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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #20: Edward Abbey: Voice of the Desert Southwest

Air Date: Week of

Author Edward Abbey wrote passionately of the unique and unspoiled beauty of the desert Southwest in his many novels and non-fiction writings. From Arizona, George Hardeen profiles Abbey and the impact of his word paintings.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If there's one part of the US where the hand of humans seems to have barely scratched the surface of primeval creation, it is the desert southwest. The bold mesas, canyons,and plateaus of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, support only the most tenacious forms of life, in a landscape still being sculpted by the eternal elements of wind, water, and sun. It is also a contested land, fought over through the centuries by natives and settlers, Mexicans and Americans, environmentalists and industrialists. Perhaps no one in this century has given voice to the landscape and the battles of the southwest, though from a partisan point of view, better than the late Edward Abbey. Author, journalist, and in the eyes of some, spiritual father of such radical environmental groups as Earth First. As part of our series of profiles of 25 leading figures in America's environmental debates, Arizona-based producer George Hardeen has this profile of Edward Abbey.

MAN: Well here we are, today this bridge stands nobly beside an older bridge. They each have their own mission...

HARDEEN: I recently covered the dedication of a new bridge spanning the Colorado River at Marble Canyon, Arizona, 20 miles downstream from the Glen Canyon dam.

MAN: The bridge is a steel tress arch approximately 900 feet long, with a main span of 726 feet...

HARDEEN: Federal, State, Tribal, and construction officials praised themselves for conquering the great natural canyon barrier before them. The ceremony was almost identical to the one Edward Abbey had described 20 years earlier in his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, except that no one blew up the bridge. I wondered if it was possible that I was the only person thinking of this iconoclastic but eloquent writer, who inspired a whole generation to defend the sublime beauty of the southwest's slick rock deserts.

ABBEY: Each day begins clean and promising in the sweet, cool, clear, green light of dawn. And then the sun appears, its hydrogen cauldrons brimming, so to speak, with plasmic fires, and the tyranny of its day begins.

HARDEEN: This is Abbey reading from the book that made him famous, the now classic Desert Solitaire. It's a journal of his life as a ranger in southeastern Utah. On every page, in Abbey's evocative style, are delicate stone arches and ancient dust, domed sandstone, and thousand-foot canyon walls, flash floods, the land, the sky.

ABBEY: By noon the clouds are forming around the horizon. And in the afternoon, predictable as sunrise and sunset, they gather in massed formations, colliding in jags of lightning and thunderous artillery, and pile higher and higher toward the summit of the sky in vaporish mountains, dazzling under the sunlight.

RONALD: Certainly Abbey was the first real popularizer of that kind of writing in the late 60s and early 70s. It's a bandwagon now that there are hundreds and hundreds of writers who have climbed on it.

HARDEEN: Ann Ronald is Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Nevada at Reno, and author of The New West of Edward Abbey. In Desert Solitaire, and the novels, essays, and journalism that followed, Abbey wrote passionately about keeping the desert empty, untouched, and especially free from development. Ironically, it was his words that helped usher in a boom in tourism that now brings millions to the region every year. But he also inspired protest and action to protect the land. Some say his fictitious Monkey Wrench Gang, which disabled loggers' bulldozers, and coal company railroad tracks, spawned the real life radical environmental group Earth First, whose credo is to defend the earth at any cost.

SLEIGHT: His greatest contribution was that he put it in words what everybody would like to have said.

HARDEEN: Ken Sleight was one of Abbey's oldest friends and the model for seldom-seen Smith, the river running polygamist Jack Mormon in The Monkey Wrench Gang.

SLEIGHT: It's not only myself, it's hundreds, thousands of other people that took the cue from Edward, and he came out and said well, enough's enough. We don't want any more.

HARDEEN: Abbey condemned the damming of western rivers, especially the Colorado. The Glen Canyon dam flooded the most beautiful of Utah's canyons.

(Birdcalls: the canyon wren.)

HARDEEN: Few people got to hear the song of the shy canyon wren there, but Abbey was one of them.

(Creaking wood, a boat being rowed)

HARDEEN: Abbey preferred the sound of oars to the din of an outboard motor. On a trip through Utah's Cataract Canyon, he wrote a piece called "Down the River with Henry Thoreau." The 2 writers loved simplicity and freedom. Both shared a strong suspicion of government. They believed in the joys of solitude, the human need for wilderness, and the duty of a writer to speak for these principles.

ABBEY: I see the preservation of wilderness as one sector of the front in the war against the encroaching industrial state. Every square mile of range and desert saved from the strip miners, every river saved from the dam builders, every forest saved from the loggers, every swamp saved from the land speculators, means another square mile saved for the play of human freedom.

HARDEEN: Abbey distinguished between civil disobedience and violence. At the end of The Money Wrench Gang, saboteurs succeed in blowing up the Glen Canyon dam. Once asked whether he would ever do that, Abbey said no, never. But he'd hold the coats for those who did. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Tuba City, Arizona.



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