Another one posted earlier. My regular article posts at 7am.
Book Review: The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey (1975)
By D. Ritchey
The 1970’s were about organizing the ideas of the ‘60’s. This is when the eco-defense organizations were established, and I think this moved Abbey to write The Monkey Wrench Gang. Also moving him was the rapid influx of peoples to the United States. All these people coming in, they have to live somewhere, and that means wilderness has to be converted to habitations and support facilities. He saw this New Age stuff coming into the mainstream consciousness; he saw that the “ecology movement” would be another consumerism. Abbey distrusted these eco-defense organizations. Fed up with political lobbying, he decided that a new strategy was necessary: direct action against development. Action in the field is what counted and this is where he takes you in MWG. It is fiction that demostrates warfare against a feeding process.
About the only people who can hold out against our economic and social system are the idealists, although many of them are not so independent as they think. Idealists resist the clear-cutters; they are natural enemies to each other. MWG is a book for idealists, by a man who was smart enough to not be an idealist. And MWG goes beyond a focus on the environment; it appeals to anyone who wants out of the consumer rat race. It portrays an alternative community.
But the eco-defense operatives in the 1970’s needed a bible, and MWG is it. I don’t know if Abbey was aware of his timing, but he provided the guide. It fell into the historical stream at the right time. It is worthy; it is special. It is a sub-manual of resistance. I say sub-manual because Abbey left much out, and wisely so. Still, the title has become a term in the general debate, a term and a verb. The setting is the desert in the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. If you love the desert this is your book twice over.
If you like a scenario of desperation, loose women, polygamy, caching, sabotage, escape and evasion, and tribal politics, here it is again.
Four people meet on a rafting trip on the Colorado. They are strangers to each other. Dr. Andrew Sarvis, M.D., starts talking about the Glen Canyon Dam. That brings the strangers out, and they discover each other. Doc sets the tone with this:
“The reason there are so many people on the river these days is because there are too many people every where else. The wilderness once offered a plausible way of life. Now it functions as a psychiatric refuge. Soon there will be no refuge. Soon there will be no wilderness. The madness becomes universal…”
Some people today will tell you that universal madness is here. The relationship between these four develops because they agree the madness is here. They are discontents; they are idealists. They must act. Here is the new protest which the system must take seriously. Here is the new warfare that bypasses all state arrangements. They are now brothers in arms, or passion, and will go on the offensive… They start by cutting billboards down. Abbey’s best instinct is his use of humor to keep his characters down to earth, from going holy in their own heads. And for the reader. For example, one night Doc Sarvis tries to cut down a billboard, and discovers the supports are steel, not wood. His chain saw explodes. Very funny. He is operating under cover and the darkness plays a trick on Doc. Abbey does not want this to be a tale of heroes. He wrote it to make the reader think outside normal politics, but he put limits on it. And so Abbey has his characters toss beer cans out the truck window. This guarantees they will not be green saints.
Abbey injects another critical theme: no violence against people, only machines. It is Doc Sarvis who insists on this. If there is violence, he will withdraw. Everyone understands this. Doc Sarvis funds the gang. So we see that Abbey was not a hands-on radical (not yet). Anyway, Abbey was too smart for that. He saw that the public discussion is a construct. What is left out of the news? What is put in? Why? It is a puppet show. It has us thinking in circles. Thus are we controlled. The only way to not think in circles is to limit your consumption of news and follow your instincts.
Abbey was no Socialist, either. He came out of the working class but I detect no desire for enforced equality. He understood that each of us is an organism struggling on our own; he was a naturalist, after all. I think the private Abbey was willing to do hands on resistance, but he understood that nothing works before its time. But in the ‘70’s Abbey was gaining influence, and chiefly by his merits. New York liked Mr. Abbey’s work for several reasons, and publicized him. Of course the editors appreciated his excellent stories, for which there was a sizeable market. But the publishing houses recognized too that our economic and political system might turn Abbey. It has been said that he was a government asset, like the Grateful Dead. I don’t think so. But the NY people liked him and wanted to make him more than a regional writer. And that is a common way to move an influential person into a relationship with our government. Our gov is very interested in influential people.
So Abbey gave speeches on eco-defense; I am certain he disliked celebrity. I think he gave up the circuit pretty soon—a circuit that would have carried him deeper into politics. In the meantime, the government’s men realized that Abbey might be useful in passive way. The fact was, he became an icon, attracting the radical eco community. Good. Now government agents could inventory these people more easily. Every event and aspiration has market value, so every one is watched. The system watches everybody—some more than others.
While I’m discussing Abbey as a tool for the government, I must mention his thoughts on race. He was no trendy, and he probably would not be published today. Nor was he a sentimentalist. He knew what he was about. He knew how the world works, and said it, and this disqualified him for the useful idiot category. Our system explicitly discourages raw talk on race. But here is Abbey in a letter to Evergreen Review, August 1969:
“… at least half the trouble between the races is caused by overcrowding, by overpopulation. Or to use terminology more familiar to ER readers, by too many fucking people—and too many people fucking.”
Kumbayah is a fantasy; it does not override resource depletion. He understood that over-population is the root. Is carrying capacity in your analysis? If so, where are we? So Abbey wasn’t the right material for a system operative. He was an open Darwinian; he said there are too many people and there are differences between them. Is this man the type who can live with two faces? He said wilderness is necessary, not an option. This heart talk doesn’t mold in the system’s hands.
“It is quite false to say that I am a writer whose primary and exclusive concern is “wilderness preservation.” I cannot for the life of me understand where he got that idea. If my books have a common theme, it would be something like human freedom in an industrial society; wilderness is merely one among many means towards that end.
-- letter, 22Nov77
I think this is where we Bison readers are coming from. That there must be an alternative reality. Are we preparing to “survive,” or are we using resource depletion as a reason to abandon the rat race? In my case, certainly. We look at the world and apply our experience and calculations and off we go. We don’t like the way things are going. Dark clouds ahead. The smell of grapeshot. Containment by the commercialized state—we don’t want it. If you are looking for another cause, Abbey’s doctrine of eco-resistance might be it. It might inspire you to get off grid sooner. Or it might confirm your conclusion that violent resistance won’t work.
No matter what, I know I need to lighten up…. And I see others, lots of them, who should too. I didn’t come to this until I read The Monkey Wrench Gang. So thank you, Edward Paul Abbey, for giving us action without a hangover. Thanks for injecting a clown into your stories… In MWG it is George Hayduke, veteran of a certain war and the gang’s combat leader. But Abbey allows no “killer” energy in his stories. Hayduke is the symbol of lethality against machines and the machine state, but you will laugh at him again and again. Yes, he destroys machines very effectively, but after the mission he is still a clown with a sniper rifle. Hayduke runs deep for us; he is some of us; he doesn’t handle complexity well; he doesn’t like it; he leaves. Explanation over. The same gov that sent him to Nam is the gov driving the ‘dozer that is knocking down that 150 year oak. Bring on the disaster, it will get me out of here. He is meant for a tent or a cabin far out, away from the effects of cities. Yet the cities follow him. He tries to stop them.
MWG planted a seed in people who were, and are, disturbed by “development.” This is their surface word for “overpopulation.” And Abbey was right: lobbying doesn’t stop development. So he went ahead and published his theory of resistance under cover of an entertaining story. But keep in mind that monkeywrenching is much riskier today. When Abbey wrote this, real-time surveillance was not around. (I might be wrong.) The population of the United States was a mere 210 million or so, and fuel was 55 cents a gallon. The pressures were about one-half of ours today. So things were much looser, there were more holes in the fence. Not so anymore. Since the jump in surveillance by the state, ecotage has declined. There is little ecotage today; what is, is often not reported by the news. I think that now, if you want off grid, you have to do more homework. You have to reduce your profile. All that requires more work than before.
A few years ago I picked up a hitcher on I-5 in Oregon. He was a primitive off-gridder. His backpack was huge. He was returning to his summer grounds in the Tillamook N.F. He told me he had been arrested there a few seasons back by rangers. Satellite surveillance had picked him up. So, reckon the eyes in the sky and on the poles.
Another clown in MWG is the Lone Ranger, a homeless cowboy with a horse. And funny too is Seldom Seen Smith, a jack Mormon. He is a river guide. Seldom Seen leads the gang through the backcountry as they attack the machines of development. Every character is a misfit. There are lots of misfits. The sin of these misfits is they start their own movement. We have Bonnie, a hippy chick living in a solar hut in Albuquerque, who is passed around and likes it. We have Doc Sarvis, who makes plenty of money but whose soul won’t leave him alone. Then we have George Hayduke, one whom the gods made mad. Their warfare against the development cancer is convincing; you would expect not in this light story. You would expect Abbey to lose force in his narration of their combats. No, he doesn’t, and I think it’s because Abbey’s head was there. He meant what he was writing: destroy the machines. It forces the reader to think things through. After all, we are discontents—what might we do?
This is “wooden shoe” warfare—still, a grim business. You will get a deep and dusty sense of these resisters as they go about. As the system hunts them down. You will feel their exhaustion. You will hear their second thoughts. Abbey’s gang is in the “pre-revolutionary phase”. The next phase isn’t discussed in MWG; we know what it is. But bet your mocassins he knew that eventually the Heathens and the security forces will start assassinating each other. Are you a Heathen? Can you accept the bulldozer’s roar without limit? If you can’t you will feel the urge again and again to act. Eventually you will do something that the System codes red. And thereafter you will sleep with one eye open forever, or until the System captures you. Or until the system goes down and something better for you replaces it. The System will hunt you forever. Most people can’t handle that. So they will do nothing.
"The most common form of terrorism in the U.S.A. is that carried on by bulldozers and chainsaws. It is not enough to understand the natural world; the point is to defend and preserve it. Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." -- Edward Abbey