Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast
© 2007 ed. David Petersen
“Saving the world is only a hobby. Most of the time I do nothing.”
Although I was first drawn to Ed Abbey by his nature writing, over the years I’ve become more fascinated with Abbey as a person. Books like Obey Little, Resist Much demonstrated how complex a man he was – one impossible to pigeonhole, accused of being a reactionary from some quarters and a tree hugger from others. Postcards from Ed, incorporating nearly four decades of his personal and public letters, puts this genuine American character squarely center-stage, where readers can grow to know him better. It’s less of a book and more of a visit with a friend, seeing him through moods of bliss and melancholy, of passionate work and even more impassioned philosophizing under the stars.
When I first read Desert Solitaire, knowing nothing of Abbey beyond his name, I made the same mistake most who read a little bit of Abbey do: I immediately sorted him into a convenient box, that of the Environmentalist. “Thoreau in the desert,” I decided. (That was a two-part mistake, for I later realized that Thoreau, too, was too unique a character for a slapdash label to stick to easily.) The more I read of Abbey, the more varied I discovered his work was – and the more interesting. His central subject was not The Environment, or even the western wilderness that Abbey loved, defended in words and action – but rather, the fate of man and nature in the hands of the techno-industrial machine. In this he’s more like Kaczynski than Thoreau, though much more fun to be around, and much less dangerous to receive mail from. On that subject, Postcards is a curated collection of letters and postcards, sent from various spots in Arizona and Utah, and largely originating in the 1970s and 1980s. They’re a good mix of personal letters, which themselves range from philosophical reflections to accounts of recent hikes in the wilderness, and more publicly-oriented missives, in which Abbey writes presidents, governors, and letters to the editor. A few from Abbey’s early years are included, but most from this period were lost to disaster. That’s a shame, since the late teens and early twenties are a transformative time, especially for an active thinker like Abbey, who was an irritant to the alphabet goon squads from his early twenties onward. (He began by publicly urging college men to mail their draft cards back to D.C. at a protest against both the war in Vietnam and the conscription being used to carry it out.) Good luck to the reader attempting to stick Abbey in a box; he was a man of great passion and sometimes divided opinions, calling himself an anarchist yet urging the government to do more to protect the west — cursing liberals and corporate tycoons in the same breath.
Postcards from Ed shows us the growth of a young man who journeyed West from ruined Appalachia, who arrived in time to see the canyonlands of southern Utah and its sister states come under the sights of industrial development – wherein the landscape was mined, logged, and dammed. Abbey wrote about it publicly, in books like Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang; he worked with organizations like the Sierra Club and Earth First! to raise awareness and spark resistance, and if you believe his and his friends’ claims, he actively engaged in sabotage in his numerous wilderness wanderings. To Abbey, the diversion of public money for private gain (in the creation of infrastructure that only one company would use) was offensive enough that action was warranted, but knowing that such infrastructure was enabling the plunder and ruin of a huge swath of the country made him apoplectic. Another key bugbear was the ranging of private cattle on public land, which he viewed not only as parasitical, but destructive to the west’s ecology: cattle consumed food that should have been the province of mule deer and elk. He argued this not because he was a hunter, but because he believed the creatures of the West had more a right to be there than sandal-wearing golfers who wanted a desert view from their Colorado-draining irrigated golf course. Although not a religious man, Abbey venerated the undespoiled wilderness and defended it consistently for decade after decade. Despite his melancholy over the future of that wilderness, , which seemed destined to disappear under ore mines and ticky-tacky residential developments, Abbey maintained that he was an optimist. The unsustainable, by its nature, is doomed: sooner or sooner, the growth-bubble that was industrialization civilization would pop and the likes of Tuscon and Phoenix would disappear like dust in the wind. Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell, he maintained, and like a cancer reckless overdevelopment would destroy the very civilization spurring it on. He preferred that we avoid a catastrophic die-off by tapering our numbers down ,but viewed the ultimate triumph of reality as inevitable.
Postcards is a fascinating book, one that I was pained to be finished with – because we don’t just experience the jeremiad-levying Abbey, the wilderness wanderer Abbey. We find Abbey the friend, Abbey the literary critic, the doting but often firm father, the disappointed epistoler, the humorist, someone who wanted to write a novel in honor of the working men whose stock he came from. I was delighted to find him exchanging letters with Wendell Berry (one wonders what Berry’s half that correspondence entails!) and responding to articles from papers and magazines all over the country — always with a mix of temper, steely intelligent, and mocking humor. This book makes him more real — in his humor, his abrasiveness, his righteous anger, his deep wonder and profound appreciation for the wild that remained. I will count it as one of my very favorite reads from this year, and one alone in being one I had to start reading again the moment I finished it — just to spend more time with Ed. Why do such interesting men leave us soon and the bores and cads linger for decades?
Quotations to follow this week…