Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Abbey in America--A Review

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Environmentalists like me who came of age at the time that the world was starting to understand the impacts of massive environmental change in the 1980's and 1990's were certainly influenced by the work of Edward Abbey. Whether it is his breakthrough nonfiction book, Desert Solitaire, about his time as a park ranger in the southwest, or the novelized, although somewhat biographical, reveal of monkeywrenching tactics in The Monkey Wrench Gang, the writing of Edward Abbey prodded many to become activists, writers, and defenders of nature.

Since his death in 1989, Abbey's many books and essays have survived in a somewhat dimmer corner of the environmental canon as we have faced the serious threats from global climate change and massive planetary alterations associated with the advent of the Anthropocene. Yet at the same time, no writer has captured the voice of a generation of environmentalists since Abbey's death.  He remains a light for many who need inspiration on why we fight for the environment and the preservation of nature. That is why Abbey in America--A Philosopher's Legacy in a New Century, edited by John A. Murray, is a welcome addition at this particular moment. 

The book provides a modern take on the significance of Abbey from four perspectives which make up the four sections of the book: Scholarly Perspectives (essays by Kathleen Dean Moore, Michael Branch, John Alcock, Curt Meine, and Ben A. Minteer), Independent Authors (essays by Nancy Lord and Glenn Vanstrum), Friends Acquaintances and Colleagues (essays by Edward Hoagland, Doug Peacock, Jack Loeffler, Charles Bowden, and John A. Murray), and A New Generation (essays by Genoa Alexander and Esther Rose Honig). The authors of essays in each section react to the significance of Abbey's work in their lives or broader culture.

The book celebrates many of Abbey's important contributions. He was not just a great environmental writer. He was a great writer who wrote not only about nature and our relationship with it, but also about the complexities of modern society and our relationships with each other. He was a philosopher who contributed to the way we think about human existence and nature. He also advanced controversial, but important, ideas on everything from land management to monkeywrenching. 

The book also highlights some of Abbey's personal and professional failings. He was a noted womanizer and enjoyed the bottle. He was also a tough colleague, friend, and partner. Of course, these flaws also make him a highly interesting character to study within the context of his considerable creative output. He is like many other writers, such as Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein, whose lives become almost as important as their work.

I found all of the essays in Abbey in America helpful in understanding the nuances of Abbey. Murray selected excellent writers to contribute to this retrospective. While I cannot discuss all of the essays in the context of this review, three of them provide different takes on Abbey that I found especially fascinating.

Curt Meine (who wrote one of the most important biographies of Aldo Leopold) in an essay titled, "Abbey in the Anthropocene" highlights his thoughts on the critiques of Abbey. Today, many note that Abbey focused on southwestern wilderness while staying out of touch with the ravages of Anthropocene environmental decline and environmental justice issues. Many of us who work on environmental issues in cities and suburbs sometimes have a hard time relating to Abbey due to his distance on the pressing issues in such settings, particularly since he was rather negative about cities overall. However, Meine provides interesting commentary that contemplates how Abbey would react to our current time. Would he applaud the progress that cities have made on important sustainability issues such as food and energy or would he stay critical as he tried to find refuge away from industrial tourists?

The easy titled, "Abbey Following His Own Truth" by Jack Loeffler, Abbey's good friend (and author of the biography, Adventures with Ed, A Portrait of Abbey), provides a new look on Abbey's ideas from the perspective of one of his closest associates. Loeffler has never been apologetic about Abbey's character or writing. Indeed, he has celebrated his unique voice and personality since his death. This essay provides important reflection on how his thoughts about Abbey have matured in the last twenty-five years. Loeffler notes that Abbey was the truest friend he ever had. Friendship is a recurring theme in Abbey's works and there is no doubt that Loeffler inspired Abbey's works. Nevertheless, Loeffler reflects that Abbey created new ways of thinking about the world that challenged conventional wisdom on everything from religion to the workings of nature and the human condition. 

But the essay that I found most important in the book is the masterful, "The Age of Abbey" by the book's editor, John A. Murray. Reading this essay was like having a cocktail on a roller coaster. Part F. Scott Fitzgerald, part Hunter Thompson, and part name dropping Drew Droege's Chloe, the essay provides a distinct look at life in the 1970's and 1980's in ways that reflect that era in strangely accurate tone and context. In the essay, we meet Warren Zevon, Hunter S. Thompson, and Barry Lopez. We also get perspectives on some of the great writers, artists, and thinkers of the era like John Haines and Andy Warhol. They all connect to Abbey and put his work in a temporal, social, and cultural context. That strange magical era of the 1970's and 1980's are long gone, but it comes alive in Murray's superlative essay.

Abbey in America is a wonderful book that reflects on Abbey's legacy twenty-five years after his death. The essays give us the opportunity to take a fresh look at Abbey's work and Murray created an important addition to the literature on the great writer.

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