Thursday, November 13, 2014

In the Footprints of Seldom Seen Smith

Edward Abbey was born in Pennsylvania. At age eighteen, he went on a westward trek, by foot, bicycle, and train-hopping; cross-continent to California, and then east to the southwest. When he landed in the four corners area, he knew he had found home.
Interestingly, my journey has some parallels with his. A child of the eastern United States (Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Vermont), I too take awe and inspiration in the great size of the west. At some undefined point on the westward drive, the landscape opens up, the sky and the earth become larger, and one can see for vast distances. Somewhere in the deserts of Arizona or New Mexico, the red monoliths and orange plateaus appear. And the giant cacti and snow-covered mountains. And the oil wells, some with their wasteful flames of natural gas atop, burning day and night. And the haze in the air from coal mines, hidden from sight.

I have been in the southwestern United States for most of the past two years, and have generally been on the western side (coast or inland) for the majority of the past seven. The east still feels like home to me, and probably always will; the west is an alien landscape of wonder, and I am an astronaut on a long journey.

Although my compass may point in a different direction from Ed Abbey's, I have nonetheless come to inhabit some of the same haunts, and even work for the same institution (the National Park Service.) Anarchist rebel Abbey spent some years as a Ranger at National Park Service sites including Arches, Organ Pipe Cactus, Lassen Volcanic, and Everglades.) And last spring, I got to know the direct action branch of the environmental movement, for which Abbey is the spiritual and philosophical founder. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang—featuring four renegade idealists who decide to preserve wild nature by ripping up highway survey markers, sabotaging bulldozers, and blowing up automated coal trains—is one of the very few fiction books which had a direct and measurable impact on the real world, as radical environmentalists like David Foreman sought to emulate the tactics of Abbey's characters. The resultant movement of Earth First! brandishes on its website artwork based on the original cover to Abbey's book, even today, 38 years after its publication. Abbey's character George Washington Hayduke, the muscular, binge-drinking green beret veteran who applies his combat training to save deserts from "progress," is a character of mythic proportions. And the verb “to monkeywrench,” meaning “to conduct righteous sabotage” (derived from the title), has become a permanent addition the English language. Real monkeywrenchers, like Abbey's characters, follow a strict code of no violence to people; they destroy machines (and take inspiration from the Luddites.)

To be clear, there is more than one kind of direct action—the activist can wreck bulldozers with corn syrup or block their path with her body. The direct action groups which I visited and worked with (such as Mountain Justice) do not engage in property destruction, only civil disobedience. 

And if we're lucky, the forces earth and sky can conduct some direct action of their own. In a vivid early scene in Abbey's book, Seldom Seen Smith (a tall slender “Jack Mormon” and monkeywrencher) rediscovers his religion when he stands before the Glen Canyon Dam. He gets down on his knees and prays to God to send an earthquake, to fix this “temporary plug” in the beautiful Glen Canyon. He receives no answer.

On my visit to the Glen Canyon Dam, I hoped to impersonate Seldom Seen Smith in prayer, purely for fun. Being alone and concerned that I might raise suspicions, I decided not to. I had to take humor at the high level of security at the dam. Patrol cars patrolled, and a big white man security guard trailed the guided walking tour I partook in, led by a young lady Navajo guide, working for the Bureau of Reclamation. The guard kept in the distance, just close enough to be intimidating. Before the tour, I had to run to the car to drop off the Leatherman multi-tool and matches which I normally carry. Any mention of bombs or sabotage on the tour, jocular or otherwise, would result in expulsion from the site. I wasn't bold enough to ask if the same rules applied to a mention of the names Seldom Seen Smith or George Washington Hayduke. I wanted to complete the tour, and take in my fill of pro-dam propaganda. The dam was a fascinating window into the post World War II-era, and America's quest to build big stuff, conquer nature, dam 'em all, and reach a new Manifest Destiny. Something you won't hear about on the tour: many of the early battles of the environmental movement, from John Muir's time through the 1960s, were over dams. After a coalition of environmental groups led by the Sierra Club successfully blocked dam projects for the Colorado River by the Grand Canyon and the Vernal River by Dinosaur National Monument, they did not fight the Glen Canyon Dam, as a compromise. David Brower (then-executive director of Sierra Club) still agonized over this decision, decades later. Today, there are fewer dam proposals and more mountaintop removal, fracking, nuclear plants, and oil pipelines. We have moved out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Strangely enough, the bookstore at the dam still had Abbey's books for sale (but not The Monkey Wrench Gang!) Regardless of politics, Abbey is probably the most articulate and oft-quoted scribe of the desert environment. His memoir Desert Solitaire is considered by many to be the Walden or the Sand County Alamac of the desert. Abbey was a great proponent of getting out and exploring and experiencing the wild world, giving him a fan base among outdoor recreationists, whether or not they share his radical philosophy.

Before visiting Glen Canyon, I visited Zion National Park. There, I overcame my trepidation towards cold water and hiked 'The Narrows.' My adrenaline surge overwhelmed my tendency to freeze, and I charged forward, with frequent stops for photos (most of them terrible because of the weird lighting inside a canyon). “This is awesome!” I declared to a young couple of hikers, as we both stood on the dry land of the same rock before the next plunge. I charged onward for hours, through water knee-deep and occasionally chest-deep, and turned around when my adrenaline started to wane.

Edward Abbey articulated well the feeling of being alive and immersed in the great earth, when he described a similar scene, wherein Seldom Seen Smith led a raft trip through a canyon down a river. “The river, the canyon, the desert world was always changing, from moment to moment, from miracle to miracle, within the firm reality of mother earth. River, rock, sun, blood, hunger, wings, joy—this is the real, Smith would have said, if he'd wanted to. All the rest is androgynous theosophy. All the rest is transcendental transvestite transactional scientology or whatever the fad of the day, the vogue of the week. As Doc would've said, if Smith had asked him. Ask the hawk. Ask the hungry lion lunging at the starving doe. They know.” 

As I warmed my feet by the fire, under the cottonwoods of South Campground with the rock monoliths in the distance, I knew too.

Topmost photo taken at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Monkey Wrench cover is copyrighted either to its artist or publisher, low resolution reproduction used here for educational purposes only.

1 comment:

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