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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Gang of Two

I read Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire way back in my mid-20's, when I was making a grand tour of important environmental writers -- Stegner, Berry, Snyder, Orr, Abbey, Sessions, Lovins, Todd, Leopold. I remember liking it, but back then I was always rushing to get to the next book, so I remember very little. Mostly that Abbey was a voice for the southwest, like Stegner was for the mountain west, and like Berry was for rural places everywhere.

So I was pretty excited to come across a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang in a little free library in Denver a few months ago when visiting my in-laws. These little free libraries are great to look at, but to find and snag a title you really want to read is uniquely joyous. (The Denver haul was a bonanza, actually, because i also scored an Ernest Gaines novel -- bringing my lifetime total of little free library withdrawals to two). I knew the next essay in my current Wendell read (What Are People For) was about Abbey, so I figured I'd read The Monkey Wrench Gang and then the Berry essay "A Few Words in favor of Edward Abbey" and then I'd blog about it.

That was the plan, and this is the blog, but as usually happens, Wendell's incandescence has made this difficult. His take on Abbey is more subtle, and more important I think, than any twine I might manage to wrap around the two of them. So once again I'm left trying to share how Wendell Berry thinks. And once again It's taken me several months to get it into words.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is an ecoterrorism fantasy story wherein a group of four misfit idealists band together to destroy roads, bridges and heavy machinery in a desparate attempt to halt the industrialization of the Colorado River basin. It's the ultimate fuck you-environmentalist nut-kicker, which is what makes it fun and also a classic. The radical environmental organization EarthFirst! was inspired by Abbey and even took a monkey wrench as it's logo.

The "few words" that Wendell wants to share about Abbey are, one, that Abbey is no environmentalist, and two, that he's nobody's fool. And the few words are filled with admiration and affection, the likes of which Berry holds in reserve for a precious few -- his favorite farmers, writers and neighbors, far as I can tell.

Knowing how much Berry hates "-isms" and how much he loves great writers, this should not surprise. The two of them, Abbey and Berry -- their last names practically and poetically could be the first two entries in an Environmental Writers Almanac -- are bound together more by their outsider-ism than by their shared defense of vulnerable people and places, though they both fight that fight. Neither claim to be the father of modern environmentalism. Both have had that claim laid upon them.

Tellingly, both have been criticized by environmentalists for their unwillingness to sign-up, to sign on, and in Abbey's case, for his outrageously impolitic rhetoric -- the take-off point for Berry's essay.

It seems that one Dennis Drabelle, a reviewer for The Nation, took issue with something Mr. Abbey wrote back in 1982, though the outtake is wincing even today. Mr. Abbey, in a book, had this to say about the prospect of a generous national immigration policy:

"The social, political, economic life of the United States will be reduced to the level of Juarez, Guadalajara, Mexico City,

San Salvador, Haiti, India. To a common peneplain of overcrowding, squalor, misery, oppression, torture and hate."

It's a disgusting statement -- arrogant and ignorant even by colonial standards. Mr. Drabelle pulled it to discredit Abbey's popularity among environmentalists. "Why do they love this guy?" he was asking.

Berry's essay, is a defense of Mr. Abbey. And while I'm not convinced the statement is defensible, I find once again that Wendell Berry is not willing to cancel anyone (today's language) without taking a hard and careful look at the context and substance of the artist under attack.

First Berry goes to the source and finds, in Abbey's next paragraph, that Abbey places American society in the same, or worse, contempt, as the aforementioned foreign places. American society, observes Abbey, is destructive, profligate, and enslaving -- and can not be generous to immigrants because it is not generous to anyone or any living thing. America cannot welcome immigrants to a nest that we are recklessly spoiling with ever increasing abandon. Carrying capacity must come before generosity.

Next Berry responds to an imagined criticism of Abbey's bombast; "Why can't he," some might ask, "make his point with logic, sobriety and information?" Here Wendell goes to bat for The Writer, or at least the license that writers deserve. Abbey, says Berry, can and has written logically and soberly, but it is his perogative not to. And not only that, but, Berry claims, Abbey is a better writer -- a better man! -- for exercising that perogative. To Berry, the impudence and foolishness and outrageousness of Abbey's bombast is what makes him so wonderful.

Why? Because Abbey is Abbey. Because, contrariwise, the purpose of the "-ist's," (including the environmentalists), is to write soberly and rationally. And I might add, dryly and impotently. Abbey is not of that ilk. He is, Berry says, an autobiographer. He is writing simply to be able to speak for himself, and ultimately, in so doing, to save his own life. Berry sees in Abbey a man fighting the noblest fight: the right to exist as a fully free human being in a world that is also free -- free from oppression, from destruction, from ruination. To be fully human is to embrace folly -- something no "--ist" would ever admit.

Berry likens Abbey to Thoreau -- another environmental father figure who's crazy also put him in line for authorial comparisons "with every writer as far out of the house as the mailbox" (another wonderful Berryism). Berry sees Thoreau as an autobiographer also, whose life was committed not to preserving the environment but to preserving himself, his wholeness. He too was an embarrassment in his time, with his futile one-person taxpayer protest against the Mexican War, and his oddball insistence that abollitionists free the wage slaves of Massachusetts.

But the both of them, Abbey and Thoreau, deserve to be taken seriously, to be "argued with" as Berry would say, despite (or maybe because of) their outlandish idiosyncracies. And here we come down to the crux of Berry's defense of Abbey's disrepute. Berry doesn't want a sanitized Abbey. He doesn't want a careful lecture or a well scrubbed exegesis of "nature." What he wants, and what he loves about Edward Abbey, is precisely the man's cantankerousness -- not his erudition. Berry is gifted, we know, with a razor sharp mind and an all-encompassing intelligence; no narrow guage professor or special-ist, I suspect, would ever adequately feed the mind and imagaination of Wendell Berry. Like if Wayne Gretzky had to submit to stick=handling coaches and skating drills his whole career!

Berry is thrilled by Abbey precisely because Abbey is sometimes wrong, and sometimes rude and because he is not, ever, ignorable. Nor is he ever boring. Berry relishes his humor, his bashing of sacred cows, his blasphemy. All of it, according to Wendell, are

gestures or reflexes of his independence, his refusal to act as a spokesman or a property of any group or movement,

however righteous. This refusal keeps the real dimension and gravity of our problems visible to him, and keeps him

from falling for easy answers.

And so, in Abbey, Berry has a kindred spirit. A predjudiced writer, willing to take a stand for the things he believes in, and to puncture the artifice of self-importance and self-righteousness that deflates the writing and thinking of so many other cause-committed flag wavers. "I read him," Berry says, "for consolation, for the comfort of being told the truth."

I enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang and I recall enjoying Desert Solitaire all those years ago. My Edward Abbey exposure is minimal though, and I don't see myself going to back to his work any time soon. But even if I had read all of his books and essays, I'm sure I would not have appreciated him the way Wendell Berry does. I think it must be hard to be brilliant, sensitive and against your times. There must be only a few like that in every generation, and I imagine that when those few touched souls do find each other, through their work and art, the kinship is immediately felt and devoutly held.

One truth is that you can't be an insider without other insiders. Another is that outsiders need outsiders too.


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