January 29, 1927
March 14, 1989
Near Tucson, Arizona
Writer, environmental activist
"The forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly."
O n May 7, 2000, two hundred protesters in Franc-Waret, Belgium, gathered for a picnic and then walked through a field where the Monsanto Corporation was growing an experimental variety of corn. They destroyed several parcels of the corn while a rock band played from a nearby truck. Earlier in the year, a woman in Lancaster, England, had gone on trial for damaging equipment and painting slogans on a U.S. submarine while it was docked in Barrow, England, in 1991.
These were just two out of dozens of events supported by Earth First!, a radical environmental organization devoted to taking direct action against corporations and governments that they believe are harming the environment.
Some members of Earth First! were inspired by the work of Edward Abbey, an American writer whose most famous work is The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), a novel about a group of people in the American Southwest who try to block a road-building project through the desert.
Abbey did not directly support saboteurs (people who commit sabotage, or who destroy someone's property to interfere with their operations), but his writing—especially The Monkey Wrench Gang—presented them in a very good light. Regardless of his intentions, many people adopted such tactics as their own, unofficial environmental protection acts.
Is it acceptable to use the term "terrorists" to describe people who sabotage equipment as a way to protect the wilderness or other parts of the environment? Some would argue that "terrorism" involves violence, and that sabotage is not the same thing. Others have described Abbey as an "environmental anarchist, " someone who believes that society should be organized around voluntary associations, rather than large government organizations. These people argue that direct action, rather than working through democratic channels such as voting to change government policy, qualifies as a form of terrorism.
Childhood and youth
Abbey was born in 1927 in the western Pennsylvania town of Indiana, northeast of Pittsburgh. Later, his family moved to the small town of Home, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. Abbey was one of five children of Paul and Mildred Abbey. When he was just two years old, the country fell into a deep economic depression. His father worked as a lumberjack, a farmer, and a school bus driver. His mother was a schoolteacher and church organist. His relatives remembered Abbey's early efforts at becoming a professional writer: he used to charge his brothers and sister a penny to read stories he wrote called "The Adventures of Lucky Stevens."
Abbey attended public schools near Home and later in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He was remembered as a loner in high school; he didn't make many friends.
Words to Know
- a person who believes that society should be organized around voluntary associations, rather than large government organizations.
- environmental activists who use terrorist tactics to help their cause.
- a figure of speech that suggests a likeness or similarity to something else.
- destroying someone's property to interfere with their operations.
- people who commit sabotage.
As a young boy, Abbey loved to watch the cowboy movies that were popular in the era. The movies were his first introduction to the American West, and apparently he fell in love with the region and its rugged heroes. It was a place he adopted as an adult and a philosophy he embraced in his fiction.
In the summer of 1944, between his junior and senior years in high school, Abbey hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to Seattle, Washington, and then south to New Mexico. He later told EcoNews that the trip was a turning point in his life: "I became a Westerner at the age of 17, in the summer of 1944, while hitchhiking around the USA. For me it was love at first sight—a total passion which has never left me." In his book The Journey Home he wrote: "On the Western horizon, under a hot, clear sky sixty miles away crowned with snow (in July), was a magical vision, a legend come true: the front range of the Rocky Mountains. An impossible beauty … the image of those mountains struck a fundamental [basic] chord in my imagination that has sounded ever since."
On that trip, he first spotted the red, rocky desert and canyons of the Southwest in New Mexico. It was the region he returned to a few years later, and where he spent the rest of his life. In the meantime, he took a train home to Pennsylvania and finished high school, a minor hero for having taken his adventure. His father wholly approved of the trip; he had gone on a similar adventure in his own youth.
Life as an author
Abbey graduated from high school as World War II (1939–45) was ending. He was drafted into the army and sent to Italy, where he spent most of his time as a military policeman.
Back in the United States, he enrolled in Indiana University of Pennsylvania for a year and then transferred to the University of New Mexico. He graduated from New Mexico in 1951 and later received a master's degree in philosophy from the same university. Abbey also received grants to study at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, and at Stanford University in California. He also entered Yale to study writing but dropped out after just two weeks.
Abbey published his first novel, Jonathan Troy, in 1954. It was an autobiographical novel set in West Virginia, in a thinly disguised version of Abbey's own boyhood town of Home, Pennsylvania. Like Abbey, the book's hero, Jonathan Troy, dreams of the American West as a place where he can escape the limitations of modern life. Abbey later came to dislike the book and refused to let it be reprinted, with the result that it has become very rare, and very valuable.
The Works of Edward Abbey
Jonathan Troy (1954)
The Brave Cowboy (1956)
Fire on the Mountain (1962)
Black Sun (1971)
The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)
Good News (1980)
The Fool's Progress (1988)
Hayduke Lives! (1990)
Desert Solitaire (1968)
Appalachian Wilderness (1970)
Cactus Country (1973)
The Journey Home (1977)
The Hidden Canyon (1977)
Abbey's Road (1979)
Desert Images (1979)
Down the River (1982)
In Praise of Mountain Lions (1984)
Beyond the Wall (1984)
One Life at a Time, Please (1988)
A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Notes from a Secret Journal (1989)
Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey 1951–1989 (1994)
Two years later, Abbey published The Brave Cowboy. Its hero, John Burns, refuses to compromise with modern civilization. Burns escapes from jail and, on horseback, tries to escape a posse chasing him in cars, helicopters, and airplanes. The story was a metaphor for the way Abbey believed that civilization harasses the individualist. (A metaphor is a figure of speech that suggests a likeness or similarity to something else.) In the book, Burns escapes the posse, but dies crossing a new superhighway when he is hit by a truck filled with bathroom fixtures. The book was made into a film, Lonely Are the Brave (1962), starring Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau.
Over a period of fifteen years, Abbey also worked as a park ranger and fire lookout during the summer in several national parks, including the Arches National Monument (later a national park) in Utah. His experiences in the desert led to one of his best-known books, Desert Solitaire (1968), a collection of widely admired nonfiction essays about the country he loved. In the book Abbey expressed his anger with the National Forest Service, whose policy of building roads into national forests he criticized as trying to serve the "indolent [lazy] millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline who expect and demand highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety" into the wilderness.
Abbey's essays were written in an era when most Americans liked the idea of industrial society and ever-expanding roads and resorts. He foreshadowed a time in the late twentieth century when environmentalists argued for preserving a wilderness free of gasoline engines. Abbey's writing, particularly Desert Solitaire and the novel that followed it, The Monkey Wrench Gang, is credited with giving direction to the environmental protection movement that arose in the last third of the twentieth century.
The Monkey Wrench Gang
Abbey's best-known book was the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). It tells the story of four people in the desert determined to stop a new highway from being built through the wilderness. To stop the road builders, the four pull out surveyors' stakes and sabotage their road graders and other heavy equipment.
The story of their campaign is mostly a comedy, not intended to be taken seriously. But the book later served as a rough how-to manual for ecological terrorists who were quite serious about the same issues that drove the characters in Abbey's book. The so-called ecoterrorists were on a collision course with road builders, resort developers, and timber and mining companies, who see in the wilderness a source of income. (Ecoterrorists are environmental activists who use terrorist tactics to help their cause.) Most often, federal agencies like the Forest Service, assigned to manage the millions of acres of government-owned wilderness in the West, sided with the developers. The acts of sabotage—for example, damaging or destroying bulldozers, or driving spikes into trees to make it difficult or impossible to cut them down for lumber—cast these "monkey-wrench" environmentalists in the role of "terrorists" fighting the legal use of the land.
After The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey wrote three more novels, including a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang called Hayduke Lives! (1990), as well as books of nonfiction.
The influence of Edward Abbey
Almost from the beginning, ecoterrorists operated differently from more traditional political environmentalists. They struck by night, often working in distant wilderness areas, but sometimes attacking laboratories or facilities owned by corporations that they felt were threatening the environment.
To avoid arrest, some of these saboteurs announced their acts through individuals who had no knowledge of the specific people engaged in sabotage. A system of secret code words was developed so the public spokesmen could recognize "genuine" claims of actions without knowing the identity of the people who were claiming responsibility for the attacks.
Abbey was never accused of personally engaging in illegal activities. But the colorful characters he created in The Monkey Wrench Gang served as role models and guides to underground combat against developers.
What's a Monkey Wrench?
A monkey wrench is both an actual tool and a figure of speech.
The tool is a kind of wrench that can be adjusted to fit different sizes of nuts and bolts. It consists of a handle with grooves along one edge and a head that can move up and down the handle, using the grooves as gears.
The metaphor is the expression "throw a monkey wrench into the works," meaning the act of interfering with a process. It is similar to the throwing of wooden shoes (sabots, pronounced sa-BOHS, in French) into machinery, an act from which we get the word "sabotage."
In March 1989 Abbey died from complications after an operation. He died at home, near Tucson, Arizona. Following his instructions, friends took his body into the desert and buried it in an unmarked grave, ignoring laws about the disposal of human remains. He is said to have written, "I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree."
For More Information
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
Abbey, Edward. The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West. New York: Plume, 1981.
Bishop, James, Jr. Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey. New York: Atheneum, 1994.
Cahalan, James M. Edward Abbey: A Life. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.
Loeffler, Jack. Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.
"Ed Abbey: Tearing … Down with Words." EcoNews, January 1981, p.6.
"Edward Abbey" (interview). Whole Earth Review, Winter 1988, p. 17.
Petersen, David. "Where Phantoms Brood and Mourn." Backpacker, September 1993, p. 40.
Warshall, Peter. "Spadefoot Packrat Havahart; Eulogy for Ed Abbey." Whole Earth Review, Summer 1989, p. 114.