Edward Abbey: A Solitary Voice in the Wilderness


“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”  — Edward Abbey, The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West

Abbey challenged the culture of wilderness exploitation by oil, mining, and tourism interests. “Desert Solitaire” asked if any natural treasures could be saved. Here he is featured in the documentary “A Voice in the Wilderness,” as well as in his own words.

Desert Solitaire: The Overwhelming Beauty

When Desert Solitaire was first published in 1968, it became the focus of a sarcastic, polemical cult of wilderness preservation and protection. Edward Abbey (1927-1989) would later write The Monkey Wrench Gang, a comic novel advocating sabotage to protest environmentally damaging development, in particular the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. According to Robert Macfarlane in The Guardian UK:

Arches National Park

Robert Crumb with Edward Abbey in Arches National Park March 24th, 1985 – Dream Garden Press

The Monkey Wrench Gang is the wish-fulfilment dream of eco-Luddites everywhere. Civilisation violates the land, so Hayduke (“a good, healthy psychopath”) and his pals violate civilisation. Crucially, people go unharmed in Abbey’s novel. Machinery is smashed and split, exploded and eviscerated; but drivers and technicians escape. The only vital fluids that get spilt are oil, coolant and petrol. In this way, activism remains ethically distinct from terrorism. The beef of the Monkey Wrench Gang is not with the personnel of the “megalomaniacal megamachine”, but with its material and ideological manifestations. The battle they fight is against developments and double-lane highways, and against the economic principle of maximised shareholder profit and the economic delusion of unlimited growth.

Abbey’s earlier piece, Desert Solitaire, captures the essence of his life during three seasons as a fire watcher and park ranger in southeastern Utah. His quest was to experience nature in simple terms — the silence, the struggle, the overwhelming beauty. But this is also the anguish of a man challenging the growing exploitation of the wilderness by oil and mining interests, as well as by the tourist industry. Understood amid today’s accelerated environmental depredations, Desert Solitaire asks if any of our natural treasures can be saved before the bulldozers strike again.

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”  –Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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WilderUtopia.com regularly posts articles, photo essays, features, and documentaries from around the web that illuminate the challenges to coexistence between city and wild, developed and developing, human and other. To reach out, write to jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com.