Edward Paul Abbey (January 29, 1927 – March 14, 1989)
Sometime around 2006 or 2007 a close friend lent me a battered, worn out paperback, paying forward the very item which had once been lent to her. Unbeknownst to both of us (or perhaps just me?), this compact tome of ochre edges and soft corners would begin a journey of deep appreciation for the American Southwest and all things wild, which would culminate not only in the avowal of a profound new influence on my art and thinking, but in my physical migration west to Austin, Texas.
A rambling yet quick-witted recounting of the author’s time in the wild lands of Utah, whose salty tone resembles the very landscape it describes, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey introduced me to a strain of pure environmentalism and a curiosity of what lies “out there” in the part of this conquered and domesticated continent “where no one goes.” Since then I’ve rather unintentionally incorporated Abbey’s ethic and attitude into my life and of course, into my artwork, only in the last 2 years realizing the true significance of having been exposed to him. Though they rarely show up in direct or literal fashion through subject matter, the cleansing spirit of the vast, open southwest and Abbey’s maverick attitude both inform the concepts which drive my artistic purpose, and the themes I explore.
I recently encountered an editorial piece celebrating Abbey’s work and spirit, which resonated with me in a way that once again confirmed the importance of his work as an underlying factor in my own. Reading that author’s interpretation of Edward Abbey’s legacy inspired this post, which has the perfect occasion of marking the 24th anniversary of Abbey’s death.
“A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. …The city, which should be the symbol and center of civilization, can also be made to function as a concentration camp. This is one of the significant discoveries of contemporary political science.
How does this theory apply to the present and future of the famous United States of North America? Suppose we were planning to impose a dictatorial regime upon the American people—the following preparations would be essential:
- Concentrate the populace in megalopolitan masses so that they can be kept under close surveillance and where, in case of trouble, they can be bombed, burned, gassed or machine-gunned with a minimum of expense and waste.
- Mechanize agriculture to the highest degree of refinement, thus forcing most of the scattered farm and ranching population into the cities. Such a policy is desirable because farmers, woodsmen, cowboys, Indians, fishermen and other relatively self-sufficient types are difficult to manage unless displaced from their natural environment.
- Restrict the possession of firearms to the police and the regular military organizations.
- Encourage or at least fail to discourage population growth. Large masses of people are more easily manipulated and dominated than scattered individuals.
- Continue military conscription. Nothing excels military training for creating in young men an attitude of prompt, cheerful obedience to officially constituted authority.
- Divert attention from deep conflicts within the society by engaging in foreign wars; make support of these wars a test of loyalty, thereby exposing and isolating potential opposition to the new order.
- Overlay the nation with a finely reticulated network of communications, airlines and interstate autobahns.
- Raze the wilderness. Dam the rivers, flood the canyons, drain the swamps, log the forests, strip-mine the hills, bulldoze the mountains, irrigate the deserts and improve the national parks into national parking lots.”
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire,