He was a desert anarchist in a Cadillac convertible, an eloquent curmudgeon, practicing monkey wrencher, self-described “earthiest,” government lambaster, contradictory detractor and a bit of a ladies’ man.
Whatever your interpretation of Edward Abbey, one thing is unquestionable: He was a singular iconoclast whose polemic words and radical actions provided the spark of inspiration for countless environmental activists in the American Southwest and beyond to fight for the preservation of wild places. More than a quarter century after his death, Abbey’s potent influence continues to course through the modern conservation movement.
“The idea of wilderness needs no defense,” he wrote, “it only needs defenders.”
If he were still alive, Cactus Ed would turn 86 on Thursday. To mark the occasion and celebrate his wild, irreverent and defiant spirit, the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center and Environmental Studies Department are throwing a birthday party.
The Edward Abbey Birthday Party will begin with a screening of the ML Lincoln documentary “Wrenched,” and will continue with live music by The Porchlights, birthday cake, kazoos and more.
Abbey’s birthday offered a handy excuse to throw a party. But the event is meant to be much more than a good time.
“I see this as kind of a call to action,” said FLC Environmental Center Coordinator Rachel Landis. “Our students ... need figures that can show them that one individual can make a difference and spark a whole revolution.”
And as much as the goal is to inspire student activists, the party is not just for students, Landis said.
“I’m really hoping for a mixed generation bag for this event,” she said. “It is really to provide a hub for the activists of our community to get together.”
The event came together after Janneli Miller, a visiting professor of Environmental Studies at FLC, was invited by Porchlights musician Bill Kneebone to see “Wrenched” at a screening in Moab. (The Porchlights’ music is featured in the film.)
“I was totally inspired,” she said. “I thought, ‘oh my God we need to get this on campus for the environmental studies students.’”
The film traces Abbey’s environmental activism and cage rattling from his early days as a newspaperman in New Mexico to his formative works of fiction, capturing the ways that his legacy continued to inspire eco-activists and modern day monkey wrenchers.
The movie, Miller said, “articulates perfectly what Ed Abbey was up to and kind of passing that torch to the younger generation.”
Miller said she thinks the film can help ignite the flame of inspiration.
“We’re at the point now where everyone really needs to stand up and speak for the Earth, which Abbey did,” she said.
Abbey was a prolific essayist and novelist who was unabashedly in love with the American West, particularly desert country, and whose work was propelled by the dismay he experienced in seeing wild places paved over, developed or otherwise trammeled by man.
A prolific author and consummate rabble rouser, Abbey painted enchanting portraits of the harsh beauty of the desert, urged readers to get out of their metal contraptions and made the case for respecting every living thing, be it shrub, beetle or wild river.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread,” he wrote.
He skewered government policy that led to dam building, strip mining and development of wild places and developed a cult following with books like Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Down the River and Black Sun.
At the birthday party Thursday, local nonprofits will be on hand with information on local campaigns, petitions and pledges so that participants can take real action. Landis said the event is structured so that everyone can leave armed with ways to engage.
Because, as Abbey famously wrote, “sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”