Twenty years ago today I was in my kitchen in my little apartment in Boulder doing my dishes and listening the usual daily dose of the usual daily news, when over my head came a very unexpected item: Edward Abbey was dead.
The fact that two decades later I can still cite that -- still feel that -- as one of those "where were you when ..." moments says something about the impact Edward Abbey and his writings had on me, and lots of others.
And still has.
Because I believe that 20 years after the end of Ed Abbey's life, his life is what still lives on. Here's why:
Edward Abbey wasn't wasn't a journalist, he was an artist. In the same way, he wasn't an environmentalist, or even an environmental writer. He wrote about other things, bigger things -- about living, about what it means to be a human being -- and from that came what we would consider an environmental stance.
And this is because Abbey didn't write so much the whats and hows of whatever he wrote about, whether it was fiction or essay, article or short story, environmental or experiential or fictional -- he wrote about the whys.
Abbey may have been an "activist" -- but it was in the truest sense of the word: Action. He wasn't against things as much as he was for things: For living differently. For living for different things. For being guided by different whys. Abbey's message, I myself think, was that to move ahead -- to continue to survive and thrive as free, compassionate human beings in a healthy habitat -- we need to go, not back, but backward. Not back to hunting and gathering, but back to applying those perspectives and needs and skills and understandiings in our modern world. Self, Place, Life, Tribe.
And he believed that those shifts, those changes, is each and everybody's choice -- and responsibility. He conveyed that message by modeling that behavior, then sharing it with all. And sharing it well, t'boot.
Abbey has been tagged with lots of labels, from environmental activist to eco-writer to regional writer to nature writer. But throughout his career what Abbey really wrote about was, as he himself called it, his "camping trips."
And for Abbey -- and this is what makes him relevant today, and relevant any time -- he lived his whole life as "camping" -- adventurous, creative, out of doors oriented, principled. For Abbey, his real art was not his just his writing, but his living the life that he wrote about. His was not a perfect life, but it was his life. And that, too was the point he wanted to make: To not do what he or any other guru or authority or cultural norm says, but to do what is you.
That, I argue, was what he meant by "monkeywrenching."
And that is what persists: Abbey's perspective on living -- not how to live, but why to live. What to live for. And the impact of that Abbey-vision was rested less in what Abbey said and more in the actions he instilled and inspired through his rendering of what he did in his own explorations and experimentations in what it means to live well -- and therefore what we need to live well: Land. Wilderness. Community. Freedom.
Regardless of his written words -- which fortunately, and not surprisingly, nearly all remain in print today -- it is more the many-faceted interpretations of Abbey's perceptions manifested in his fans that matter. What matters and what persists is how people put what Abbey inspired in their own actions, into creating their own lives: those who have built their lives, usually with some challenge and difficulty, around living differently, around living for different things: Place. Tribe. Adventure. Meaningful work. Being true to their Selves.
And those who will fight for the habitats -- physical, social, ecological, political -- that nurture, encourage, and support those lifestyles.
And that is now blossoming in a second-generation post-Abbey -- the offspring of that generation of Abbeyistas who molded their lives toward Abbey's ideas and ideals -- yielding yet new evolutions and interpretations and applications of ideas that passed through and poured from Edward Abbey's pen.
In a way, 20 years later, we find that we Western ski bums and river runners, tree huggers and desert rats -- and also all of us passing those lifestyles onto our kids -- are all the bastard children of Edward Abbey.
This post also appears on InsideOutsideMag.com
Join us for a celebration of Edward Abbey at Maria's Bookshop at 6:30 p.m., Monday, March 16. Learn more here.