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Excerpts from Edward Abbey

Page history last edited by Don Pogreba 13 years, 9 months ago

From Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

Revealing my desert thoughts to a visitor one evening, I was accused of being against civilization, against science, against humanity. Naturally I was flattered and at the same time surprised, hurt, a little shocked.


He repeated the charge. But how, I replied, being myself a member of humanity (albeit involuntarily, without prior consultation), could I be against humanity without being against myself, whom I love - though not very much; how can I be against science, when I gratefully admire, as much as any man, Thales, Democritus, Aristarchus, Faustus, Paracelsus, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin and Einstein; and finally, how could I be against civilization when all which I most willingly defend and venerate - including the love of wilderness - is comprehended by the term‌.


We were not communicating very well. All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process, transforming its mass into energy, warmth, light, and toward morning worked out a rough agreement. With his help I discovered that I was not opposed to mankind but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology, and to that perversion of science properly called scientism; and not to civilization but to culture.


As an example of scientism he suggested the current superstition that science has lengthened the human life-span. One might as well argue that science, meaning technology, has actually reduced the average man's life expectancy to about fifteen minutes - the time it takes an ICBM to cover the distance between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. The superstition, my visitor pointed out, is based on a piece of trickery, statistical sleight-of-hand: e.g., in a primitive culture without modern medical techniques, perhaps half of all the babies born die within the first year of infancy; the remainder survive and live for the normal, usual seventy years; taking the total born and dividing by the number of full-lived survivors, the statistician announces that the average life expectancy at birth for the members of this hypothetical society is thirty-five years. Confusing life expectancy with life-span, the gullible begin to believe that medical science has accomplished a miracle - lengthened human life! And persist in believing it, even though the Old Testament, written more than three thousand years ago, refers to "three score and ten" as being the typical number of years allotted to mortal man.


The heroes, naturally, lived far longer, and not in that condition of medicated survival found in a modern hospital where the patient, technically still alive, cannot easily be distinguished from the various machines to which he is connected. But this is now familiar stuff, common knowledge - why kick around a dead horse‌ Far more interesting is the distinction to be made between civilization and culture.

Culture, we agreed, means the way of life of any given human society considered as a whole. It is an anthropological term referring always to specific, identifiable societies localized in history and place, and includes all aspects of such organizations - their economy, their art, their religion. The U.S.A., for example, is not a civilization but a culture, as is the U.S.S.R., and both are essentially industrial cultures, the former in the mode of monopoly capitalism, the latter in the mode of state socialism; if they seem to be competing against each other it is not because they are different but because they are basically so much alike; and the more they compete the more alike they become: MERGING TRAFFIC AHEAD.


Civilization on the other hand, while undoubtedly a product of various historical cultures, and as a category one which overlaps what we label culture, is by no means identical with culture. Cultures can exist with little or no trace of civilization; and usually do; but civilization while dependent upon culture for its sustenance, as the mind depends upon the body, is a semi-independent entity, precious and fragile, drawn through history by the finest threads of art and idea, a process or series of events without formal structure or clear location in time and space. It is the conscious forefront of evolution, the brotherhood of great souls and the comradeship of intellect, a corpus mysticum, The Invisible Republic open to all who wish to participate, a democratic aristocracy based not on power or institutions but on isolated men -

Lao-Tse, Chuang-Tse, Guatama, Diogenes, Euripides, Socrates, Jesus, Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, Paine and Jefferson, Blake and Burns and Beethoven, John Brown and Henry Thoreau, Whitman, Tolstoy, Emerson, Mark Twain, Rabelais and Villon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Spartacus, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, Lucretius and Pope John XXIII, and ten thousand other poets, revolutionaries and independent spirits, both famous and forgotten, alive and dead, whose heroism gives to human life on earth its adventure, glory and significance.


To make the distinction unmistakably clear:

  • Civilization is the vital force in human history; culture is that inert mass of institutions and organizations which accumulate around and tend to drag down the advance of life;
  • Civilization is Giordano Bruno facing death by fire; culture is the Cardinal Bellarmino, after ten years of inquisition, sending Bruno to the stake in the Campo di Fiori;
  • Civilization is Sartre; culture Cocteau;
  • Civilization is mutual aid and self-defense; culture is the judge, the law book and the forces of Law & Ordure;
  • Civilization is uprising, insurrection, revolution; culture is the war of state against state, or of machines against people, as in Hungary and Vietnam;
  • Civilization is tolerance, detachment and humor, or passion, anger, revenge; culture is the entrance examination, the gas chamber, the doctoral dissertation and the electric chair;
  • Civilization is the Ukrainian peasant Nestor Makhno fighting the Germans, then the Reds, then the Whites, then the Reds again; culture is Stalin and the Fatherland;
  • Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;
  • Civilization is a youth with a Molotov. cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;
  • Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement;
  • Civilization flows; culture thickens and coagulates, like tired, sick, stifled blood.

In the morning my visitor, whose name I didn't quite catch, crawled into his sack and went to sleep. I had to go to work. I went back to see him in the evening but he was gone, leaving behind only a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn't have fooled anybody - J. Prometheus Birdsong. He won't be back. But don't get discouraged, comrades - Christ failed too.


From The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey:

The three men hunched closer to the shrinking fire. The cold night crawled up their backs. They passed Smith's bottle round and around. Then Doc's bottle. Smith, Hayduke, Sarvis. The captain, the bum and the leech. Three wizards on a dead limb. A crafty intimacy crept upon them.

"You know, gentlemen," the doctor said. "You know what I think we ought to do. . . ."

Hayduke had been complaining about the new power lines he'd seen the day before on the desert. Smith had been moaning about the dam again, that dam which had plugged up Glen Canyon, the heart of his river, the river of his heart.

"You know what we ought to do," the doctor said. "We ought to blow that dam to shitaree." (A bit of Hayduke's foul tongue had loosened his own.)

"How‌" said Hayduke.

"That ain't legal," Smith said.

"You prayed for an earthquake, you said."

"Yeah, but there ain't no law agin that."

"You were praying with malicious intent."

"That's true. I pray that way all the time."

"Bent on mischief and the destruction of government property."

"That's right, Doc."

"That's a felony."

"It ain't just a misdemeanor‌"

"It's a felony."

"How‌" said Hayduke.

"How what‌"

"How do we blow up the dam‌"

"Which dam‌"

"Any dam."

"Now you're talking," Smith said. "But Glen Canyon Dam first. I claim that one first."

"I don't know," the doctor said. "You're the demolitions expert."

"I can take out a bridge for you," Hayduke said, "if you get me enough dynamite. But I don't know about Glen Canyon Dam. We'd need an atom bomb for that one."

"I been thinking about that dam for a long time," Smith said. "And I got a plan. We get three jumbo-size houseboats and some dolphins --"

"Hold it!" Doc said, holding up a big paw. A moment of silence. He looked around, into the darkness beyond the firelight.

"Who knows what ears those shadows have."

They looked. The flames of their little campfire cast a hesitant illumination upon the bush, the boat half grounded on the sandy beach, the rocks and pebbles, the pulse of the river. The women, all asleep, could not be seen.

"There ain't nobody here but us bombers," Smith said.

"Who can be sure‌ The State may have its sensors anywhere."

"Naw," Hayduke said. "They're not bugging the canyons. Not yet anyhow.

But who says we have to start with dams‌ There's plenty of other work to do."

"Good work," the doctor said. "Good, wholesome, constructive work."

"I hate that dam," Smith said. "That dam flooded the most beautiful canyon in the world."

"We know," Hayduke said. "We feel the same way you do. But let's think about easier things first. I'd like to knock down some of them power lines they're stringing across the desert. And those new tin bridges up by Kite. And the goddamned road-building they're doing all over the canyon country. We could put in a good year just taking the bulldozers apart."

"Hear, hear," the doctor said. "And don't forget the billboards. And the strip mines. And the pipelines. And the new railroad from Black Mesa to Page. And the coal-burning power plants. And the copper smelters. And the uranium mines. And the nuclear power plants. And the computer centers. And the land and cattle companies. And the wildlife poisoners. And the people who throw beer cans along the highways."

"I throw beer cans along the highways," Hayduke said. "Why the hell shouldn't I throw beer cans along the highways‌"

"Now, now. Don't be so defensive."

"Hell," Smith said, "I do it too. Any road I wasn't consulted about that I don't like, I litter. It's my religion."

"Right," Hayduke said. "Litter the shit out of them."

"Well now," the doctor said. "I hadn't thought about that. Stockpile the stuff along the highways. Throw it out the window. Well . . . why not‌"

"Doc," said Hayduke, "it's liberation."

The night. The stars. The river. Dr. Sarvis told his comrades about a great Englishman named Ned. Ned Ludd. They called him a lunatic but he saw the enemy clearly. Saw what was coming and acted directly. And about the wooden shoes, les sabots. The spanner in the works. Monkey business.

The rebellion of the meek. Little old ladies in oaken clogs.

"Do we know what we're doing and why‌"


"Do we care‌"

"We'll work it out as we go along. Let our practice form our doctrine, thus assuring precise theoretical coherence."

The river in its measureless sublimity rolled softly by, whispering of time. Which heals, they say, all. But does it‌ The stars looked kindly down. A lie. A wind in the willows suggested sleep. And nightmares. Smith pushed more drift pine into the fire, and a scorpion, dormant in a crack deep in the wood, was horribly awakened, too late. No one noticed the mute agony. Deep in the solemn canyon, under the fiery stars, peace reigned generally.

"We need a guide," the doctor said.

"I know the country," Smith said.

"We need a professional killer."

"That's me," Hayduke said. "Murder's my specialty."

"Every man has his weakness." Pause. "Mine," added Doc, "is Baskin-Robbins girls."

"Hold on here," Smith said, "I ain't going along with that kind of talk."

"Not people, Captain," the doctor said. "We're talking about bulldozers. Power shovels. Draglines. Earthmovers."

"Machines," said Hayduke.

A pause in the planning, again.

"Are you certain this canyon is not bugged‌" the doctor asked. "I have the feeling that others are listening in to every word we say."

"I know that feeling," Hayduke said, "but that's not what I'm thinking about right now. I'm thinking --"

"What are you thinking about‌"

"I'm thinking: Why the hell should we trust each other‌ I never even met you two guys before today."

Silence. The three men stared into the fire. The oversize surgeon. The elongated riverman. The brute from the Green Berets. A sigh. They looked at each other. And one thought: What the hell. And one thought: They look honest to me. And one thought: Men are not the enemy. Nor women either. Nor little children.

Not in sequence but in unison, as one, they smiled. At each other. The bottle made its penultimate round.

"What the hell," Smith said, "we're only talkin'."


Quotations by Edward Abbey

  • For myself I hold no preferences among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous. Bricks to all greenhouses! Black thumb and cutworm to the potted plant!
  • Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
  • May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.
  • That which today calls itself science gives us more and more information, and indigestible glut of information, and less and less understanding.
  • The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.

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