Flower Wrenching! Or, Sunday Morning on the Planet (the Ed Abbey edition)

The most entertaining of all nature writers is surely Ed Abbey, a pickup truck novelist and philosopher who pointedly refused to adopt "the lofty stance, the wise man’s tone" when it came to his desire to save the planet from rape and pillage.

Orion magazine has just published a sheaf of letters from Abbey not previously seen in print, and they’re characteristically delightful; funny, sharp, brilliant. He even snaps at fellow writers like Annie Dillard and Edward Hoagland who write lovingly of the wilderness, but refuse to get out and defend it:

I despise the role of guru, or leader, or remote philosopher, earning easy money writing the right thing while the “troops,” the hundreds and thousands who actually stand before the bulldozers, spike the trees, lobby the politicos, write the tedious letters, lick stamps, staple leaflets, organize committees, attend meetings, hire lawyers and sometimes go to jail, do what they do with no fame, no public credit, certainly little or no pay (except Sierra Club bureaucrats etc), and no reward but the sense of having opposed the rich and powerful in the name of something more ancient and beautiful than human greed and human increase. The writer’s job is to write, and write the truth—but he also has the moral obligation to get down in the dust and the sweat and lend not only his name but his voice and body to the tiresome contest.

Abbey is most famous for his comic novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang," which some consider an apologist for what is now known in law enforcement circles as "eco-terrorism." In a l982 letter to the editor of the journal "Environmental Ethics," Abbey defends himself and his book:

The book does not condone terrorism in any form. Let’s have some precision in language here: terrorism means deadly violence—for a political and/or economic purpose—carried out against people and other living things, and is usually conducted by governments against their own citizens (as at Kent State, or in Vietnam, or in Poland, or in most of Latin America right now), or by corporate entities such as J. Paul Getty, Exxon, Mobil Oil, etc etc., against the land and all creatures that depend upon the land for life and livelihood. A bulldozer ripping up a hillside to strip mine for coal is committing terrorism; the damnation of a flowing river followed by the drowning of Cherokee graves, of forest and farmland, is an act of terrorism.

Sabotage, on the other hand, means the use of force against inanimate property, such as machinery, which is being used (e.g.) to deprive human beings of their rightful work (as in the case of Ned Ludd and his mates); sabotage (le sabot dropped in a spinning jenny)—for whatever purpose—has never meant and has never implied the use of violence against living creatures.

The characters in Monkey Wrench engage in industrial sabotage in order to defend a land they love against industrial terrorism.

They do this only when it appears that in certain cases and places all other means of defense of land and life have failed and that force—the final resort—becomes morally justified. Not only justified but a moral obligation, as in the defense of one’s own life, one’s own family, one’s own home, one’s own nature, against a violent assault.

It’s a strong argument, with one weakness: Sometimes environmental sabotage–such as spiking trees–can endanger not just "industry" but workers. (Abbey, in his confrontational  way, probably took on this objection somewhere, but if so, I haven’t found it.)

But in Sebastopol, a new "monkey-wrenching" tactic has emerged, requiring no tool more dangerous than a flower. On the site of a huge proposed development, a former elementary school principal found an endangered species, the Sebastopol meadowfoam, flowering merrily. This brought the development to a halt. The developer accused the former principal of illegally planting the flower. The principal, leader of a local preservation group, firmly denied the charge. California state wildlife officials, according to this AP story, say the meadowfoam did appear to have been planted last year, but after digging it up and relocating it, the flower returned this year, apparently from seed. Meanwhile the development has been halted, and negotiations with town officials resumed, according to a more colorful story from Marketplace, titled "Foamgate."

Abbey would love this. It’s a delightful story, awaiting a new comic novelist to fully bring it to life…and it’s a wonderful little plant. Three cheers for the Sebastopol meadowfoam!


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

One thought on “Flower Wrenching! Or, Sunday Morning on the Planet (the Ed Abbey edition)

  1. Over at “Susie Bright’s Journal,” there was a post about “An Inconvenient Truth” where she criticizes both the movie and Gore with an intelligent essay. Quite a few commenters took issue with her take, but my favorite remark was from a C.S. Lewiston who was also in an Edward Abbey quoting mood.

    “As for “human extinction”, as I recall, the late Edward Abbey remarked in one of his books that if the world population dropped significantly, the price of housing would drop to realistic levels, and people would think twice about sending people off to war. “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” is his most memorable one-liner.”

    By the way, your posts lately have been brilliant.


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