Rock Island, IL
My copy of The Journey Home, which I paid $3.50 for, bears the modest unassuming signature “Ed Abbey.” The book is cloth, though not a first edition, and its dust jacket is in reasonable condition. I doubt the book had ever been cracked before I bought and read it.
It’s that way with a lot of books you stumble upon. I have a first edition of Percy’s Love in the Ruins, which set me back $1.50. It too appeared virginal when I bought it. I like to look at the book, but whenever I reread the novel, which is frequently, I use another copy.
It would be a fool’s errand to go in search of Abbey’s best passage in The Journey Home. This is a book of veritable best passages, though I’m especially fond of the one in which the author confesses to having had his heart broken by a girl who ran off with her husband. I like it because I married a girl who once did that to other men—boys, rather—and no doubt does so to this day. (She could break a dead man’s heart. She might be breaking Ed Abbey’s right now.)
And then there’s this: “what machine can match a pair of legs?” (This isn’t Abbey on the soft silk of a girl’s thigh, upon which topic he excels; rather, it’s Abbey on the difference between driving and hiking.)
And this: “A president assassinated? Men as good as he were being murdered every day. . . .”
And this: “We drive on to the gas station and store at Stovepipe Wells, where a few humans huddle inside beneath the blast of a cold-air blower. Like other mammals of the valley [i.e., Death Valley], the human inhabitants can endure its summer only by burrowing deep or by constructing an artificial environment—not adaptation but insulation, insularity.”
And this: “Our cancerous industrialism, reducing all ideological differences to epiphenomena, has generated its own breed of witch doctor. These are men with a genius for control and organization, and the lust to administrate. They propose first to shrink the world to the dimensions of a global village, over which some technological crackpot will erect a geodesic dome to regulate air and light; at the same time the planetary superintendent of schools will feed our children via endless belt into reinforcement-training boxes where they will be conditioned for their functions in the anthill arcology of the future. The ideal robot, after all, is simply a properly processed human being.”
And this: “Not that technology and industrialism are evil in themselves. The problem is to get them down to human scale, to keep them under human control, to prevent them from ever again becoming the self-perpetuating, ever-expanding monsters we have allowed them to become.”
But I’m especially fond of the manner in which Abbey defends his littering. This appears in “The Second Rape of the West,” which I think takes the laurel as the book’s centerpiece:
Rumbling along in my 1962 Dodge D-100, the last good truck Dodge ever made, I tossed my empty out the window and popped the top from another can of Schlitz. Littering the public highway? Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly. Beer cans are beautiful, and someday, when recycling becomes a serious enterprise, the government can put one million kids to work each summer picking up the cans I and others have thoughtfully stored along the roadways.
This is typical Abbey irreverence, being wrong while also being right, as he phrased it in Desert Solitaire. The passage is also ponderable: we could get serious about recycling, should we ever admit to ourselves that recycling is the means by which we vacuum our conscience for over-consuming. And by now maybe even someone in the government could come up with a way to put one million kids to work—should there be a million kids who are actually willing to work, which I think is pretty unlikely.
By “work” I mean work, and there is work to be done.
But then, quite naturally, Abbey pulls a Whitman on us and contradicts himself, not just later in the book but later in the same essay:
Junk, trash, rubbish—our lives are debauched, our natural resources squandered, our native land ravaged in this mad production of metal, plastic, glass, and paper garbage. Who needs throw-away beer cans? Bottle my beer (and let’s go back to making real beer, by the way; no more of this watery green commercial angel piss) in solid, substantial, amber-colored jugs that fit a man’s hand, that rest solidly on a table and can be washed out and used over again, for Christ’s sake, like they do in Bavaria and Austria, where beer began.
Seen from inside the whole Abbey narrative, both of these quotations, the one defending and the one despising beer cans, are perfectly sane. When it comes to ugly, the Schlitz can pales in comparison to the interstate highway and defense system; when it comes to delivery systems, the Schlitz can can’t hold a candle to the reusable (as distinct from recyclable) amber-colored jug, which in our day is called a “growler.”
And, ignoring the dubious claim about Bavaria and Austria, we might go on to say that it is Schlitz, not home brew, that gets at the etiology of the beer-can problem. For, earlier, Abbey had complained about how industrialism displaces workers. (“Part of the national industrializing pattern, human beings put out of work by machines. Labor-intensive jobs (so to speak) made obsolete by capital-intensive substitutes.”) Beer might as well be our emblem of the industrial quandary: we can make beer ourselves, make it well, and bottle it with our own re-useable bottles, or we can hand beer-making over to the mass-producers, who will make it poorly and, by means of a cheap delivery system, profit from our sloth.
(N.B. I am not saying there should be only home-brew, or that small local brewers shouldn’t can their beer. I think they probably should. I also think they should fill growlers for less than a four-pack of pint-sized cans. I have growlers from all my local breweries, and I use them, but not all of those breweries honor my frugality. As a home-brewer, however, I am saying that, obviously, the less we do for ourselves, the more we’ll be implicated in waste—and the more likely we’ll see roadsides littered with cans that the gummint isn’t paying kids to collect and recycle.)
The essay from which the passage on junk, trash, rubbish, and throw-away beer cans comes is classic Abbey. It continues thus:
Who needs color television? It’s bad enough in black and white and wavy stripes. Who needs trail bikes, snowmobiles, electric razors? Winnebagos, power lawn mowers, Styrofoam packaging, bulk-rate mail . . . blenders, dishwashers, dryers, plastic picnic plates . . . acid-injected tomatoes and hormone-polluted beef shipped from 3,000 miles away . . . incomprehensible income-tax forms . . . spray deodorants, non-dairy products . . . Astrodomes, the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport . . . Teflon frypans, artificial fruit “drinks,” chambers, neon billboards, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Los Alamos?
“Need” turns out to be a rather strong word in Ed Abbey’s economy–especially when compared to real need, which
goes unsatisfied: good beer, good fresh healthy food for all, homes and apartments for all that are well made, well designed, comfortable, durable and handsome; quick easy urban transit systems; good continental passenger train service; air that’s fit to breathe, water that’s fit to drink, food that’s fit to eat; and now and then, when we want it, some space and solitude and silence. Is that too much to ask of a sane and rational political economy? God only knows it’s too much to ask of the one we’ve got now.
That was written in the Nixon years and published in 1977, Carter’s first year as president of these disunited states.
We need Saint Ed, maybe this week more than any other, as we move toward Father’s day, which is yet another occasion for confused people, tricked out in corporate logos and uninstructed by tradition, to submit passively to commercial degradation. We could use a little Abbey-style authenticity.