I’m rereading large portions of Ed Abbey’s books (of course) as Chronicles goes to press: Desert Solitaire, Black Sun and The Fool’s Progress (both novels), Abbey’s Road, One Life at a Time, Please, Down the River, Beyond the Wall, The Journey Home . . . the record of a full, busy, and productive lifetime in fiction, narrative nonfiction, travel writing, essays, and reportage, all of it devoted to describing, evoking, defending, and preserving the author’s beloved Old American West, which he identified as “my home. All of it.” No one ever wrote better about the Great American Desert region and its adjacent areas than he, and no one ever will. Compared with Abbey’s prose, that of Thoreau (a crashing, tedious bore) is dead on the page. Here is his description of a fire ranger’s morning on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon:
The world is very quiet. Almost silent. The clear song of the hermit thrush exaggerates the stillness, makes it seem only more stark. If he were listening the man could hear the murmur of the fire in the stove, the crack of the metal roof expanding slightly in the first sunlight, the fall of a spruce cone on the ground outside [his cabin at the foot of the tower lookout]. But nothing else. Later in the season—soon enough—will come the other sounds: the thunder of lightning splitting the sky, spiraling like a snake in flame down the trunk of a tree, driving a cannonball of fire through the forest’s carpet of dust, duff, debris—the sigh of burning trees, the roar of chaos. But now, nothing.
On almost every page, an expression of the author’s love of place as it was and is (“Keep it like it was” was his motto) alternates with what one reviewer described as a “hymn of hate” against the modern industrial world that is busy destroying it. And not only it, but the spirits and minds of modern humanity which it preys upon and corrupts. Abbey made enemies, first on the right and later, toward the end of his life, on the left, as I mention up front of this number. He never allowed himself to be intimidated. He never changed, and he never would have changed had he lived to be a hundred. And for this reason, as for so many others, he has no equivalent—literary or otherwise—in the flaccid, timid, corrupted, ideologized America of today.
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