Edward Abbey: Mystical Anarchist
Edward Abbey was a mystic, a worshipper of nature, considering himself “not an atheist, but an earthiest.” He was also a lifelong anarchist, decrying all those who vie to enslave humanity and nature, inspiring a multitude of activists with his writings. In his youth, Abbey was fascinated by the writings of Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu. In his journals he wrote of one parable in particular, regarding a man who claimed to know how to manage horses.
“…horses have hooves to carry them over frost and snow, and hair to protect them from the wind and cold. They eat grass, drink water, and show their spirit by flinging up their heels as they gallop over the plains.
Such is the real nature of horses. Then one day a man appeared who convinced the local people that he truly understood the management of horses better than they did. So they stepped aside as he branded the horses, pared their hooves, slipped halters on them, tied them up, hobbled their legs, and locked them in stables. Before long, three of the horses died. But that failed to deter the man, who told onlookers once again that he understood the management of horses better than they. (Bishop 24)
This parable appealed to Abbey due to the fact that it simultaneously decries the oppression of humanity and the mistreatment of nature. To Abbey, the man represents authority, while the horses represent both mankind and the natural world; both being better off untethered. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey writes, “…wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself” (169). To Abbey, spirituality demands anarchism, as industry and progress (both consequences of the state and the concentration of power) inevitably defile and destroy nature, thereby crippling the human spirit.
Edward Abbey was a fervent anarchist. This fact is brushed upon briefly in Desert Solitaire, but is quite obvious after an examination of Abbey’s life and writings. Within Desert Solitaire, Abbey quotes the revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, “there are times when creation can be achieved only through destruction. The urge to destroy is then a creative urge” (Abbey 162). Later, Abbey commends the Mormons for how they have organized their society in a communal and egalitarian fashion. Outside of Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s journal entries are rife with anarchistic sentiments. In an entry dated December 1951, Abbey proclaims in his journal that his “favorite melodramatic theme [is] the harried anarchist, a wounded wolf, struggling toward the green hills, or the black-white alpine mountains, or the purple-golden desert range and liberty. Will he make it? Or will the FBI shoot him down on the very threshold of wilderness and freedom?” (Confessions of a Barbarian 10)
In his college years, Abbey frequently had run-ins with authority. In 1947, upon Abbey’s posting of a notice on a college bulletin board at IUP urging students to destroy their draft cards, the FBI opened a file, keeping tabs on him throughout the rest of his life. (Federal Bureau of Investigation) Later, at the University of New Mexico, Abbey was an editor of the student newspaper The Thunderbird, publishing an article on anarchism, the cover displaying the quote “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” For this, the newspaper removed him from his position and confiscated all circulated copies of the issue (Cahalan).
Writing amidst the pressures of the Cold War, Abbey criticized both the capitalism of the west and the Soviet-style Marxism of the east, drawing influences from the ideas of Erich Fromm and Mikhail Bakunin (Anarchism: The Morality of Violence). Abbey considered himself “an opponent of government and bureaucracy,” opposing his father’s advocacy for a “socialist state control of the means of production” as an “answer to poverty and oppression” (Cahalan). Abbey detested government in all its forms, as “socialism, communism, and democratic capitalism were all guilty of the same failing: accommodating themselves to and actively encouraging growth of the nation-state” (Bishop 102).
Upon reading Desert Solitaire, one finds that Abbey’s notion of traditional religion is rather contemptuous. When speaking on death, Abbey refers to the “insolent interference of leech and priest” (213). Towards the end of the book, in “Episodes and Visions,” Abbey ridicules the practices of a number of the world’s major religions, lambasting baptism, the Virgin Mary, the Abrahamic creation myth, as well as the Hindu doctrines regarding “nasal emunction” (236). However, Abbey does not spare atheism, ridiculing the “small-town atheist…with his Little Blue Books and sneering jokes against ancient and venerable institutions” (236). These critiques that Abbey makes leave very little room for Abbey’s own beliefs, significantly narrowing down the list of possible candidates. What is certain, however, is that in spite of the numerous biblical allusions included within the book, Abbey is convinced of an alternative belief system.
The most obvious clue as to what spiritual beliefs Abbey holds is the constant reference to God, the gods, and spirits of the desert. His religious sentiments are aptly expressed in “Down the River,” where he writes, “…when I write of paradise I mean Paradise, not the banal Heaven of the saints. When I write ‘paradise’ I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes –disease and death and the rotting of flesh” (167). In fact, this is why Abbey compulsively ascribes humanly characteristics to everything he encounters, for which he admonishes himself constantly. In his final personification, Abbey writes in “Bedrock and Paradox,” “…this sweet virginal primitive land will be grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourists, will breathe metaphorically a collective sigh of relief—like a whisper of wind— when we are all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious, brooding consciousness of man” (267). These personifications are deliberate. Through them Abbey depicts the literal consciousness the desert possesses.
Abbey reveres all things in the natural world as being holier than any relic, with each component housing a portion of God, and it must be respected as such. Such are the sentiments of a true animist, one who believes that all things have a spiritual existence of their own. Further corroborating Abbey’s animism, he writes in “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” “An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches” (52). Here it can be assumed that Abbey uses the term “pagan” rather loosely, not necessarily referring to polytheists, but rather those who reject prevailing Abrahamic traditions, and Abbey celebrates this development in American culture. It is this rejection and celebration that places Abbey in the category of mystic, “not an atheist,” but seeking spiritual knowledge from an unorthodox source. Earlier in the book, Abbey is captivated by the petroglyphs left on the rocks and canyons by the Anasazi, depicting “gods from the underworld,” and the like. (101) “Beware, traveler. You are approaching the land of the horned gods.” It’s hard not to think that, in a sense, Abbey believes in such deities himself.
It would be impossible to pinpoint and flesh out Abbey’s exact beliefs. Perhaps Abbey himself couldn’t do so. But what is unequivocal is that Abbey’s spirituality is inextricably linked to nature, and that he sees spiritual value in everything living and inanimate. In Glen Canyon, Abbey’s locus Dei, among the “cathedrals and temples and altars” that would befit “a Hindu pantheon of divinities,” he senses a define presence, some “pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence…” (Desert Solitaire, 176) His understanding of the divine is always intuitive and ambiguous, making an exact categorization impossible. I call him an animist out of convenience; this is based on the fact that he attributes a spiritual existence to all things natural. It’s a general term, but it suits him well.
Abbey’s anarchism is deeply intertwined with his spirituality. According to the Oxford Dictionary, mysticism is defined as the “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or with spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.” By this definition, Abbey is undoubtedly a mystic. Every chapter is rife with references to the “spiritual appeal” (240) of the desert, and the spirits and gods who inhabit it. It seems, in fact, that the primary reason he took the position of park ranger is on account of his mysticism. In “The First Morning,” Abbey claims that he has come to Arches because he wants “To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself,” and that he “dream[s] of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non human world…” Abbey’s life and writings demonstrate that he was an animist with an anarchistic vision. His work suggests that the institution of a sort of collective anarchism would align perfectly with nature, and that this harmony demands the smashing of unnatural forces that mutilate human freedom and Abbey’s revered natural world.
Such a conflation of mysticism and anarchism is not without precedent. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, a new ideology emerged. Mystical Anarchism, primarily accredited to Professor Apollon Andreevich Karelin, provided the Russian intelligentsia with a solution to a number of problems. It provided leftists with an alternative to a “dictatorship of the Bolshevik type” via decentralization and the promotion of personal liberties. Additionally, it provided a way to combat the “spiritual retardedness,” of the time. This was an era in which “vulgar scientism” reigned supreme, and mysticism was a hard sell (Nalimov). However, Gnostic Christianity, an Abrahamic belief-system with an increased focus on personal belief and spiritual awareness, was experiencing a revival in the 1920s. The “spirited retardedness” of the Russian intelligentsia was responsible for an aggressive intolerance, and many were not open to new and foreign ideas (Nalimov). The people were divided, with leftists finding themselves in sectarian camps. The fusion of mysticism and anarchism provided an opportunity to promote greater unity among the left on a higher and intuitive level. Abbey diverges from this tradition of Mystical Anarchism in that his version of religion is far less formal and organized, and is more focused on nature. Abbey’s anarchism is a product of his spirituality, not the other way around. Still, he finds himself in the same tradition.
In order to earn a master’s degree in philosophy, Abbey wrote his dissertation, entitled “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence” (Bishop 79). Abbey viewed it as a necessary counter to what he saw as the “systematic and legalistic” violence utilized by the state (Bishop 105). Violence was a topic of great interest to Abbey, and this interest had great impact on his writing of The Monkey Wrench Gang, which he published in 1975. The Monkey Wrench Gang is an adventure novel centered around four environmental fanatics dedicated to combating the destruction of their beloved American Southwest. Armed with pliers, wrenches, gasoline, and caltrops, the gang goes about committing crimes ranging from the immolation of billboards to the destruction of bridges. The novel paved the way for radical environmentalism, and four years after its publication, Earth First!, an environmental advocacy group, was established. Earth First!’s members were dedicated to liberating the environment by any means necessary, unfurling a massive tarp over the Glen Canyon dam displaying a crack in the cement in 1985, “cutting power lines ski tows,” slashing barbed wire on cattle ranches, and destroying bulldozer crankcases with sand and Karo syrup. After Abbey’s death, several of its members were imprisoned. The influence that Abbey had was wielded deliberately. He claimed of The Monkey Wrench Gang, “I hoped it would stir people into actions to do things I am too cowardly to do myself” (Bishop 14). Cowardice notwithstanding, Abbey ultimately succeeded.
Abbey’s endorsement of radical environmentalism cements the fact Abbey’s passionate mysticism towards nature is not merely compatible with anarchism, but that it necessitates it. Jack Mormon Seldom Seen Smith of the Monkey Wrench Gang, whist kneeling atop the Glen Canyon Dam, prays, “Dear old God, you know and I know what it was like here, before them bastards from Washington moved in and ruined it all… How about a little old pre-cision-type earthquake right under this dam?” (33) His prayer is cut short by a park ranger. Abbey, like Smith, holds this sentiment very dear: nature is holy, and the state, due to its ever-increasing fervor for expansion, never fails to destroy it. This can be seen in the highways, the uranium mining, the dams, every aspect of the industrial tourism and development that Abbey so abhorred.
Some might say that this abhorrence is directed at capitalism, as it is the automotive industry and big corporations who are largely responsible for the development, that government itself is deformed and crooked, but still salvageable, necessary even. But as Desert Solitaire was written during the Cold War, it was the U.S. government and the Atomic Energy Commission that was subsidizing uranium prospects. The dam-builders, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, are also responsible for the destruction. As for the National Parks, the National Park Service yields to the automotive industry, which carries out its wishes through the Department of Public Roads. The fact is that capitalism is not the only culprit; Abbey holds all government responsible. All government fails to see that growth and progress destroy what is most valuable.
Abbey has called on us to take a stand against the systems of control, which ravage our world, and which cripple our spirituality, the very essence of our humanity. Like the horses of Chuang Tzu, we have been branded, our legs hobbled, locked up like slaves. When will we be liberated and live according to our true nature, “showing our spirit by flinging up our heels as we gallop over the plains”? Shall we take action? Shall we dismantle their apparatus, tear down their billboards, and blow up their bridges, dams, and highways that mar the countryside? Shall we find ourselves in some enraged and unorganized fashion, as George Hayduke of The Monkey Wrench Gang suggests, “in twos and threes, fighting back”? Shall we fight against our government who seeks to extend its control across this land like a cancer? Shall we defend our mother earth who gave us everything against those greedy and shortsighted enough to destroy her? We shall take up that calling. Because, as Abbey expresses with his poem “What Zapata Said,”
like the sun,
like the air we breathe,
belongs to everyone—
and to no one.” (Earth Apples 67)