Books: Cactus Ed's Apotheosis

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Books: Cactus Ed's Apotheosis
By Miles Harvey

Earth Apples: The Poetry of Edward Abbey, edited by David Petersen (St. Martin's Press, $14.95); Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, edited by David Petersen (Little, Brown and Company, $24.95); Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey, by James Bishop Jr. (Atheneum, $22). Five years after the death of one of America's legendary eco-hell-raisers, the season for reconsidering Edward Abbey has arrived. Even with a spate of Abbey videos and books--and with more on the way--it seems remarkable that Abbey remains something of an enigma. In fact, as James Bishop Jr. points out in his biography, Abbey's reputation "has mushroomed to such proportions that even his close friends have difficulty separating the man from the legend, truth from fantasy."

Bishop's well-researched book, written with a bravado befitting the man who wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire, convincingly demonstrates the breadth of Abbey's literary and political impact: Not only did Cactus Ed inspire a whole generation of fury-filled environmental writers, but he also became patron saint of Earth First!'s brand of fight-back politics. Bishop concludes that Abbey fundamentally altered the way Americans view the West; once seen as a safe haven from encroaching development, it is now often regarded as a land under siege.

Meanwhile, Abbey's journals show a different side of the environmentalist whose life was filled with numerous, brief, and mostly superficial sexual relationships. Abbey's belief that men crave a variety of partners led him to advocate "some form of legal, sanitized prostitution." With enough loopy logic to fill a big top, what these journals begin to make clear is that Abbey's devotion to the land may have been partially a compensation for his lack of empathy for other people.

This apparent inability to delve deep into the human heart may be the reason so many poems in Earth Apples fall flat. These works--most of them culled from Abbey's journals--often show Cactus Ed's verse to be overblown ("O let love come within me/ Like an angel-child, like a child-angel"), plain silly ("A modest young fellow named Morgan / Had a hideous sexual organ"), or both. Editor Petersen stresses that the collection "is not proffered as great poetry." Yet even though Earth Apples does offer some glimpses into Abbey's antiurbanism and his anger, which seemed to wear as many colors as a rainbow, not proffering the poems at all might have been a better idea. In this as in his life, if we can forgive Abbey his juvenilia and focus on his social and political impact, then his image does begin to burnish a bit like the desert itself.

Driving to Greenland: Arctic Travel, Northern Sport, and Other Ventures into the Heart of Winter,by Peter Stark (Lyons and Burford, $25) Hemingway's famous comparison between good writing and icebergs (in both, "only one-ninth is above the water") is partially apt here--not only because of the complex simplicity of Stark's essays, some of which originally appeared in Outside, but because this book rejoices in all that is frozen. Thus, essays follow the writer as he tackles a ski jump, a luge run, and a downhill course, while pondering the astral aspects of snow and ice. But the best essays are about Stark's travels in the Arctic. In the title piece, he and his wife leave Montana in an injury-prone 1974 VW van and head north. One month and several delicious misadventures later, they wind up in Greenland, stuck on a dogsled in a fierce snowstorm with two Eskimos named Thomas and Vito. "Maybe next summer we could go to a place with outdoor cafés," says Stark's wife. Readers can only hope he doesn't take her up on the proposal.

Naturalist, by Edward O. Wilson (Island Press/Shearwater Books, $24.95). Not only is Wilson a major scientist and champion of biodiversity; he is also an eloquent writer and the winner of two Pulitzer prizes. Included in this story of his life is a fascinating account of the outrage following his assertions that, as with other animals, biology affects some human behavior. It seems like an obvious concept now, but postulated in the early seventies--when Marxist notions of free will dominated the intelligentsia--it got Wilson labeled a fascist. To the author's credit, he makes even his worst enemies seem compelling, while always leaving them with a few of his own choice last words.

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