Salon says that Seldom Seen Smith from The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey is Abbey’s “most legendary character.” That sentence is hardly the point of a story about the original monkey wrencher, so it’s a little silly to jump on it. But anyone who’s read Abbey’s ouvre knows that “Cactus Ed” Abbey is the most legendary character he ever created. Ed the drunk, the womanizer, the prickly outsider. The guy who was un-PC before PC existed. The guy whose friends hid his body out in the western desert, where it still remains, hidden under one of many piles of rocks, watching and waiting for the ever expanding cities to reach him.
No author better encapsulates the often confused strains that run through the politics and the mindset of the Southwest. Was he racist, sexist and xenophobic? Sure. But he was, at least, egalitarian in those terms. Xenophobia is fear of the other, and Abbey was content to consider all of humanity, all races and all sexes, to be the other, and properly deserving of a certain fear.
Desert Solitaire is a beautiful and personal reflection on the beauty of the southwest and of the dangers it faced and still faces. While our national debates have shifted and jumped from scandal to scandal, interest group to interest group, Abbey’s concerns about western land management remain valid without any change today.
One of my favorite of his essays is “Arizona: How Big is Big Enough?,” published in One life at a time, please which begins like this:
Governor Bruce Babbitt tells us that by the year 2000, only sixteen years from now, Arizona will gain two million residents, that Phoenix will become another Houston and Tucson another Phoenix, and that we will have an additional one million automobiles crowding our streets and highways. … Most of our reigning bankers, economists, and developers keep shelling us with a similar barrage of thundering numbers. Growth is good, they say, reciting like an incantation the prime article of faith of the official American religion: Bigger is better and biggest is best.
Already looking past the completion of the Central Arizona Project, Babbitt speaks of mining the ground water of Western Arizona. For what purpose? Why, to provide the essential liquid element for further growth. … Then what? The answer is easy to foresee: A greater clamor from our Southwestern politicians to desalinate the Sea of Cortez, to import icebergs from Antarctica, to divert first the Columbia and then the Yukon rivers into the drainages of the Colorado.
Viewing it this way, we can see that the religion of endless growth – like any religion based on blind faith rather than reason – is a kind of mania, a form of lunacy, indeed a disease. And the one disease to which the growth mania bears and exact analogical resemblance is cancer. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell. Cancer has no purpose but growth; but it does have another result – the death of the host.