Edward Abbey (1927–1989) was an eco-wordsmith whose work is often compared to the classics of Aldo Leopold and Henry Thoreau. His book Desert Solitaire has been called “the Walden of the southwest.” Abbey was born in Pennsylvania, and went to school in New Mexico. In 1956 and 1957 he spent the summers as a ranger at the Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah. It was a mind-altering experience. The young ranger fell in love with the desert, and kept extensive diaries.
Like Leopold and Thoreau, he had profound reverence and respect for the natural world. All three watched in agony as industrial civilization worked so hard to mindlessly destroy it. While the other two were respectable gentlemen, Abbey was a funny, rude, rowdy, loose cannon.
In 1845, Thoreau diagnosed the problem as a deficiency of timeless wisdom and intellectual refinement. In 1949, Leopold recommended establishing a set of common sense rules to discourage gung-ho American halfwits from obliterating the future. By 1968, Abbey was furious about the absurdity of it all. Our culture was insane. It was time to mercilessly beat the monster to a bloody pulp, but the monster was winning, and it was shape shifting into an invincible mass extinction steamroller.
At the Arches, Abbey’s ranger station consisted of a picnic table, house trailer, generator, and pickup truck. It was far from the main entrance, and the dirt road was dusty, primitive, and pocked with potholes. He spent the six-month tourist seasons in a place of immense beauty, constantly in awe of the magnificence of this gorgeous desert paradise. The multi-colored sandstone had been sculpted into astonishing forms by a million years of snow and rain. “I am twenty miles from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.”
The only turd in the tranquility was the daffy tourists, determined to see every national park in two weeks. They yowled and whined about the terrible road. They were Americans, by God, and paved roads and vast parking lots were guaranteed in the Constitution. Many of these “wheelchair explorers” never stepped out of their cars, except to take a few snapshots and contribute to the litter. Where’s the Coke machine?
They were unable to comprehend the treasure that surrounded them. Their spirits did not soar, overwhelmed with amazement at the power of this sacred land. It was as if their souls had been anesthetized by living in an industrial nightmare. They were like fish that no longer felt at home in the water, preferring to reside on dry land and devote their lives to flopping and shopping.
Worse, the vision of the Park Service was to update its scruffy old parks into gleaming Disneyland National Parks — modern, clean, and convenient. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill to create the interstate highway system. America had sold its soul, and its future, to the automobile. Abbey was bummed. He knew that the Arches were doomed. After two summers, he quit, not wishing to stick around and watch the inevitable wreckage of progress.
He was right. Several years later, planners designed a new and improved infrastructure that would allow the Arches park to accommodate 75,000 visitors per year — a vast increase from Abbey’s frontier days. In 2012, the park had over a million visitors. Traffic jams, noise, and air pollution have become serious problems.
Anyway, the book contains a collection of stories and rants. The most important story was Down the River, which described floating down the Colorado River as the Glen Canyon Dam was being built. Abbey and his buddy Ralph were among the last humans to observe the incredible canyons before they were submerged beneath the new Lake Powell reservoir. It reminded me of our generation, taking a final cruise through what remains of the natural world, before it is composted by the unintended consequences of our brilliant techno-miracles.
Oddly, the reservoir was named after John Wesley Powell, an early explorer who actually loved the beautiful river. “Where he and his brave men once lined the rapids and glided through silent canyons two thousand feet deep the motorboats now smoke and whine, scumming the water with cigarette butts, beer cans and oil, dragging the water skiers on their endless rounds, clockwise.”
Abbey and Ralph were delighted to leave modernity behind, “…the stupid and useless and degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessmen, the tedious wars… the foul, diseased, and hideous cities and towns we live in…” and on and on. They had sweet fantasies of spending the rest of their days floating downstream in canyon country. They also had sweet fantasies of blowing up the dam — fantasies that Abbey later expanded in his smash hit, The Monkey Wrench Gang.
The U.S. built several thousand major dams in the twentieth century. These projects created many jobs during the Depression, unleashed flash floods of political sleaze, and made mobs of fat cats richer. Glen Canyon Dam was intended to be a “cash register dam,” generating big revenues from hydropower sales, which could then be used to pay for vast irrigation projects. The dreams were far brighter than the subsequent realities.
Hoover Dam was finished in 1936, creating the Lake Mead reservoir. Today, this reservoir is at 37 percent of capacity, its lowest level since the 1930s, when it was being filled. Farther upstream, the Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1963, creating the Lake Powell reservoir. Today, this reservoir is at 54 percent of capacity. The flow of the Colorado River has been below average since 1999. In 2002, the flow plunged to 25 percent of normal and 2003 was a bit higher.
There is growing concern that falling water levels will eliminate the thrust necessary to spin the power turbines at Glen Canyon. While water levels fall, sediment levels are rapidly rising, as the river delivers 30,000 dump truck loads per day. Eventually, sediment will permanently choke the power turbines. While many wring their hands about the toll of ongoing drought, lots of water is also being lost due to evaporation and bank seepage (water soaking into porous sandstone). Droughts can come and go, but rising temperatures seem to be here to stay for a long, long time — and some believe that this is the primary cause of falling water levels.
Up to 34 million people depend on water from the Colorado River basin. The rapid development of Cheyenne, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego was inspired by a cyclone of magical thinking. Our well-educated nation suffers from a pandemic of ecological ignorance, and critical shortages of foresight.
Abbey had the ability to stand firm against the whirlwinds of magical thinking that constantly roar through our communities, making everyone sleepy and dreamy. He understood that humans were not above and apart from the rest of nature, that anthropocentricism was a glaring symptom of lunacy. It was obvious to him that new technology was best left in the box and promptly buried. The culture that poisons our worldview is completely out of its mind. Where’s the Coke machine?
Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1990.