The Life and Death of a Rabble-rouser

Remembering Ed Abbey

As a kid I suspected that environmentalists did not enjoy life very much. I mean, no one would ever pay cash money to watch Jacques Cousteau dance. Every ecological advocate I saw looked and acted like some weedy refugee who'd fasted a tad too long on groatcakes and carrot juice. Bearded nerds obsessed with parts per billion confronted corporate slicks in the national media during the emerging struggle for the nation's hearts and minds. Clearly, the polluters and the canyon pillagers needed to be put up against a wall and shot, but I did not trust that the Joan Baez wanna-bes had the chops to pull the triggers. Nor did I think the flannel-shirted primitives would enjoy the carnage.

Then, along came Ed Abbey.
Red-blooded is what he was. As regular as a Dodge Power Wagon, Ed Abbey wrote heartland spirituals about the physical beauty of this immense country. And sweet baby Jesus, he salted his work with the purifying lyricism of hillbilly rage. It was banal, yet stunning, when Abbey pointed out the importance of littering asphalt scars with beer cans heaved from fast-moving trucks. Barry Lopez might cause you to dream of an Arctic trek, but Ed Abbey could launch you skyward to visions of tattoos and revenge. His sinewy essays on plant, rock and animal were a hound's-tooth weave of humor and anger that won converts to the cause of American mud over business slime.

And through it all, Ed Abbey grinned that wolfish grin that reminded you he was no common Yankee scold like Ralph Nader. Instead he was a man with a hankering for pork meat, whiskey, music and women. He was also a subversive son of a bitch.

It would have been easy enough only to harpoon the slow-moving business leviathans, the dam builders, the home developers, the oxford-shod bankers. But Abbey was contrary enough to insist that in the end the problem was you and me and everyone. Ed Abbey was an equal-opportunity racist because he was skeptical of everyone, particularly breeders. The man was a rabble-rouser in a nation of rabble.

And yet, when you met Ed Abbey, you did not find yourself seated next to a garrulous terrorist. He appeared uncomfortable around people who were less than friends. His passion, his eloquence over the tranquil joys of isolated vistas were the words of someone most relaxed when alone. By middle age, however, Ed Abbey was a cult hero. For a solitary man, this is like putting a shot of bourbon in front of an alcoholic. In time, Abbey's weapon was no longer just the joyful anarchy of the monkey wrench; he added the curmudgeon's depressing call for condoms.

Most folks were caught short by his death. That is because he died well. When Abbey's body began strangling upon its own blood, the man finished off his last novel. He did not attempt to live forever by wiping out a lifetime of small deaths. He did not get in shape, join an aerobics class, eat sensibly or do cautionary commercials for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He kept it to himself, passing quietly and at home.

And if that is not the entire story, do not bother me with the facts.

 
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