[The 49th annual Earth Day is April 22nd, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of environmental stories and histories. Share yours in comments to help us celebrate this wonderful and all too often underappreciated home of ours!]
On three distinct and even contrasting ways to contribute to environmental activism.
Edward Abbey is perhaps best known for his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which depicts a group of heroic anarchists and environmental terrorists using every means at their disposal (including, if not especially, criminal ones) to fight for the environment against corporate and governmental forces. Abbey’s book directly inspired the eco-terrorist (or eco-revolutionary, depending on who you ask) organization Earth First!, which was founded in 1980 and the members of which frequently referred to (and still to this day call) their acts of eco-sabotage as “monkeywrenching.” While Abbey did not become an official member of Earth First!, he did both write for them and take direct action with them on occasion, and thus seems to have been more than fine with his fictional ideas being turned into radical activism in this way. As with other radical leftist groups such as the Weathermen, it’s important to try to maintain a sense of the line between inspiring activism and destructive terrorism; but it’s also important not to let any one perspective, and certainly not a corporate or authoritative one, be the sole arbiter of that spectrum. And to read Abbey’s book is to recognize the complexity of such issues when it comes to environmental extremism.
Abbey published more than twenty books in his three-plus decade long writing career, however, and thus engaged with environmental issues in far more varied ways than that one most famous novel would indicate. For example, his first non-fiction book, 1968’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, presents a far more individual and reflective form of environmental advocacy and activism. An autobiographical account of Abbey’s time spent living alone in Southeastern Utah’s spectacular Arches National Park (he lived there from 1956-1957 as a backcountry park ranger), Desert Solitaire is in many ways a 20th century Walden, equal parts memoir and personal reflection, environmental and scientific journal, and social and philosophical commentary. As did Thoreau, Abbey offers his personal experiences and perspective as a model for his readers and all of us, suggesting the intense and important value of this kind of isolated immersion in the natural world. At the height of 1960s social and political debates, such a book and project might seem like a retreat or at least a separation from those shared concerns, but I believe Desert Solitaire is better seen as a complement to them, an argument for how and why environmental activism should be part of that broader spectrum of social change (if a form that perhaps does at times require more individual and, yes, solitary pursuits).
As that year in Arches National Park reflects, Abbey also worked for a number of years, particularly in the early part of his writing career, as a park ranger. He did so not only there but at many other parks and sites in the late 1950s and 1960s: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (in Arizona near the Mexican border); the Everglades in Florida; and Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California among others. These efforts partly embodied Desert Solitaire’s ethos of individuals immersing themselves in natural worlds, of the advice Abbey gave in a September 1976 speech to environmental activists: “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it's still here.” But I would argue that working as a park ranger also represents a contribution to communal experiences of nature and the environment as well as a form of fighting for the land that differs from eco-terrorism. That is, I think Abbey’s service as a ranger represents a third form of environmental activism, one that recognizes that we’re all in it together and seeks to defend the environment in more positive ways. There’s a place for all these forms in our conversations and efforts, but as a devotee of our National Park system, I’m especially inspired by this third form.
Last Earth Day post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Earth Day stories or histories you’d highlight?
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