Mar 14 2013

A quote from Ed Abbey, who died 24 years ago today

The geologic approach is certainly primary and fundamental, underlying the attitude and outlook that best support all others, including the insights of poetry and the wisdom of religion. Just as the earth itself forms the indispensable ground for the only kind of life we know, providing the sole sustenance of our minds and bodies, so does empirical truth constitute the foundation of higher truths. (If there is such a thing as higher truth.)

It seems to me that Keats was wrong when he asked, rhetorically, “Do not all charms fly … at the mere touch of cold philosophy?” The word “philosophy” standing, in his day, for what we now call “physical science.” But Keats was wrong, I say, because there is more charm in one “mere” fact, confirmed by test and observation, linked to other facts through coherent theory into a rational system, than in a whole brainful of fancy and fantasy. I see more poetry in a chunk of quartzite than in a make-believe wood nymph, more beauty in the revelations of a verifiable intellectual construction than in whole misty empires of obsolete mythology.

The moral I labor toward is that a landscape as splendid as that of the Colorado Plateau can best be understood and given human significance by poets who have their feet planted in concrete — concrete data — and by scientists whose heads and hearts have not lost the capacity for wonder. Any good poet, in our age at least, must begin with the scientific view of the world; and any scientist worth listening to must be something of a poet, must possess the ability to communicate to the rest of us his sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers.


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  1. 1
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    I remember, when I was young, heading down, once or twice a summer, to listen to my dad’s evening programme in the amphitheatre back behind the visitor center at Grand Canyon. He has a BS in geology (a degree from far enough back in historical time that, for his professors, continental drift was so far out in left field that it wasn’t even worth considering). Dad gave a programme on the geology of the Grand Canyon. His goal was to open up to the visiting public the idea of deep time. He used the twenty-four hour clock and, from the Vishnu Schist to the Kaibab Limestone, from the formation of the Coconino and Kaibab Plateaus to the canyon itself, from the trilobites of the Tapeats to the late Devonian rudist clams of the Kaibab to the humans now trying to makes sense of it, he showed just how deep time really is. He carefully scripted his presentation, complete with soaring and inspirational music, using, where appropriate, lines from Shakespeare, or Keats, or Longfellow, but always using the concrete of fact, the physical rock, the undeniable geology of the canyon, to rest his argument upon. The slides (many from his personal collection (yes, long before computers and such)) illustrated every point, both the poetic and the geological, as perfectly as was possible. He communicated his sense of wonder, but, more important, his sense of the science behind it, in a way that I, doing the same job at a different park, really envy. Now, he was an interpreter, not a scientist at the canyon, but his degree in geology meshed perfectly. And he ‘ communicate[d] to the rest of us his sense of love and wonder at what his work discovers.”

    Thanks for the quote, Chris. It brought back a really nice set of memories.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    Edward Abbey. I had the pleasure of twice hearing him speak in the mid 80s when I lived in Tucson. The parents of my best friend in high school knew him (one taught at the UW as well) and attended at least one of the wakes held in his memory.

    He was one of the early proponents of radical environmentalism. His writings made him sound like a monkey wrench throwing eco-terrorist but he was actually soft-spoken, passionate without being wild-eyed crazy. He was one of the inspirations for Earth First! and addressed them often, but started to distance himself from the group as it began moving towards anarchist political involvement. Definitely an interesting character.

  3. 3
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    And I think I may have met him in the mid 1970s at Grand Canyon. Not sure, though.

  4. 4

    Down with Empire! Up with Spring!

    There’s a little anarchist political sentiment for you, from Hayduke Lives, his last book.

  5. 5

    I read Desert Solitaire for the first time during a river trip on the San Juan to survey an early pueblan site. It remains one of my favorite books.

  6. 6

    Edward Abbey – was he Downton’s brother?

    But seriously, folks: Nice post Chris!

  7. 7
    Rob Grigjanis

    I wonder if Keats, Poe and Blake would have come across as so anti-science if they hadn’t been writing at the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Dark satanic mills and all that.

  8. 8

    Abbey wasn’t too fond of people, but his deep concern for humanity shows in such quotes as the above.

  9. 9

    Gregory in Seattle: I suspect we were in the same room there in Tucson at least once. I remember vividly him asking the crowd to look around a bit at one point, since there were likely at least a couple of FBI agents in attendance. Most memorable though, was at the end of the speech, he threw his head back and let out a wolf howl…and everyone in the audience joined in.

  10. 10

    I just finished reading the Monkey Wrench Gang for the second time. The first time I read it (I think I was eighteen or so) I didn’t much care for it, and it’s been sitting on the bookshelf for many years. I had run out of new books to read a couple of weeks ago, and it being the one I hadn’t read for the longest time I picked it up. It was so good! So very very funny, and poignant, and made me want to become much more active in protecting this amazing planet we live on.

  11. 11
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Oh, that Edward Abbey.

    Right about the environment. Wrong about everything else.

    (I read The Monkey Wrench Gang in college, years and years ago. Yes, it’s sexist.)

  12. 12
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Peterh: That “deep concern for humanity” didn’t extend to brown people. Not a lot of it to women, either.

  13. 13

    @11 I also found the book to be sexist. I guess the fact that I forgot to mention that caveat when I said it was great is troubling (to me). I sometimes find I am so used to the sexism everywhere that I don’t even think to mention it. Thanks for pointing that out.

  14. 14

    @11 I just read your link. I had no idea about his racism! Wow… Well then. (Note to self: spend money on book by non-racist/sexist person next time)

  15. 15

    A white guy born in 1927 who was racist in 1963 and sexist in 1975? It’s hard to believe!
    Try Desert Solitaire; it’s about the environment.

  16. 16
    Chris Clarke

    Yep, Abbey wrote a great many loathsome things. I’ve been told by mutual friends that many of those things were intended to be what we would now call trolling, which to me makes them worse in some ways than if he’d actually believed them.

    I find great value in some of the things he wrote and can’t stomach other things he wrote.

  17. 17
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Thanks for mansplaining that to me, Chas. It never would have occurred to me.

  18. 18
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Chris – yeah, I know, his letter to Gloria Steinem about “tatting doilies” was out-and-out trolling. It was so over the top I didn’t find it horrendously offensive, although it certainly didn’t make him come off well.

    On a much broader note, outside of what is known as environmental justice, the overall environmental movement has had, and still has, some blind spots when it comes to social-justice issues. I suspect you are personally familiar with this problem, as you’re committed to both types of justice. I am not sure everybody here is, however.

    If I never hear anyone ever say again, “All we need is a good plague or catastrophe to get rid of 4 billion people,” especially with the implication that it should happen in some other, browner country, it’ll be too soon.

  19. 19
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    I am not sure everybody here is familiar with this problem, I should have written. I wasn’t casting aspersions on anyone’s commitment, there. Sorry.

  20. 20
    Chris Clarke

    Ms. Daisy Cutter, I’ll just say that if I never hear another white college kid ask what “we” can do to get more people of color “involved” in “our” movement, I will die happier. And possibly more belatedly.

  21. 21
    Chris Clarke

    And I say “college kid” not because older enviros are better on the topic: they’re just more likely to know not to say that shit around me.

  22. 22
    The Mellow Monkey

    If I never hear anyone ever say again, “All we need is a good plague or catastrophe to get rid of 4 billion people,” especially with the implication that it should happen in some other, browner country, it’ll be too soon.

    ::shudder:: I’ve heard that one far too often. Or complaints about the birth rates in the “wrong” countries as being responsible for strain on the planet, instead of grasping all the many, many different ways in which that’s wrong.

  23. 23
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Or anything to do with compulsory birth control.

    It seems not to occur to many, many people that a government which can compel you not to reproduce is a government which can compel you to reproduce.

  24. 24
    Chris Clarke

    Personally, I’m hoping for a painless but uniformly fatal plague that is spread by derivatives trading.

  25. 25

    Darwin kicked puppies. Teach the controversy.

  26. 26
    Chris Clarke

    Come on, Chas. It’s not doing Ed any favors to pretend his shit didn’t stink. I mean, I wish I could have said some of this stuff to him directly over beer rather than a quarter century post mortem — it would have been lively, I think — but still.

    If people are still reading my stuff 25 years after I die, and there is a group of people who find some things I wrote so offensive that they dismiss my writing altogether, well, most writers should be so lucky.

  27. 27

    Not pretending anything. Darwin’s shit stunk too. Therefore I don’t pay attention to his shit; he came up with some good stuff that wasn’t shit and that’s why I think he was cool. Same with Abbey. I admire him for ideas and writing that were good stuff. I don’t see what his shit has to do with it. The guy’s dead 24 years and the fact that he wasn’t social-justly Pure enough for Ms. Cutter et al. is irrelevant to anything but a biography.

  28. 28
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Chas, has it occurred to you that it’s way fucking easier for you to handwave that away because none of that dehumanizing, bigoted shit applies to you? This isn’t about feeling purer than thou, it’s about not lionizing really, really, bad people.

    Now stop whining and moaning that other people aren’t as willing to overlook vileness. I swear, you retroturds are so sensitive sometimes. Lighten up!

  29. 29

    Even as an environmentalist, Abbey wasn’t totally a figure to admire. In one of his books, he throws a beer can out the window of his car into the desert and then rationalizes it away. What happened to “leave no trace”?

  30. 30

    I believe Ed’s rationale (I won’t stoop to calling it a rationalization) for tossing out beer cans was to the effect that the road itself is the litter. Ah, here it is:

    “Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly. ” – “The Second Rape of the West,” The Journey Home, 1977

    or in longer form, from The Monkey Wrench Gang:

    “I hate that dam,” Smith said. “That dam flooded the most beautiful canyon in the world.”

    “We know,” Hayduke said. “We feel the same way you do. But let’s think about easier things first. I’d like to knock down some of them power lines they’re stringing across the desert. And those new tin bridges up by Hite. And the goddamned road-building they’re doing all over the canyon country. We could put in a good year taking the fucking goddamned bulldozers apart.”

    “Hear, hear,” the doctor said. “And don’t forget the billboards. And the strip mines. And the pipeliners. And the new railroad from Black Mesa to Page. And the coal-burning power plants. And the copper smelters. And the uranium mines. And the nuclear power plants. And the computer centers. And the land and cattle companies. And the wildlife poisoners. And the people who throw beer cans along the highways.”

    “I throw beer cans along the fucking highways,’ Hayduke said. ‘Why the fuck shouldn’t I throw beer cans along the fucking highways.”

    “Now, now, don’t be so defensive.”

    “Hell,” Smith said, “I do it too. Any road I wasn’t consulted about that I don’t like, I litter. It’s my religion.”

    “Right,” Hayduke said. “Litter the shit out of them.”

    “Well, now,” the doctor said, “I hadn’t thought about that. Stockpile the stuff along the highways. Throw it out the window. Well… why not?”

    Also, I believe Ed liked to drink beer and drive, a fine Southwestern occupation.

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