Edward Abbey

“Our suicidal poets (Plath, Berryman, Lowell, Jarrell, et al.) spent too much of their lives inside rooms and classrooms when they should have been trudging up mountains, slogging through swamps, rowing down rivers. The indoor life is the next best thing to premature burial.”

This is the kind of quote which typifies Edward Abbey. It will make some people laugh out loud, and others shake their heads. The greatest thing about Abbey was that he really wouldn’t have given a damn whether you liked it or not.

Edward Abbey was born on January 29, 1927 in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Growing up during the Great Depression in the nearby village of Home in an impoverished but liberal family, he never excelled at school, and astonishingly failed journalism at high school twice. He enlisted in the US Army after his graduation, serving in Italy just as World War 2 drew to a close. After his discharge, he went to college at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of New Mexico, and also spent a year at Edinburgh University in Scotland, concentrating his studies in the field of philosophy and developing an interest in anarchism, which would later influence much of his writing.

Although he had several fictional novels published beforehand (Jonothan Troy, The Brave Cowboy, Fire on the Mountain), Abbey�s breakthrough work came in 1968 with the publication Desert Solitaire. A vivid account of his time spent as a seasonal ranger in the Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in Utah, it is full of Abbey’s trademark dry humour, philosophy and environmental awareness and stands as both a tribute and an obituary to the American desert that he loved so much. As he laments in the introduction, “Most of what I wrote about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy.”

Seven years later Abbey unleashed The Monkey Wrench Gang. It followed the comical antics of a group of freewheeling environmental saboteurs, or “monkey wrenchers”, trying to halt the insidious the march of development into the desert through non-violent direct action. Echoing Abbey’s environmental concerns, including the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, and with characters based on real life figures, the book inspired countless environmentalists to take up a “wrench” in defense of the wilderness.

Abbey died at age 69, on March 14, 1989 following complications from surgery on a recurrent vascular problem. He was brought home to die by friends, and was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Cabeza Prieta desert in Arizona. Amongst his instructions for burial was the line “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.” A fitting end for a great man of the American wilderness.

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