Long-lost letters from the buzzard in the dead tree
by Edward Abbey
Family, Home, Pennsylvania
8 November 1949
I was wondering—could you lend me three or four hundred dollars? I have not yet bought either a horse or a motorcycle and am thinking of buying a car; not any car, but a ‘47 Ford one of my fellow students is trying to sell. It would really be a good buy; the thing is practically new. The money would not have to be in a lump—fifty a month would be enough.
But no doubt you are looking forward to the payday when your paycheck is all yours—and certainly I don’t have to buy a car. But I should buy something; otherwise I’ll continue to fritter my money away on records and books and wild parties. It’s painful to remember that a mere six months ago I had twice as much money as now—where did it all go? I can’t imagine. Of course, that money should have been saved for my Oxford tuition, but the truth is that I can’t save money—certainly not for the sake of saving. If I have money I feel compelled to spend it on something. (The future be damned. Tomorrow I may be dead.) Typical hedonistic epicureanism.
I intend to make some money next summer—if I can find a job. Either here or back east. Why not wait until then to buy a car? By that time I’ll be broke.
If you can’t lend me several hundred dollars, you are quite welcome to reduce or cut off the monthly stipend as much and whenever you please. I don’t need the money—I’ll just waste it.
I’m doing some writing but it’s all of a highly technical nature—“the planes of reality,” “Pythagorean philharmonica,” “the polarities of experience,” “Principia Aesthetica,” “the isolation of data,” “Democritian atomism,” “Attic Romanticism,” and such-like pretentious frivolity.
How am I doing, scholastically? Fairly well, I think, but the competition in these advanced philosophy courses is rather good. My days of coasting to distinction with my innate brilliance are over; from now on I’m afraid I’ll have to study like everyone else.
The situation is difficult for me because my nearly universal range of interests continues—riding, girls, mountain climbing, exploring, machines, mysticism, music, vodka, politics, astronautics, poker—all of which interferes considerably with my half-hearted attempt to become a scholar. (Really not possible, I think, for me—the scholarly life, I mean. I’m too fond, much too fond, of fresh air and mundane pleasures.)
Of course, you’ll congratulate me on this—saying that the general, the whole, the universal, is much better than narrow specialization, with its consequent dehumanization, isolation, blindness, and turtle-shell spectacles.
And so I persuade myself. But is it true? Entirely true?
I think the matter falls definitely in an area of controversy, necessitating suspension of decision.
So Billy killed two squirrels and a rabbit?
According to Aristotelian metaphysics the rodents possess souls of sort, certainly inferior to human souls, but souls nevertheless and deserving of love and pity. Forgot about that, didn’t you?
Reminds me—Bud and I went antelope hunting last weekend with one other fellow. Bud’s friend got one. Having neither license nor rifle I drove the jeep while the others did the shooting. Quite exciting—driving off the road into the sagebrush over hills and down arroyos, rounding up the antelope like cattle. My but they’re fast—we clocked one bunch at 40 miles an hour.
Merci beacoup for the $150. No, I don’t know how much you still owe me.
Sorry to hear about the Oldsmobile’s further sufferings.
It is now the hour of one and twenty in the morning, mountain time. The radio is on and I’m hearing a song called “Mule Train” for about the seventh time this evening. Quite a fad, this pseudo-Western culture. First “Riders in the Sky” and now this. But I must not let my aesthetic snobbery blind me to the fact that these two songs are immensely superior to the usual run of popular music.
Mid-term exams this week. That’s why we’re home so early and not in bed. Cramming. Debauchery will be resumed this coming Saturday night and will reach a high point next week for the annual Homecoming festival.
Love (platonic) to all and sundered.
Tucson Daily Citizen
20 September 1972
The police helicopter is an unnecessary evil. The money being wasted on that infernal and idiotic machine would be sufficient to add another fifteen or twenty men to the force. The helicopter cannot be justified as a crime preventive; noise pollution is a crime and should be recognized as such, and in all the stink and smog and clatter of downtown Tucson, no individual machine is more obnoxious than that helicopter.
Even if the helicopter could glide about quiet as an owl, it remains still objectionable on even more serious grounds: aerial surveillance of a supposedly free citizenry is an affront to us all, and one more significant step toward an authoritarian police state. There are far better ways to prevent crime than by sending Big Brother aloft to keep his beady 450-watt eye on us dues-paying citizens.
I would suggest, for example, that a few good men on bicycles (a la francaise), properly uniformed and equipped, patrolling swiftly and silently through their own neighborhoods, friends not enemies of the people they work among, could do far more to prevent crime than two official Peeping Toms roaring over our rooftops in their fifty-dollar-an-hour plastic bubble.
Let’s think about this, people. You too, City Officials.
Senator Frank E. Moss, Washington, D.C.
26 March 1973
Dear Senator Moss:
Thank you for your letter of March 21st in response to my letter regarding the Lake Powell-Rainbow Bridge issue. I am writing again on this same matter because you did not reply to the specific points which I raised in my letter.
E.g., you say that if Judge Ritter’s order is allowed to stand, the four upper-basin states will lose 4 million acre-feet of water immediately and one million acre-feet of water annually thereafter. Anticipating this argument I asked you why the water cannot be stored just as well in “Lake” Mead (now about 60 percent full) and credited to the upper basin states. Why should Bridge Creek below Rainbow Bridge, as well as a hundred other lovely and world-unique side canyons in the Glen Canyon system, why should they all be flooded, destroyed, generally mucked-up when a simple change in book-keeping procedure could avoid the whole mess?
I also raised the larger question, which you also failed to answer, as to what difference it makes anyway, to 99.9 percent of us Americans, whether the limited and badly abused and over-used Colorado River is exploited in the upper basin states or the lower basin states? Really, what difference does it make, when there is not nearly enough water in that poor old river to satisfy all the millionaire agri-businessmen of the Southwest? As you well know, not a drop is allowed to run its natural course to the sea anymore, and as you also know, Mexico is not receiving its agreed-upon share.
Furthermore, from the strictly economic-production point of view, the waters of the Colorado will return more in the way of agricultural produce down in the Imperial Valley of California than they will in the shorter growing seasons of the upper basin states.
You describe correctly the muddy mess which a barrier dam would create below Rainbow Bridge, when the water level is low. But you fail to mention that the same effect will follow the rise and fall of Lake Powell’s waters, if the reservoir is allowed to intrude within the boundaries of the Monument. In other words, if the reservoir is filled to full capacity at any time, the inevitable draw-down later will leave behind the usual “bathtub rings” on the canyon walls and stinking mud flats in the canyon bottoms. Of course this is already happening throughout Glen Canyon NRA every time the water level is lowered.
This letter is already too long but I cannot resist commenting on one other thing: You state that forty thousand people saw Rainbow Bridge last year whereas only a “handful” saw it before the inundation of Glen Canyon, when it was necessary to walk 6 1/2 miles up from the river. You regard this as a clear-cut improvement in the nature of things. That is a form of quantitative logic, all too sadly typical of the growth-is-progress syndrome, which more and more Americans are coming to question these days.
Why, Senator Moss, why, I ask you, do you believe that “more” is the same as “better”? The 6 1/2-mile walk to the Bridge was not difficult; as one who actually did it, I can say that it was quite an easy walk, on a perfectly adequate trail, with water—clear beautiful drinkable running water, available most of the way—and shade enough to make even the June heat tolerable. The walk to the Bridge and back could easily be made in a single day, by anyone in average health, of any age from eight to eighty. And it was a beautiful canyon, and getting to the Bridge and back was a mild but beautiful adventure, the kind of experience one treasures for a lifetime afterwards.
Rainbow Bridge is much more than a geological oddity: its whole setting, its comparative remoteness, its character as part of a greater whole, is what made it and getting there such a wonderful and unforgettable pleasure. Those six miles were all too short; I now envy those who first saw the Bridge by the fourteen-mile approach from Rainbow Lodge, around the mountain.
How can that experience be equated with forty thousand annual quick visits by people roaring in and out on motorboats who generally see nothing but the wake of the boat ahead, hear nothing but the roar of motors, feel nothing but the impatience characteristic of motorized travel to get on to the next “sight”? The fact that all these multitudes never bothered to go see Rainbow Bridge before access was made easy proves only one thing: they simply were not interested.
And ease of access does not create interest. Quite the contrary: it has reduced interest. That “blue finger” of Lake Powell has transformed what was once a delightful adventure into what is now merely a routine motorized sight-seeing excursion. The loss is great, and immeasurable, and cannot be compensated for by any amount of industrialized mass tourism. You cannot creep from quantity to quality. The two are not commensurable. I have also made the visit to Rainbow Bridge by motorboat and can personally testify that it is a meager, shallow and trivial experience when compared to the hike up the canyon. In fact, as they say, there is “no comparison.”
Something priceless was destroyed by the flooding of Glen Canyon, which no amount of motorized “visitor use” can ever equal in human values. Our duty now is to save what still remains of that great canyon system—especially Rainbow Bridge—and to begin the long and arduous effort to restore it all, eventually, to its original and natural condition.
It would be nice if you would help, Senator. Forget Art Greene and his tour-boat business; to hell with those sugar-beet growers up around Vernal. There are far better things to do and be and save in the glorious and absolutely unmatched state of Utah.
New York Review, New York City
30 March 1973
In his review of the book Retreat From Riches [Affluence and Its Enemies, by Peter Passell] Jason Epstein mentions the Earth Day slogan “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” He dismisses the analogy as an argument against ever-expanding industrialism. Nature as a whole, he asserts, operates on the same principle as cancer. All living things, he seems to believe, subscribe to the “ideology” of growth for growth’s sake. Therefore, he implies, we have nothing to fear from expansionist industrialism.
Not so. Most species within nature aim not at unlimited growth but rather at optimum growth; that is, a condition of stability, fulfilling but not destroying the species’ appropriate niche within the larger life-system. Likewise, the individual organism, if it is healthy, seeks not endless growth—which is monstrous and suicidal—but rather maturation and reproduction, which also coincides with the “ideal” of the species. Both tend to serve and sustain the ends—whatever those may be—of evolutionary change as a whole.
Cancer is distinctive and pathological precisely because it does not conform to this pattern, or recognize any limitations; the disease with—as well as of—hubris. Delighting in nothing but multiplication, cancer ends by destroying both its host and itself. The analogy to our modern planetary growth-devoted techno-industrial society (whether capitalist or socialist makes no difference) is complete and exact. Like cancer, expansionist industrialism believes in nothing but more expansionism. Growth equals power: power equals growth. Again like cancer, the process will self-destruct. Not, however, without human suffering, which will be great until a different kind of society based on a more stable adaptation to the earth’s thin skin is somewhat achieved.
Unlike Jason Epstein, I find the idea of placing a limit on industrial growth quite thinkable. Not only thinkable, not only desirable, but essential. Affluence consists of far more than the endless production of junk, under the ever-growing mountain of which many good things (like healthy human-type people) are benignly suffocated.
For example, many of us would gladly forego La Tache (whatever that is) served in Baccarat glasses (who needs them?) in exchange for breathable air and edible bread. That, and freedom from more and more technological tyranny—police helicopters, for example—is part of my notion of what affluence really means.
A sound argument could be made for the case that growing industrialism not only does not eliminate poverty (there are as many poor people today as there were in the depths of the New Deal—40 million), it increases poverty. Industrialism, beyond the optimum point, which we passed about seventy years ago, tends to impoverish, not enrich, our lives. Ask any Indian. Ask any Appalachian.
19 May 1973
Herewith my bit for your cookbook. This recipe is not original but a variation on an old (perhaps ancient) Southwestern dish. It has also been a favorite of mine and was for many years the staple, the sole staple, of my personal nutritional program. (I am six feet three and weigh 190 pounds, sober.)
I call it Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge.
1. Take one fifty-pound sack Colorado pinto beans. Remove stones, cockleburs, horseshit, ants, lizards, etc. Wash in clear cold crick water. Soak for twenty-four hours in iron kettle or earthenware cooking pot. (DO NOT USE TEFLON, ALUMINUM OR PYREX CONTAINER. THIS WARNING CANNOT BE OVERSTRESSED.)
2. Place kettle or pot with entire fifty lbs. of pinto beans on low fire and simmer for twenty-four hours. (DO NOT POUR OFF WATER IN WHICH BEANS HAVE BEEN IMMERSED. THIS IS IMPORTANT.) Fire must be of juniper, pinyon pine, mesquite or ironwood; other fuels tend to modify the subtle flavor and delicate aroma of Pinto Bean Sludge.
3. DO NOT BOIL.
4. STIR VIGOROUSLY FROM TIME TO TIME WITH WOODEN SPOON OR IRON LADLE. (Do not disregard these instructions.)
5. After simmering on low fire for twenty-four hours, add one gallon green chile peppers. Stir vigorously. Add one quart natural (non-iodized) pure sea salt. Add black pepper. Stir some more and throw in additional flavoring materials, as desired, such as old bacon rinds, corncobs, salt pork, hog jowls, kidney stones, ham hocks, sowbelly, saddle blankets, jungle boots, worn-out tennis shoes, cinch straps, whatnot, use your own judgment. Simmer an additional twenty-four hours.
6. Now ladle as many servings as desired from pot but do not remove pot from fire. Allow to simmer continuously for hours, days or weeks if necessary, until all contents have been thoroughly consumed. Continue to stir vigorously, whenever in vicinity or whenever you think of it.
7. Serve Pinto Bean Sludge on large flat stones or on any convenient fairly level surface. Garnish liberally with parsley flakes. Slather generously with raw ketchup. Sprinkle with endive, anchovy crumbs and boiled cruets and eat hearty.
8. One potful Pinto Bean Sludge, as above specified, will feed one poet for two full weeks at a cost of about $11.45 at current prices. Annual costs less than $300.
9. The philosopher Pythagoras found flatulence incompatible with meditation and therefore urged his followers not to eat beans. I have found, however, that custom and thorough cooking will alleviate this problem.
Yrs, Edward Abbey—Tucson
George Sessions, Philosophy Professor,
Sierra College, California
30 August 1979
Sorry your friend [Bill] Devall and you couldn’t come. Since you didn’t, I shall pass on a few remarks via typewriter.
As I said, I think the new Eco-Philosophy contains many interesting, important and daring ideas. But I have three quibbles:
1. I dislike the pejorative term “shallow environmentalism,” and the pretentious term “deep ecology.” It is vital that we avoid any hint of moral superiority in our dealings with one another in the environmental movement; if it developed into factionalism it would destroy us, as factionalism has destroyed so many other progressive movements in America. E.g., I was quite disappointed by Stewart Brand’s silly attack on the Sierra Club (promptly publicized by Esquire Magazine and other Shithead publications) because some Sierra Clubber in San Francisco obstructed his plans for a Co-Evolution fund-raising picnic on public parklands.
If we must have labels, why not something like “eco-activists” and “eco-philosophers.” Each implies the other anyway, and most of us are, or try to be, something of both. While I grant the intellectual value of providing environmentalism with a sound philosophical basis, the people that I actually most admire are those who put their bodies where their minds are—i.e., Mark Dubois, and patient tireless organizers like David Brower, and the field reps of the various conservation organizations, the people who confront and deal directly with politicians, industrialists, the media. I think it far more important to save one square mile of wilderness, anywhere, by any means, than to produce another book on the subject.
I am weary of the old and tiresome and banal question “Why save the wilderness?” The important and difficult question is “How? How save the wilderness?” I am not much concerned with the state of the world a thousand years from now, for in that long-range view I am an optimist: I think that the greed and stupidity of industrial culture will save us from ourselves by self-destruction. What I am concerned about is the world my children will have to live in, and maybe, if my children ever get around to it, the world of my grandchildren.
2. One of these days the Orientalizers will have to face the question of why the homelands of Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and Zen—namely, India, China, Japan—are also the most abused, ravaged, insulted, overpopulated and desperate lands on planet earth.
Why? I have my theories about it, of course, implied by things I’ve written elsewhere; but how do you and Devall and Gary Snyder explain it? If you’re going to make your theories cohere with fact, you’ve got to do some thinking about the real role of any large-scale, institutional religion in human life and the life of the planet.
In my view, the Oriental religions are no better than Christianity (itself of Oriental origin, of course) or Islam; all of them tend to divorce men and women from the earth, from other forms of life, by their mystical emphasis upon the general, the abstract, the invisible, and by their psychological tendency, in prayer and meditation, to turn the mind inward, toward self-love, self-importance, self-obsession. Salvation. Satori. Union with God, union with the All-Source, union with The One. (Which one? my daughter Suzi, age eleven, says—bless her native common sense.) Of course, the devotees of these mystical rites claim the opposite—that they are engaged in self-transcendence. I think they delude themselves; rather than escaping the self, they are wallowing, luxuriating, in a most enormous vanity. The same is true of all the many lesser cults now flourishing, like fungi in a bog, among us bored and idle Americans—EST, for example, and Esalen, and TM, and psychoanalysis, and anal-analysis, and good God! all the many other sickly little superstitions that pollute the psychic atmosphere.
(However, I tell myself . . . it’s all part of the carnival. All part of the human comedy. These things have always been with us and always will. Each to his fate, predetermined (perhaps) by his character. I must confess that I often tire of my own role as the sneering buzzard on the dead tree. There are times when I envy those with the freedom to hurl themselves into the mob, to lose themselves in the flood of life. Ideally, I suppose, we should be able to enjoy every form of experience. Including suffering? even torture? even slavery?)
Paralyzing philosophy. But always entertaining.
Action, there’s the thing. Action! When I grow sick with the buzzing of the brain, I like to go climb a rock. Cut down a billboard. Disable a bulldozer. (Eine kleine Nachtwerke) Climb a mountain. Run a rapid. Pursue a woman. Etc.
Enough of these trivial asides. On to Quibble #3:
3. Animal egalitarianism. If all animals are equal, then we humans, obviously, are no better than any other animals. Being no better, we cannot be expected to behave any better. Therefore, it is perfectly logical, as well as natural, that we do as others do—expand to the limits of our range, exterminate competitors, multiply our numbers well beyond the carrying capacity of our territory, submit to mass die-offs periodically, and so on. On the other hand, if we demand of ourselves that we behave rationally, display tolerance and even love for all other forms of life, then it would seem to follow that we are asking of humans a moral sensitivity unknown to lesser—excuse me!—other animals.
Having raised the question, I think I see the answer. In demanding that humans behave with justice, tolerance, reason, love toward other forms of life, we are doing no more than demanding that humans be human—that is, be true to the best aspects of human nature.
Humans being human, therefore, cannot consider themselves morally superior to, say, bears being bear-like, eagles being eagle-like, etc. No doubt Spinoza had much to say about this. Despite his disdain for nonhuman forms of life.
Let beings be, says Heidegger. Very good. Be true to the earth, says Nietzsche. I like that. Death is the most exciting form of life! said General George Patton. Well no, that doesn’t fit here. Give your heart to the hawks, said my favorite American poet—after Whitman. How about a similar nifty slogan from Spinoza? Can you offer us one, George?
I liked Devall’s review of Planet/Person. Very much to the point. But [I] think, in his letter to NMA [Not Man Apart], that he must have missed a few chapters in my own book. In “Science w/a Human Face” and “Conscience of the Conqueror,” he will find that I attempt to deal directly with some of the questions that he is most concerned with.
And yes, I do distrust mysticism. I regard it as too easy a way out. Whenever I find myself sliding into mysticism in my writing—I never do it in my feeling and seeing—I know that my mind is relaxing, taking the easy way around a hard pitch of thought. Just as those who casually throw in the word “God” think that they are answering questions which may very well have no answer. Not all questions can be answered. I think that Carl Sagan is a bit naive in his scientific optimism, just as those who call themselves mystics are naive in identifying their personal inner visions with universal reality.
Random thoughts. No more for the time being. Please continue to send me the Eco-Philosophy newsletter. And you are welcome, if you wish, to print parts of my letters, or parts of my books, in that newsletter. I would be honored, and most interested in reading the reaction of others to the words of an anti-metaphysical metaphysician. Among metaphysicians, I would prefer to be a G.P.—a general practitioner.
Eugene C. Hargrove, Editor,
Environmental Ethics, University of Georgia
3 November 1982
Dear Mr. Hargrove:
Thank you for inviting me to respond to your editorial re Earth First! and The Monkey Wrench Gang:
So far as I know, Earth First! as an organization—though it’s more a spontaneous grouping than an organization, having neither officers nor by-laws—is not “pledged to ecological sabotage.” If Newsweek said that, Newsweek is hallucinating (again). We are considering acts of civil disobedience, in the usual sense of that term, when and where they might be useful. For example, when and if the Getty Oil Co attempts to invade the Gros Ventre wilderness (Wyoming) with bulldozers, we intend to peaceably assemble and block the invasion with guitars, American flags, live human bodies and maybe an opposing D-9 tractor. If arrested, we shall go to jail, pay the fines and try again. We invite your readers to join us. A good time will be had by all.
As for that book, please note that The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel, a work of fiction and—I like to think—a work of art. It would be naive to read it as a tract, a program for action or a manifesto. The book is a comedy, with a happy ending. It was written to entertain, to inspire tears and laughter, to amuse my friends and to aggravate our enemies. (Aggravate their ulcers.) So far, about a half million readers seem to have found that approach appealing.
The book does not condone terrorism in any form. Let’s have some precision in language here: terrorism means deadly violence—for a political and/or economic purpose—carried out against people and other living things, and is usually conducted by governments against their own citizens (as at Kent State, or in Vietnam, or in Poland, or in most of Latin America right now), or by corporate entities such as J. Paul Getty, Exxon, Mobil Oil, etc etc., against the land and all creatures that depend upon the land for life and livelihood. A bulldozer ripping up a hillside to strip mine for coal is committing terrorism; the damnation of a flowing river followed by the drowning of Cherokee graves, of forest and farmland, is an act of terrorism.
Sabotage, on the other hand, means the use of force against inanimate property, such as machinery, which is being used (e.g.) to deprive human beings of their rightful work (as in the case of Ned Ludd and his mates); sabotage (le sabot dropped in a spinning jenny)—for whatever purpose—has never meant and has never implied the use of violence against living creatures. The characters in Monkey Wrench engage in industrial sabotage in order to defend a land they love against industrial terrorism.
They do this only when it appears that in certain cases and places all other means of defense of land and life have failed and that force—the final resort—becomes morally justified. Not only justified but a moral obligation, as in the defense of one’s own life, one’s own family, one’s own home, one’s own nature, against a violent assault.
Such is the basis of my characters’ rationale in The Monkey Wrench Gang. How the reader chooses to interpret all this is the reader’s business. And if the reader is impelled to act out in real life the exploits of Doc, Bonnie, Slim & Hayduke, that too is a matter for decision by the individual conscience. But first and last, it should be remembered that the book is fiction, make-believe, a story and no more than a story.
As for my own views on environmental ethics, I have tried to state them explicitly in the essay form: see The Journey Home (1977), Abbey’s Road (1979), and Down the River (1982).
Sincerely, Edward Abbey—Oracle
18 June 1984
Okay, I’ll give it a go. If you have further questions call me, mornings or evenings—before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. Or come for a day or two in Tucson if you can; it’s not likely I’ll get out of here this summer.
3) The same only more so.
4) With DS [Desert Solitaire] (1968) I was only getting started. In later books, such as Monkey Wrench, Abbey’s Road, Down the River, Black Sun, Good News and Beyond the Wall, I’ve attempted to make explicit what was only implied in that early work. I have also ranged across a much wider field of subject matter, going beyond strictly environmental concerns toward more general social, political and philosophical matters, or what I like to call the comedy of human relationships.
What I am really writing about, what I have always written about, is the idea of human freedom, human community, the real world which makes both possible, and the new technocratic industrial state which threatens the existence of all three. Life and death, that’s my subject, and always has been—if the reader will look beyond the assumptions of lazy critics and actually read what I have written. Which also means, quite often, reading between the lines: I am a comic writer and the generation of laughter is my aim.
5) Well, I’m against some establishments and for others.
I regard the human family, the human community, as basic and fundamental. I regard the modern nation-state as a grotesque distortion of human community. The same goes for most other big social institutions, such as organized religion, science, the military and—that vague beehive (like a geodetic dome) which looms a hundred stories high above our future.
6) I am a pessimist in the short run, by which I mean the next fifty or maybe a hundred years. In that brief interval it seems quite probable that too many of us humans, crawling over one another for living space and sustenance, will make the earth an extremely unpleasant planet on which to live. And this quite aside from the possibility of a nuclear war.
In the long run, I am an optimist. Within a century, I believe and hope, there will be a drastic reduction in the human population (as has happened before), and that will make possible a free and open society for our surviving descendants, a return to a more intimate and tolerant relationship to the natural world, and an advance (not a repetition) toward a truly humane, liberal and civilized form of human society, politically and economically decentralized but unified, perhaps on a planetary scale, by slow and easy-going travel, unrestricted wandering for all and face-to-face (not electronic) communication between the more adventurous elements of human tribes, clans, races. Instant communication is not communication at all but merely a frantic, trivial, nerve-wracking bombardment of clichés, threats, fads, fashions, gibberish and advertising.
7) See above.
8) I no longer have much interest in the supernatural, or what is mistakenly referred to as “mystical” events and experience. That kind of search belongs to the youthful stage of life, both in the individual and in the race. I now find the most marvelous things in the everyday, the ordinary, the common, the simple and tangible.
For example: one cloud floating over one mountain. Or a trickle of water seeping from stone after a twenty-mile walk through the desert. Or the smile of recognition on the face of your own child when she hasn’t seen you around for several hours. These are the deepest joys, as we learn to understand when we go into the middle age of life.
The love of a man for his wife, his child, of the land where he lives and works, is for me the real meaning of mystical experience. Those who waste their whole lives hungering for fantastic and occult sensations are suffering from retarded emotional development and stunted imaginations. One world and one life at a time, please. I have no desire to be reborn until I have exhausted every possibility of this life in this time on these few hundred square miles of earth I call my home.
9) I’ve suffered from my share of personal disasters: the loss of love, the death of a wife, the failure to realize in my writing the high aspiration of my intentions. But these misfortunes can be borne. There is a certain animal vitality in most of us which carries us through any trouble but the absolutely overwhelming. Only a fool has no sorrow, only an idiot has no grief—but then only a fool and an idiot will let grief and sorrow ride him down into the grave. So, I’ve been lucky, as most people are lucky; the animal in each of us has a lot more sense than our brains.
10) Yes, there are plenty of heroes and heroines everywhere you look. They are not famous people. They are generally obscure and modest people doing useful work, keeping their families together, and taking an active part in the health of their communities, opposing what is evil (in one way or another) and defending what is good. Heroes do not want power over others. There are more heroic people in the public school system than there are in the world of politics, military, big business, the arts and the sciences combined. My mother is a heroine—has been all her life. And if you take a good look, you may see that your brother is a hero.
11) I have no blueprints to offer anybody. Most human societies, especially the so-called primitive or traditional societies, have been organized (spontaneously, voluntarily, democratically and instinctively) on natural and therefore decent principles. It is only in modern times, as I see it, that is, in the last five thousand years, that the drive to dominate nature and human nature has perverted and now threatens to destroy the sound, conservative, sustaining relationships of men and women.
Our institutions are too big; they represent not the best but the worst characteristics of human beings. By submitting to huge hierarchies of power, we gain freedom from personal responsibility for what we do and are forced to do—that is the seduction of it—but we lose the dignity of being real men and women. Power corrupts; attracts the worst and corrupts the best.
So what should we do, here and now, as individuals? Well, see above, item 10. Refuse to participate in evil; insist on taking part in what is healthy, generous, and responsible. Stand up, speak out, and when necessary fight back. Get down off the fence and lend a hand, grab a-hold, be a citizen—not a subject.
12) Nothing worth mentioning. I’ve led mostly a furtive, cowardly, reclusive life, preaching loudly from the sidelines and avoiding danger. If I regret anything, it is my good behavior.
13) I see that we’ve skipped #13. I despise superstition—but why take foolish chances?
14) The worst thing I’ve ever done? My best is none too good.
15) Beer cans are beautiful.
16) Spiritual people like myself do not fret over diet. I eat whatever’s handy, if it looks good.
17) The Glen Canyon Dam makes a handy symbol of what is most evil and destructive in modern man’s attack on the natural world. But it is only one small example among thousands.
19) My friends and my family share with me a whole constellation of similar and encouraging desires. They are the basis of my life, essential and indispensable. We don’t clash with one another, we clash with our enemies, of whom we always seem to have enough. And we enjoy the clash. Goethe put it nicely (in this amateur translation): Only they deserve liberty and life / Who earn it in the daily strife.
20) My personal life is an ordinary life, of no particular interest to others.
21) I don’t know what McGuane means by calling someone a “cult hero.” Maybe he knows. Most writers give public readings now and then—what of it? But of course you have to be invited.
22) I’m not interested in the technique of art or the art of technique. When I want to write something I just sit down (or stand up) and do it. Scribble, scribble, nothing could be easier. It helps, naturally, to have something to say.
23) Fiction is my primary interest. I’ve published six novels so far, have written a couple of others not yet published, and am presently halfway through a novel about life and death. Most of my effort has gone into fiction. Saving the world is only a hobby. Most of the time I do nothing.
24) Publisher’s hype and reviewer’s cant. By sticking a writer in a convenient mental box, the reviewers and critics save themselves the trouble of actually reading, understanding and thinking about the writer’s work. But there are too many writers, too many books, too much glut and gluttony.
25) See above.
26) I’ve enjoyed the love of some pretty good women, the friendship of a few good men, and made my home in the part of this world I like best. What’s left? I desire nothing but more of the same.
27) I took the other road, all right, but only because it was the easy road for me, the way I wanted to go. If I’ve encountered some unnecessary resistance that’s because most of the traffic is going the other way.
28) About two years ago a herd of doctors gave me six months to live, because they believed what the C.A.T. scanner told them. As usual, the machine was wrong. My first thought, when they brought me the news, was that I wouldn’t have to floss my teeth anymore. Then I wrote out a will and made a large deposit in a bank (a sperm bank) for my wife, who wanted a baby, just in case the six months remaining might not be sufficient to insure the success of the usual procedures. Then I wondered if I might have time to write one more book—a short one. I’m afraid I forgot all about Glen Canyon Dam.
Those were interesting times, but now it appears that, barring accidents, I’m in for the long haul: my father, at age eighty-three, is or should be flossing a few teeth of his own. And he still spends several hours every day out in the woods cutting down perfectly normal, healthy pine trees—he’s got a one-man logging business. But his eye is off a bit; a few months ago he was felling a tree, trying to lay it down as close as he could at the side of a flatbed truck; instead he dropped the tree into the front of the truck, smashed the bejesus out of both the cab and engine. He needed a new truck anyway.
Well Karen, this is fun but it’s much too easy. If you wish to revise and colloquialize the more formal and sententious parts of my response, please do so—if you can make it read like a real conversation please do so. And if there’s anything more you need, call me.
Regards, Ed Abbey—Oracle
circa early 1987
Dear Mr Krakauer:
As requested, here is my list of the ten most significant events in the American West during the past decade:
1. Revolting Development: 487 literary exquisites, flycasters, coke sniffers, horse lovers, movie actors, hobby ranchers, Instant Rednecks and other jet-set androids from the world of Vanity Fair move into Santa Fe, Tucson and the Livingston, Montana area.
2. Hopeful Development: Congress finally passes an Immigration Control Act—but two hundred years too late.
3. Revolting Development: Beef ranchers murder 155 grizzly bears in Montana and Wyoming.
4. Hopeful Development: Grizzlies harvest twenty-two tourists.
5. Revolting Development: US Forest Service lays plans and obtains funds to bulldoze a road to within at least one/quarter mile of every pine tree in our national forests.
6. Hopeful Development: Teton Dam collapses in Idaho.
7. Revolting Development: Hemlines go down on park ranger skirts.
8. Hopeful Development: Earth First! founded in the Pinacate Desert by Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, Mike Roselle and Bart Kohler.
9. Revolting Development: Howie Wolke arrested for pulling up survey stakes in Little Granite Creek, Wyoming.
10. Hopeful Development: Chief Engineer killed by lightning at dam construction site on Dolores River in Colorado.
11. Hopeful Development: Drunken shotgunner killed by falling gutshot saguaro cactus near Phoenix.
12. Hopeful Development: 565 range cattle killed in Utah by little green men in UFOs (Unidentified Fucking Objects).
13. Hopeful Development: Benjamin Cartwright Abbey born March 19, 1987, vows eternal resistance against every form of tyranny over the soul of man (and woman).
Barry Lopez, Finn Rock, Oregon
14 June 1987
Enjoyed your article in the current Harper’s. Reinforces my intention to visit soon the beautiful, tragic, divided land of South Africa.
Amusing to find us both in Life Magazine this month, trying to say about the same thing in widely—and wildly—divergent ways. I ask people to stay home; you ask them to change their wicked attitude.
But it’s wrong of us both, I think, to adopt the lofty stance, the wise man’s tone, and do nothing more. Of course, in the long run, humans must regain a sense of community with nature. (If we ever really had it.) But in the meantime, the hard work, the important work, is that of saving what is left. I despise the role of guru, or leader, or remote philosopher, earning easy money writing the right thing while the “troops,” the hundreds and thousands who actually stand before the bulldozers, spike the trees, lobby the politicos, write the tedious letters, lick stamps, staple leaflets, organize committees, attend meetings, hire lawyers and sometimes go to jail, do what they do with no fame, no public credit, certainly little or no pay (except Sierra Club bureaucrats etc), and no reward but the sense of having opposed the rich and powerful in the name of something more ancient and beautiful than human greed and human increase. The writer’s job is to write, and write the truth—but he also has the moral obligation to get down in the dust and the sweat and lend not only his name but his voice and body to the tiresome contest. Part of the time, anyhow. I once asked Tom McGuane why he lets others fight his battles for him in Montana; “don’t want to get mixed up with those counterculture types,” he said. Asked Annie Dillard the same thing; “don’t want to be known as an environmentalist,” she said. Asked Edward Hoagland and Jim Harrison something similar; “Don’t try to bully me into doing what you do,” Hoagland replied; and Harrison never replied at all. And so on.
What these people are most concerned about, I guess, is their literary reputations, not the defense of the natural world or the integrity of their souls. But how far can you go in objectivity, in temporizing, in fence-straddling, before it becomes plain moral cowardice? I admire these writers as writers; lovely prose style, all of them; but I can’t fully respect them as citizens, that is, as men. As women.
A. B. Guthrie, Jr. on the other hand, doesn’t worry about his standing with Esquire or Vanity Fair. Neither does Wallace Stegner or Wendell Berry or Farley Mowat or Charles Bowden. Me, I do worry about it—but not much. That is, I gave up a long time ago and have resigned myself to my simple role as village crank. It pays good and it’s easy. In fact it’s genetic, bred in the bone: my old man, eighty-six now, talks pretty much like I write. He’s outlived all of his poker-playing whisky-drinking tree-cutting friends and should be lonely as that pine snag on yonder point of the mountain. But he’s not. Rich in memories and pride, and still cutting trees (selectively), he seems to enjoy his old age more than he ever did his youth. Or so he says and so my mother agrees.
Where was I? What was it I really wanted to tell you in this letter? Senility—I forget. If you come through Moab Utah this summer, look us up; we’re renting (in July) a house near the City Park while searching for a new home on the red rock (the developers threatening to force us out of Tucson); can’t tell you what our phone number will be if any, don’t know the street address, but you can always find us through Ken Sleight’s Bookstore.
Best regards, Ed A.—Tucson