Edward Abbey: Wilderness Firebrand

This winter and spring the Society will be releasing a series of articles titled NextGen Horizons in Wilderness and Civilization. Our first piece, written by one of our new Wilderness and Civilization interns Ashley Balsom, helps us commemorate the birthday of Edward Abbey, January 29, 1927, 88 years ago.


Edward Abbey is buried in a sleeping bag in the Cabeza Prieta Desert in Arizona. The location is unidentified; he was buried illegally, as he specifically requested, wanting his body to “help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree,” (Mongillo & Booth, 2001, p. 4). Even in death, Abbey was the anarchist environmentalist most people knew him as in life.

He was born on January 29th, 1927 in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He began his life as an outdoorsman, wandering everywhere he could at age one. He was not shy about opposing authority as a child, standing up to his Sunday school teacher and claiming injury whenever he was asked to help out on the family farm. He did what he wanted, regardless of what was expected of him (Mongillo & Booth, 2001).

Abbey fell in love with the Southwest during a hitchhiking trip he took at age 17. He explored the Southwest with the awareness that soon, he’d be drafted into the military. On this trip, “For the first time, [he] felt [he] was getting close to the West of [his] deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same,” (Ronald, 2000, p. 59). The Southwest desert was Abbey’s dream come true. This love was further solidified during his time working at Arches National Monument, (Arches, later a national park).

While in the military, Abbey became wary of institutions and regulations. This greatly influenced his beliefs and writing. After military service, while studying philosophy at the University of New Mexico, he posted a letter condemning the draft. This act landed him a lifetime spot on the FBI watch list. When he learned that status later in life, he said he’d be insulted if the FBI wasn’t on to him (Bishop, 1994).

While working in Arches for the National Park Service, Abbey found solitude. He lived in a camper in the middle of Arches, then a little visited place. It was only occasionally that visitors come his way. He enjoyed interpretation, but he didn’t mind being alone. After the visitors left, he was able to tune into the environment, finding a strong connection. But once Arches became more developed over the course of his two seasons there, he decided not to return for a third year. In the 1988 preface to Desert Solitaire, Abbey stated that “the Arches, a primitive place when [he] first went there, was developed so well that [he] had to leave,” (Abbey, 2006, p. ix)

Abbey was a consummate social rebel. He edited his college literary journal and once published a cover with the quote, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” A quote he mischievously misattributed to Louisa May Alcott to coincide with a religious conference on campus. Along with some friends, Abbey began the practice of sawing down billboards in the desert, which he felt defaced the landscape.

In a 1984 interview given to Mother Earth News in 1984, Ed characterized himself as “somewhat of an anarchist,” (Calahan, 2003, p. 8). In our time, he could be described as an extreme libertarian, as his “kind of anarchism [was] no more than democracy pushed as far as it can be pushed, government by the people, decentralized power in all its forms.” He made clear his dislike of big government and big institutions through the same interview, citing that he acquired his distrust of government “long ago,” although he did not specify when or how this lesson was learned.

During Abbey’s lifetime, he was considered a great nature writer. However, in the year before he died he wrote a new preface for Desert Solitaire, stating that he never intended to be considered a nature writer. He simply wanted to be a “writer, period,” (Calahan, 2003, p. 9). Ed never read pioneering nature writers, John Muir or John Burroughs. Not only that, he said he never cared to. But Ed’s culture differed from the late 19th century.

During the 20th century, nature attitudes changed. The American mood shifted. Leisure became more commonplace. Folks began finding joy in the great outdoors in greater numbers. But this came with costs. Greater use levels meant greater challenges for stewards. And a new generation of stewards was climbing the ranks across all conservation agencies. Not only that, the structure of American conservation itself was evolving.

For starters, The Wilderness Act was signed in 1964, which issued the first Congressional definition of wilderness. In addition to this, Silent Spring was published by Rachel Carson (2002) in 1962. This “initiated a transformation in the relationship between humans and the natural world and stirred an awakening of public environmental consciousness,” (Lear, 2002, p. x). Caring for the environment and the future of our planet become more normal. More and more studies were coming out showing human impacts to ecologies at multiple scales.

The National Trails System Act became law in 1968 “in order to promote public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas of the Nation,” (NTSA Sec. 2) and The National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law in 1969, which established the requirement of Environmental Impact Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements. These important tools address potential impacts to the environment. These tools make actions more transparent. It leads people to address their responsibilities for consequences of proposed actions.

Many groups fighting for the preservation of Wilderness were founded during Abbey’s lifetime. The Wilderness Society began in 1935, the Defenders of Wildlife in 1947, the Nature Conservancy in 1951, Greenpeace in 1971, and Earth First! in 1980. Earth First! was inspired in part by The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey’s (2006) famed tale of hijinks done in name of conservation.

Although Abbey apparently didn’t want to be considered a naturalist, his ecological fervor was unmistakable. He spoke, wrote, and lived against the destruction of wild places. He disregarded the laws that facilitated destruction. He aimed to protect the places he held dear. Abbey may not have placed himself in the world of wilderness stewardship. But his legacy remains linked to his passion for the wild. Like many stewards, his love of the land called him to oppose its ruination. Abbey’s activity was focused in Utah and Arizona.

His most well known books, Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, linked a rebellious spirit to environmental advocacy for the sake of the environment itself. For Abbey, that was a higher purpose than conservation for humanity alone. Abbey expressed frustration over the personification of the wilderness. He believed that in order to truly keep the wilderness wild, it’d be best to give credence to the wild on its own terms and not in regard to any manmade agenda.

Abbey’s connection to wilderness stewardship differs from conservation figures before and since him. Of course, his position holds just as much validity. Abbey believed that in order to save wilderness, we must stop trying to understand, explain, and reduce wilderness. Instead of comprehending earth in terms of the human world, Ed said simply, let earth exist as it is. We need to care for earth for earth’s sake. For him, this is better than trying to justify its protection based on any own human-centered reasons.

Abbey’s philosophy is important to wilderness stewardship. He called for the end of protecting areas merely because of their esthetic allure. He called for the end of protecting areas merely for humanity. Instead of seeing earth and thinking of its importance to our lives, Abbey saw earth from an entirely different perspective. To him, we are best to cast aside our tradition of thinking in terms of single generations. Ed’s deep time stretches behind and beyond any anthropocene. Rather, we need to consider the earth’s existence primordially. As much as humans may believe the contrary, humanity is not the keystone driving geotechnics. Without mankind, earth remains.

This philosophy is not morbid. It is brings to light the mistake of thinking the world only anthropocentrically. Instead of apprehending a desert landscape or juniper tree only as the bipeds we are, we can strive to behold desert as desert, and tree as tree. This means, take an ecocentric perspective on occasion. When we live ecocentric, we may lose ourselves to find ourselves. Nature is meaningful enough in existence alone. Unless called to do so for certain purposes, we don’t always have to apprehend flora and fauna as if surveyors plotting and cataloging the world. Oftentimes, we need only to greet fellow earthlings exactly as they are. Maybe that’d be the Ed Abbey way. But it’s our path to walk, not his.

Edward Abbey didn’t wish for much. He believed that “if [his] decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for [him]. And as much as anyone deserves,” (Lamberton, 2005). Let nature take its course with the least amount of human interference. Ed’s life could be characterized as anarchist and anti-authority. But in fact, he enlisted himself in service to a powerful force greater than himself, wilderness.


Abbey, E. (1968). Desert solitaire. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group.

Abbey, E. (2006). The free-range chronology. In The monkey wrench gang, (pp. 2-9). New York, NY: Harper Perennial

Bishop, J. Jr. (1994) Epitaph for a desert anarchist: The life and legacy of Edward Abbey. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Calahan, J. M. (2003). Edward Abbey: A life. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Carson R. (2002) Silent spring. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.                             

Lear, L. (2002). In R. Carson. Silent spring. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, U.S.C.A. § 4321 et seq. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

National Trails System Act of 1968, 16 U.S.C.A. § 1241 et seq. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Lamberton, K. (2005, September 20). His preferred immortality. The Los Angeles Times,   retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2005/sep/20/news/os-wildwest20

Mongillo, J. F., & Booth, B. (2001) Environmental activists. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press.

Ronald, A. (2000). New west of Edward Abbey (2nd ed.). Reno, NV: University of Nevada          Press.

Wilderness Act of 1964, 16 U.S.C.A. § 1131 et seq. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

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