"Like any writer, I'd rather be read than dead. Like any serious 'author,' I'd rather be dead than not read at all." This from Edward Abbey, famous Arizonan and desert and word pioneer, who is said to have preferred being thought of as a serious writer, period, not specifically a nature writer.
Tucson author and longtime Abbey friend Charles Bowden asks, "Who'd want to be put in this little niche? Anybody that's read nature writing knows that it has these taboos. Christ, it's like saying I want to be a writer, I want to spend my whole life in day camp. It's got more taboos than the Vatican.
"Ed liked what some people call nature--that stuff out there. And he just liked it unconditionally and without any theory. And so do I," says Bowden, who, along with author Terry Tempest Williams, will speak at a tribute to Abbey, who died in 1989, on Sunday, March 14, at the Desert Botanical Garden in the impressive finale of a weeklong Edward Abbey tribute.
So what does the self-effacing Bowden, someone who doesn't go out of his way to make friends of writers (a group he considers "pretty much worthless scum"), think of Abbey, the plain old writer? "The thing that's interesting about Ed is he always wanted to be a great novelist. A trick was played on him. He became a legend instead. People know him, I suspect, who've never read him. . . . Ed's really easy to read. I mean whether one agrees with him, disagrees with him, he's like Mark Twain, he's just easy. It's like somebody talking to you who's actually kinda witty, too, which is always a bonus."
Abbey and Bowden have more in common than the ability to construct original sentences. They have both written extensively about the desert, specifically Arizona's Sonoran Desert.
"Abbey once said that Arizona is easy to leave. He left it six times," Bowden says. "Arizona's a terrible fate because if you stay very long, you're trapped, seduced by it. You're condemned to an entire life of minimum wage. You get these offers and you know you can get these jobs, but . . . I'll never leave. I take expeditions to foreign places like Texas, but that's just temporary."
Bowden and Abbey have both served to popularize the desert and its many causes, too, and their words have been far-reaching.
"A guy told me a couple of years ago that Ed was heavily read in China. Essentially, he's an anarchist in a 19th-century philosophical sense. He didn't think much of government, he thought more of people," Bowden says with a laugh.
"There's a Web site, I'm told, in Sweden," Bowden notes. There is indeed--it's called Abbey's Web, and it's quite impressive (www.utsidan.se/abbey/). Bowden hasn't seen it yet, but appreciates the fan's effort on his old friend's behalf.
"[Abbey] always claimed he was going to come back as a vulture, not a hacker," says Bowden. "Once in a while I see a vulture and for a brief twinkling of a moment think of Ed, careening up there. I have a hard time thinking he's gone. And I don't have a hard time normally thinking people are gone."
Aw. Dry your eyes. Bowden adds, "What the hell, if you like somebody and like what they write, what could be a better deal than 10 years later they have more readers than ever? The best deal would be that Ed wasn't dead. But you know, barring that, what's better? A guy spends his life, never gets rich doing it, believes in what he writes, and other people read him. Hell. And a good Web site in Sweden."
Charles Bowden and Terry Tempest Williams honor Edward Abbey with readings at "Celebration in the Garden" on Sunday, March 14, at the Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 North Galvin Parkway, in Papago Park. Musical guest Riverproof Expeditions will also perform. RSVP by 5 p.m. March 12 at 941-1225. Admission is free.