Asians he portrayed as products of authoritarian “anthill societies” mindlessly producing consumer junk for clueless Americans (“Jap crap,” the hero of The Fool’s Progress called it). He rejected the idea that (densely overcrowded) Eastern cultures had anything important to teach the West, and roundly criticized those who thought differently. “I find it pathetic as well as ironic to see the enthusiasm with which hairy little gurus from the sickliest nation on earth are welcomed by the technological idiots of all-electric California,” he said in Abbey’s Road.

However, when Washington unleashed a nearly genocidal assault on tiny Vietnam, Abbey spoke out harshly against the deeply racist slaughter. He considered the Vietnam war the most shameful chapter in U.S. history apart from slavery, and in a 1968 appearance to promote Desert Solitaire, he offended many in his audience by denouncing the war instead. Four years later in a letter to the Arizona Daily Star, he compared it to the worst atrocities of totalitarian states: “Nothing in American history, not even the wars against the Indians, can equal the shame and brutality and cowardice of this war. It makes an obscenity of our Christmas holidays and sinks our own Government and all who passively consent to its atrocities down to the moral level of Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany.”

Abbey called himself a racist in Confessions of a Barbarian, though he defined the term as an aversion to being dominated by a race to which one did not belong, which definition would render nearly all of humanity “racist”: “Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.” Abbey was aware of the contributions of Western colonialism and imperialism to the widespread misery found in those regions, but argued it was but “Western guilt neurosis” to assign primacy to them in accounting for Third World conditions in the late twentieth century.

He urged a complete halt to immigration coming north from Mexico, contending that a porous border was allowing in “millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally, morally, generically impoverished people.” Such people brought with them an “alien mode of life which . . . is not appealing to the majority of Americans . . . Because we prefer democratic government . . . hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful – yes, beautiful! – society. The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.”

Abbey argued that a solution to mass immigration from the south had to be sought in Mexico, not the United States: “Mexico needs not more loans – money that will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of los ricos – but a revolution.” According to his best friend John Du Puy, Abbey considered the Mexican government an appalling betrayal of the Zapatista revolution and he vehemently opposed allowing them to “dump people on us” that they “couldn’t deal with.” In One Life At A Time, Please, he called for the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, but also advocated handing out rifles to those turned back there, so they could return home and settle accounts with their exploiters. Though more rhetoric than serious policy proposal, the implied sympathy for social revolution is hardly racist (racists prefer eugenic solutions). Curiously, Abbey “didn’t think much” of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, which implemented a wide range of popular programs for the poor that made it unnecessary for Nicaraguans to migrate to the United States in large numbers, as campesinos from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador did (and still do), much to Abbey’s dislike. Perhaps Abbey was the kind of anarchist who favors every revolution except the (imperfect) ones that succeed.

In any event, Abbey had curious associations for a “racist.” Early in his career he spoke at a Navajo rally, and in 1959 he edited the bilingual newspaper El Crepusculo de la Libertad (Twilight of Liberty), which promoted Indian rights. Years later he favorably reviewed Vine Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, one of several favorable articles he wrote on Indian affairs. He lamented that Deloria’s views were not being taught in schools, and noted that “the many parallels between the war in Vietnam and the war against the American Indian has not escaped the American Indian.”

Though, as noted, he opposed mass immigration from Mexico, he bore no grudge against Hispanics per se, and felt that any immigrant who had managed to live in the U.S. five years or more should be allowed to stay. For many years he wore a cap with the inscription “Viva La Causa,” and his best friend John De Puy reports he was sympathetic to Chicano activists in Taos and throughout northern New Mexico. De Puy says Abbey’s opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal, was not because of contempt for other cultures, but because of the problems inherent in large scale immigration.

Responding to Alfredo Gutierrez in the New York Times in August, 1983, Abbey conceded he preferred his own culture to others: “I will confess to cultural bias. Though an aficionado of tacos, Herradura tequila, and ranchero music (in moderate doses), I have no wish to emigrate to Mexico. Nor does Alfredo Gutierrez . . . At some point soon our Anglo-liberal-guilt neurosis must yield to common sense and enlightened self-interest.” In a 1987 letter to Earth First! Journal, Abbey drew a distinction between chauvinism and racism: “I am guilty of cultural chauvinism – I much prefer life in the USA to that in any Latin American country; and so do most Latin Americans – but chauvinism is not racism. Racism is the belief that all members of one race are innately superior to all members of some other race. I do not subscribe to any such belief. In a 1988 journal entry he wrote that the only “superior” races would be those who have done the least harm to the earth; he suggested the Bushmen of Africa, the Australian aborigines, and perhaps the Arizona Hopi.

If this is white supremacy, it’s a rather novel strain.

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