A Death in the Family, essay by Ken Wright*
Ken Wright (email@example.com)
of Durango, Colorado had a collection of essays published this
summer, titled "A Wilder Life: Essays from Home", which
included a chapter titled "Ode to Edward Abbey."
Should you wish to have a copy of "A Wilder Life"
please contact the publisher at
- Kivaki Press
585 East 31st Street
CO 81301 USA.
Ode to Edward Abbey
Part 1: A Death in the Family
Ed Abbey is dead.
Abbey did not and would not want to be a leader. He
would have detested being worshipped, glorified and
exalted. I am certain that's why he threw beer cans out
car windows and drove a Cadillac. He loved to piss people
off, especially those of us who dared come close to
worshipping him. But Abbey was a leader to me, at least
for a while, at least until now. Abbey led me to the life
I am living and loving, and his death plays a new role
for me. His death dictates a new role for all of us who
have found that task in life worth living for: to
appreciate and to defend the Real World, wildness,
So at the time of his death, rather than mourn him I
want to celebrate his life, to share what he has done for
me, and to put forth the challenge his death gives us
The night I heard about Abbey's death, I rounded up
some friends, other Abbey-ists, and we got drunk. Under
the green glow of the neon cactus at a dark local bar, we
reminisced about him like he was a close friend, a family
member. Even though none of us had ever met the man, he
was kin. That night and in the days that followed in
which I read and wrote and reflected, I was awed to
discover how much of the path I am on now was guided by a
map drawn by by Abbey.
I had never heard of running rivers until Abbey; now
I pass my summers guiding for the joy and the money. I
have lived and worked in the Utahn desert, my spiritual
mecca (along with tens of thousands of others), in
emulation of Desert Solitaire. I was a frustrated,
aimless tree-hugger who thought he was alone in a
hopeless world; through Abbey I learned of other
defenders, of their anarchistic, tribal unity, and of the
hope of persevering in the long run, that we will
"outlive the bastards."
These paths were mapped out by Abbey, but I walk them
my own way. I take my own turns and find my own terrain.
Abbey would hate someone who merely mimicked and emulated
him. His gift was not his role model; Abbey's gift was
the gift of self: Find your self; trust your self; be
true to your self and don't let anyone ever take that
away from you. "Why betray common sense for the sake
of any theory, cult or doctrine?" he asked. Abbey
spurred me on. "Sentiment without action is the ruin
of the soul," he chided. So I dedicated my life to
acting upon my sentiments. Now I find myself in graduate
school, investing in a tool-learning to monkey-wrench
with a pen-and all directly attributable to Ed Abbey.
For myself and others he spoke to, Abbey rekindled
the earth-dweller inside us, and reminded us that this is
our planet, no matter who tells us otherwise. The power
of the senses is all we need to learn this fact; our
consciences are all we need to be reassured as defenders
of all that is wild, healthy, alive-of the planet and
therefore of ourselves-as we battle against the powerful
mass-delusion of industrialism, anthropocentricism,
homogeny, politics, and the weakening of the human-animal
through urban imprisonment and economic slavery.
Abbey insisted that the fight cannot be compromised by
falling for a better form of servitude, but that we live
and struggle for nothing less than the truest right of
all people-and of animals and trees and rivers and
rocks-to be free to live, to love, to explore and risk
death in the joyous struggle for survival. "What's
the gain," he asked, "in ridding ourselves of
the Judeo-Christian hierarchy of intellectual oligarchs
if we merely and meekly accept another power-hungry
ideology in its place?" Or, more concisely,
"Anarchy does not mean 'no rule'; it means 'no
- But where is home? Surely not the walled-in
prison of the cities, under that low ceiling of
carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides and acid
rain-the leaky malaise of an overdeveloped,
overcrowded, self-destroying civilization where
most people are compelled to serve their time and
please the wardens if they can. For many, for
more and more of us, the out-of-doors is our true
ancestral estate. For a mere five thousand years
we have grubbed in the soil and laid brick upon
brick to build the cities; but for a million
years before that we lived the leisurely, free,
and adventurous life of hunters and gatherers,
warriors and tamers of horses. How can we pluck
that deep root of feeling from the racial
-- from Down the River
Abbey warned that a world of people
packed together like dead fish in a can is easy to
control, easy to delude. Our spirits live in wilderness,
he said. Healthy, necessary diversity thrives only in
unfenced, untamed, unlimited wilderness. Wilderness! We
must have wilderness! And lots of it.
The challenge handed us by Abbey's death is to pick up
the fight, to nurture and spread the spirit he brought
out in us, to keep his uncompromising force alive. Abbey
would not want to be followed around like a general by a
bunch of soldiers, no matter how well intentioned they
might be, but he would want, I believe, people willing to
stand next to him who are not afraid to speak and act
honestly, heroically, people who are untamed and
unbending. Wild people. He did not want to be a leader,
but he was not afraid to be a hero. Or a fool, as long as
it was honest.
- Why this cult of wilderness?. There are many
answers, all good, each sufficient. Peace is
often mentioned; beauty; spiritual refreshment,
whatever that means; re-creation for the soul,
whatever that is; escape; novelty, the delight of
something different; truth and understanding and
wisdom-commendable virtues in any man, anytime;
ecology and all that, meaning the salvation of
variety, diversity, possibility and potentiality,
the preservation of the genetic reservoir, the
answers to questions that we have not yet even
learned to ask, a connection to the origin of
things, an opening into the future, a source of
sanity for the present-all true, all wonderful,
all more than enough to answer such a dumb dead
degrading question as "Why wilderness?"
To which, nevertheless, I shall append one
further answer anyway: because we like the taste
of freedom; because we like the smell of danger.
-- from Beyond the
The challenge is also to appreciate as
well as to defend. Abbey's work is a blend of loving and
fighting, anger and joy, embracing and monkey-wrenching.
"It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even
more important to enjoy it," he reminded. We must
take the time to keep a growing, healthy relationship
with the earth, and with our cohabitators on this planet.
Defending wilderness cannot be a knee-jerk reaction or
another ideology; it must be defense, a fighting from
within. It must be self-defense. There would be no
victory in stopping the military-industrial megamachine
only to lose our true natures in the process. We must
have healthy seeds to plant once we ride out this storm.
Appreciate and defend. Do not sell your self for
anything. Ed Abbey is dead. For me, the one who has been
my guide is gone. But I am joyous: He is off on another
adventure, and I have been set free to grow and to
challenge myself loving and fighting, and to apply and
follow what I have been taught wherever it leads me. May
I have the courage to do it as well as Abbey did.
The night I heard about Abbey's death, after my
friends had gone home, I walked under the first-quarter
moon. As I liberated some land from its barbed burden in
Abbey's honor, I thought of a wish he made for others.
Now I wish the same for him.
- May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow,
winding and only slightly uphill. May the wind
bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen
miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge. May
God's dog serenade your campfire, may the
rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your
reveries, may the Great Sun dazzle your eyes by
day and the Great Bear watch over you at night.
- from Beyond the
Copyright (c) 1995 Ken Wright
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