Edward Abbey left his family home in Home, Pennsylvania at age 17 and headed west across America, on a hitchhiking journey through the desert that, in his heart and mind, would never really end. Before long, he had moved to the Southwest, where he earned several degrees from the University of New Mexico. (His Master’s thesis discussed “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence.”)
Through the 1950s and 1960s Abbey worked as a seasonal park ranger and fire lookout, and wrote three novels that attracted minor attention. Desert Solitaire (1968), his fourth book, made Abbey’s reputation as someone who, as Robert Redford later wrote, “positively influenced many to not only treasure our natural heritage but to fight for its preservation as well.” This non-fiction account of life as a backcountry ranger in Utah, subtitled “A Season in the Wilderness,” is a masterpiece of nature writing and philosophy.
Publishers like the Sierra Club and Time-Life Books were eager for more of Abbey’s work, and (along with a fourth novel) he next wrote three non-fiction coffee table books (Appalachian Wilderness, 1970; Slickrock, 1971; Cactus Country, 1973), filled with beautiful photography. His fifth novel, however, soon distanced him from the establishment.
The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), the most famous of Abbey’s 20+ books, tells the story of four ecological saboteurs whose dream is to blow up Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam. The author called his book a satire; others saw it as a how-to guide for destroying property. The novel inspired the formation of the militant group Earth First!, and such sabotage in defense of the environment became known as ‘monkey-wrenching.’
Abbey, uncomfortable with his image as a counterculture environmentalist, often angered his antagonists with statements like “Society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up, you get a lot of scum on top,” “Freedom begins between the ears,” and “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” Refusing to be linked with either the left or the right, he enjoyed fighting what he considered the good fight.
“Better a cruel truth,” he said, “than a comfortable delusion .”