Fire on the Mountain
© 1961 Edward Abbey
Beneath the shadow of Thieves’ Mountain, Billy Starr has arrived to spend a summer with his grandfather. He has arrived in the middle of a six-month siege, however, one of increasing intensity. The US Corps of Engineers is determined to expand its missile testing range at White Sands (Alamogordo, NM), and has been generous with the public purse to do it. Virtually every rancher in the area has sold their land to the army — but not Old Man Voeglin. Voeglin’s ranch was established by his grandfather in the 1890s, defended against the Apache, and has survived both drought and depression. Voeglin rarely breaks even on it, but neither the farm nor his will has ever broken. The army offers money? Threats? Doesn’t matter. Let them shoot the horses, break the fences, run off the cattle: this was the farm that gave life to Voeglin and his father, the place that sustained them. There’s no money that can buy out Voeglin’s sense of responsibility, nor lessen his indigence that the government would presume to simply seize the land and remove him by force if he didn’t roll over. So he resists, and with him are his grandson and an old friend. Together they mend the fences, ride out into the brush to find the straying cattle, and continue to tend to the ranch’s everyday needs even as they are watched by Army jeeps and bureaucrats in sweat-soaked suits.
Fire on the Mountain is a short but powerfully written piece pitting man — affectionate and frail — against the implacable will of the Man, personified here in the form of a judge, a marshal, and more than a few soldiers. They are not pitiless executors of a grand plan from above; while the plan itself is pitiless, its human agents show as much mercy as the pressure pushing them from above can allow. Voeglin’s obdurancy — born of both love for his ancestral home and of contempt for those who would reduce it to test-range debris, abandoning generations of work to occasionally-bombed fallowness — is such that they even decide to let him say, provided he vacates the area during monthly missile tests. Yet he persists; the same sentimental attachment to the ground and the cause that has allowed him to stand up to neighbors, men with guns, and the entire Cold War might of the US Army, keeps him from making even the slightest concession. For him, the story ends in heartbreak. It’s not quite so wrenching for the reader, for the ending has a certain noble appropriateness to it.
Fire on the Mountain has now become the Edward Abbey book I would give to someone who had never read him. The book builds on devotion, not bitterness or rancor. His main characters are three men who love the New Mexican wilderness, and their place in it: they are deeply attached to one another. Even when the twelve-year old Billy is put on a train to El Paso to save him from the rage of the marshals, such is his devotion that he escapes the train and navigates his way back to the mountains. Abbey’s bellicose attitude is still there, reflected most through Voeglin’s utter refusal to back down, but it’s directed at the book’s ‘villains’. Add to this the writing — over and over, Abbey’s descriptions mesmerize me, both of the landscape and of the tortuous love the characters have for it.