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A Death in the Family, essay by Ken Wright*

Ken Wright ( 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.

Fax: 970-385-1974

Ode to Edward Abbey
Part 1: A Death in the Family

March 1989

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, wilderness.

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 all.

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.

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 consciousness?
-- from Down the River
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 rulers'."

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.

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 Wall
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.

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 Wall

Copyright (c) 1995 Ken Wright

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