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Letter to Edward Abbey from Earth (A Review), by Stephen J. Lyons*

Writer Stephen J. Lyons lives in the Palouse country of northern Idaho and eastern Washington. His book of essays, Landscape of the Heart will be published this summer by Washington State University Press. A version of this essay first appeared in High Country News (April 29, 1996).

Dear Ed.

You won't, or probably you will, believe what's currently happening in the West. All your worst nightmares have come true. Sit up, if you can from your hidden desert resting place out among the saguaros, light a fat cigar, try not to laugh (it'll upset your delicate insides), and behold! Take a whiff of the social stench of our self-inflicted decay in this newly-developed third world cesspool of America as it crawls on its collected knuckles toward the millennium. Recognize the odor? (Kind of like a mixture of eggs and sheepherders.) We've finally caught up with your predictions, your "good news."

Well, the breakdown of the social order is not going according to plan. We've turned on ourselves. Armed militias call the West their home now; inbred thick-sculled slack-jawed white guy losers in Montana and Idaho with automatic weapons, tenuous religious and constitutional interpretations, bad manners, and shrill bleached-out women who breed like Arizona jackrabbits, but lack the same intelligence. They have some odd idea the government is out to get them. (Imagine that?) I don't mean to drag you into this, but remember what you predicted in Good News, "Religious fanaticism joined with nationalism and secular ideologies to destroy and sometimes to self-destroy the sources of power on which the over-industrialized nations depended...."

We've got gangsters, too, not Al Capone type or the Army Corps of Engineers. No, these are bored teenagers, like the Native American kids on the reservations who are spray-painting graffiti on Window Rock. ("I feel your pain, son. Now please put the 9 mm semi-automatic down.") And then there are the Crips and Bloods, who have moved up into Spokane and other mid-sized western cities from Los Angeles to ply their crack cocaine trade. Scary looking boy-men who wear their baseball caps backwards and make twisted gestures with their fingers. They ain't listening to Bach, either, or playing their flutes in redrock canyons, or signing up for summer trail clearing work. (And you were afraid of immigration.)

Let's not forget the more overt criminals like the U.S. Forest Service, which continues to give away our old growth timber like candy to the voracious timber lobby who, in turn, sends the raw logs to Japan and Taiwan who, in turn, have given us more belching, polluting cars and a bizarre electronic form of sing-along tavern fun called karaoke. And what would you say about the New Age charlatans who have set up shop in your beloved Southwest, despoiling places like Oak Creek Canyon, hawking crystals, bamboo flutes, wheat grass juice, and "teaching" us a thousand ways to say "Sacred?" They want us to all be Native Americans and Tibetan monks, or at least to dress like them. They want us all to be whole and healed--for $200 an hour of course.

Cattle still wallow in Idaho's Salmon River, dropping their steaming pies in the current, and when the government tried to raise the grazing fees recently the crocodile tears flowed like cheap wine in Gallup. All over the West you could hear the usual propaganda like "losing a way of life" and "hurting the little guy." I gave up beef because of the whining bastards.

Remember when you were almost run out of Missoula for your speech, "The Cowboy and his Cow"? "Let those cowboys and ranchers find some harder way to make a living, like the rest of us have to do. There's no reason why we should subsidize them forever....I love the legend too--but keep your sacred cows and your dead horses out of my elk pastures." And out of our rivers, too.

Oh well, it was damned nice out here while it lasted when we had all this land to ourselves. Twenty years ago Moab was just another redneck Utah town with bad coffee, uranium cowboys, and 3.2 beer. You should see it now. You'd like all the exposed tanned skin of the anorexic female trust-funders pedaling around on their mountain bikes, looking like characters out of the "Jetson's," with their wrap-around sunglasses and those hideous bike shorts that make everyone look one-month pregnant. Coffee is called a dozen different prefixes attached to the words mocha and latte, the beer is imported (from Mexico!) and served with fruit (lime!), and hundreds of people stomp around Delicate Arch on full moons, acting like poisoned coyotes on steroids. We're loving this country to death, Ed, but for all the wrong reasons.

You predicted the whole mess in "Industrial Tourism and the National Parks." "The Natural Money-Mint. With supersensitive antennae these operatives from the C. of C. look into red canyons and see only green, stand among flowers snorting out the smell of money and hear, while thunderstorms rumble over mountains, the fall of the dollar on motel carpeting."

Some good things have happened in the last six years, like this book by your old friend and editor John Macrae that I've been quoting from. Four hundred pages of pure Abbey. Sections of most of your novels, essays, and even a journal entry remind us that you were a fine writer, Ed, the best at interpreting human motives and capitalistic machinations in my knee-jerk opinion, and you were a skilled naturalist to rival the best of them. You may have been the last person in America who was awake.

Nobody loved the West more than you, and Macrae's carefully edited book reminds us how much your humor is missed, and how more than ever we could use a dose of your unabashed, politically incorrect rage. Dammit Ed, you checked out just at the time when this whole shebang is getting interesting. Just when the inmates overpowered the jailer and discovered he didn't have a key. Just when we need you the most.

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