Resist Much, Obey Little: Remembering Ed Abbey
© 1996 James Hepworth & Gregory McNamee
To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States,
Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever
afterward resumes its liberty. (Walt Whitman)
Years ago I had the stupid luck to attract a visitor who suggested I try Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It was the beginning of a love affair for me, for Ed Abbey remains one of my favorite writers — of nonfiction, at least. He was he who spurred me into New Mexico and Arizona, he who put the hunger in my soul to go back there whenever our modern-day War of the Worlds panic eases away. Borrowing its title from Walt Whitman, Obey Little, Resist Much is a collection of essays about Ed Abbey’s life and work, together with two interviews and a handful of eulogies. The essays vary from middling to superb; Wendell Berry’s piece which opens the collection sets a high bar. The authors are a varied lot, with unique perspectives — one tries to connect Abbey to themes in Hindu & Buddhist philosophy. This collection reminded me of how grateful I am Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was introduced to me years ago, for Abbey was a true American character, one whose passion and voice I never tire of encountering.Abbey was fascinating, with a spellbinding way of describing the natural wonder of the Southwest, and urging readers to protect what little wilderness remains: we need it, he urges, if for nothing else than to put everything else into its proper perspective. Abbey didn’t just decry destructive development and pollution: he fought against them. Constantly hiking and camping beneath the stars, he made a habit of pulling up development stakes, destroying billboards, and engaging in other acts of resistance to forestall a dreaded corporate takeover of the last respite. Often described as a nature writer, or an environmentalist, Abbey disliked both labels — as he did the frequent comparisons to Henry David Thoreau, another fascinating American figure pigeon-holed into the nature-writer category. In my review for The Journey Home, I described him as ‘rough-hewn’, impossible to put in any box. Although I’ve read much of Abbey over the years, I found in this collection fresh glimpses of the man — whose love for classical music was matched only by his appetite for books, for instance, whose boisterous energy in books belied a far more quiet and genteel nature when he was in interviews or at dinner with new friends. Perhaps one of the more interesting pieces was written by a man who was part of the burial party that met at Abbey’s house at 3 am, then transported his body into the desert and buried him, quite illegally but very appropriately, in the terrain he’d adopted, loved, and defended.
It’s been too long since I spent any time with Abbey; I’ll have to remedy that soon!
Below is a musical tribute to Ed from a favorite musician of mine, Tom Russell. The piece ends with a ‘benediction’ from Ed himself.