book beginnings on Friday: Hayduke Lives! by Edward Abbey

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Hayduke Lives! is more than just a bumper sticker: it’s the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, published at the very end of Abbey’s life. It begins:

Old man turtle ambles along the deerpath, seeking breakfast. A strand of wild ricegrass dangles from his pincer-like beak. His small wise droll redrimmed eyes look from side to side, bright and wary and shrewd. He walks on long leathery legs, fully extended from the walnut-colored hump of shell, the ventral skid-plate clear of the sand. His shell is big as a cowboy’s skillet, a gardener’s spade, a Tommy’s helmet. He is 145 years old – middleaged. He has fathered many children and will beget more. Maybe.

…so we don’t meet Hayduke and the gang immediately. But I love this opening paragraph for its eccentric descriptive style, and clear love of the land, which is what really defines Abbey.

What are you reading this weekend?

Walking It Off by Doug Peacock

My path to this book feels so very obvious: I have become a big fan of Edward Abbey, and of The Monkey Wrench Gang, and it seems a very natural step to pick up Walking It Off. Peacock was one of Abbey’s closest friends, viewed him as a father figure of sorts, and this memoir focuses in part on their relationship, which was made pricklier by publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang: Peacock was the model for the hero-character George Hayduke, making Peacock a cult figure unto himself. Therefore nothing could be more natural, as I read up on Abbey and his ilk, than to read Peacock. I wonder how many people come to Walking It Off on other paths? There are other paths, of course. First of all, I must give Peacock credit for being a gifted writer himself; it’s not just that he has a powerful story to tell. Nor is Abbey the only object of consideration here; another subject is Peacock’s experience as a Green Beret in Vietnam (which he shares with Hayduke, of course) and the PTSD he suffers ever after. And finally, it is a lovely piece of nature writing, and a contemplation of death – not for the first time am I reminded of Hemingway, who like Abbey spent much time and ink meditating on the meaning of death, preparation for a “good” death, and considering suicide.

The subtitle of this book is “A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness,” and that it is. Abbey is a thread that Peacock picks up and puts down, but more constantly, we follow him through wilderness walks and his process of trying to live with what he experienced in Vietnam. I would not have thought that there would be such a connection between war and wilderness, but it makes sense now that I’ve read this book.

After my war, home was the Rocky Mountains. I wasn’t looking for grizzlies but found them anyway. What was invaluable was the way the bears dominated the psychic landscape. After Vietnam, nothing less would anchor the attention. The grizzly instilled enforced humility; you were living with a creature of great beauty married to mystery who could chew your ass off anytime it chose.

Over the course of this memoir, Peacock walks and camps in various wild spaces; we jump around in time, revisiting a mountain-climbing trip in Nepal that nearly killed him. We revisit Abbey, too; early on, Peacock describes Abbey’s death in a fair amount of detail, and the burial, and the conflict of not wanting to let go of a dearly beloved friend who was more ready for his own death than Peacock was ready to lose him. Later, he remembers Abbey, reads some of his journal passages for the first time, and finally, many years after its publication, he struggles to read Hayduke Lives!, the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang. But it turns out that Abbey plays a smaller role than I had perhaps expected, and that is more than okay, because this book has so much to offer. I’m doing my own considering of wilderness, its value to us urbanized humanfolk, and the appropriate treatment of our natural spaces, and Peacock gave me still more to think about. From Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.

Which is a very fair point about limiting our use. From Peacock:

You don’t visit the Grizzly Hilton for the salve of gentle nature, a relief from your real life at the office. Here, you live within the land with all its creatures; you engage with it. You have no choice in this realm but to enter the ancient flow of life. This is not the sort of place to compose a wilderness journal of self-reflection.

The Grizzly Hilton is Peacock’s name for a tiny haven of perfect grizzly habitat that he likes to visit; his first book was the result of many years studying the bears, called Grizzly Years and recommended by Phil Connors. Virtually all the action in this book takes place in wilderness areas, on wilderness walks, most of them solo; it’s only inside Peacock’s head, in his contemplation, that we see war, Abbey, other options. We see his first marriage end, and we see him struggle to be the best father he can be. Peacock is a difficult character, a difficult man. How much of this we attribute to the PTSD is I suppose a cause for debate; I would imagine a lot, but perhaps it’s a moot point.

The aging warrior was weary of his own predictable behaviors and emotional tightness fueled by senseless rage. I detested this legacy of anger and, aware that its deeper roots lay in war, knew it wouldn’t be easy to shake. I wanted to stalk this elusive center, using my primitive tools of self-examination – walking, solitude, wildness – to reach back in and touch the source of my wound. Of course I was a poor candidate for a meditative life. My life was a catalogue of psychotic twitches and addictions: official government-sanctioned post-traumatic stress disorder, a combat disability, borderline attention deficit disorder, marginal Tourette’s syndrome, occasional depression, a borderline schizoid paranoiac, a history of alcohol abuse. Guys like that don’t become Zen masters.

But it’s funny, because in a way he does offer Zen. Peacock’s musings on wilderness are thoughtful, beautifully composed, and rooted in history, considerate of ancient cultures and of differences. This is an intelligent book, a lovely consideration of war and its ugliness and also nature and its beauty – and, as a necessary corollary, the ugliness again of humans’ and industry’s effects on nature. Walking It Off is Peacock’s continuing quest for redemption and peace. It is much better than I expected, and I recommend it.

Rating: 9 grizzly bears.

Down the River by Edward Abbey

Down the River is a collection of Abbey’s essays, mostly (if not all) previously published in various publications but generally (if not always) reworked for latter publications, as was his habit. The theme here, of course, is rivers; but he uses his theme lightly and spreads it out wide. The collection has four parts. Part I, “Thoreau and Other Friends,” gives us “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” a lengthy study of that man over the course of Abbey’s ten-day trip down the Green River in Utah with friends. “A crusty character, Thoreau. An unpeeled man. A man with the bark on him.” …about which the same could be said of Abbey himself. Also in this first section appears “Watching the Birds: the Windhover,” about a season spent as a fire lookout, looking out also for birds, in which he gives us this lovely image:

The redtail hawk is a handsome character. I enjoyed watching the local hunter come planing through the pass between our mountaintop and the adjoining peak, there to catch the wind and hover in place for a while, head twitching back and forth as it scans the forest below. When he – or she – spots something live and edible, down she goes at an angle of forty-five degrees, feet first, talons extended, wings uplifted, feathers all aflutter, looking like a Victorian lady in skirts and ruffled pantaloons jumping off a bridge.

Part II is “Politicks and Rivers” and earns its name; here Abbey waxes philosophical and praises nature while criticizing our treatment of her. Part III, “Places and Rivers,” tells more stories of Abbey’s river trips, to which I am especially partial; his descriptions of lost (or soon-to-be-lost) rivers and valleys and canyons are poignant and might in fact make you cry. Finally, Part IV, “People, Books and Rivers” contains “Footrace in the Desert,” detailing possibly Abbey’s first and last running race, and a lovely portrait of John de Puys (“My Friend Debris”), Abbey’s good friend. It finishes with “Floating,” another dirge for lost rivers.

Repeatedly Abbey is funny, even ridiculous, and often lecherous. But this is also a man who has me looking up words like ‘gelid’ (‘very cold, icy, or frosty’), ‘dithyrambic’ (‘wildly enthusiastic; wildly irregular in form’), ‘oleaginous’ (‘rich in, covered with, or producing oil’), and who uses phrases like ‘concupiscent scrivener’ (definition: Edward Abbey). Remember, he had a master’s degree in philosophy. But he also writes, in “Meeting the Bear,”

Though a sucker for philosophy all of my life I am not a thinker but – a toucher. A feeler, groping his way with the white cane of the senses through the hairy jungle of life. I believe in nothing that I cannot touch, kiss, embrace – whether a woman, a child, a rock, a tree, a bear, a shaggy dog. The rest is hearsay. If God is not present in this young prickly pear jabbing its spines into my shin, then God will have to get by without my help. I’m sorry but that’s the way I feel. The message in the bottle is not for me.

This collection, like *almost all the Abbey I’ve read, I highly recommend. It offers a great and varied example of his best nonfiction; it’s poignant, funny, light-hearted and deathly serious, and beautifully, beautifully done. I hope you love it as much as I do.

*Continue to beware of Black Sun for its self-indulgent and unrealistic fantasy of the middle-aged man landing a sex-hungry teenaged virgin for wild romps in a natural paradise.

Rating: 8 raft trips.

Edward Abbey: on Ernest Hemingway

You know I couldn’t resist one favorite writing about another.

Sheepmen and many others shoot [golden eagles] on sight, on general principles. Our hero Ernest Hemingway could not resist the temptation to bag an eagle now and then, though he hated himself afterward. Not an easy job to be, or to have been, Ernest Hemingway.

–“Watching the Birds: the Windhover”, from Down the River

Aside from the obvious criticisms that could be made of Papa shooting eagles (we’ll let Abbey do that), that final sentence says a lot, doesn’t it? Not an easy job at all…

Edward Abbey: on opening a beer

The hardcases among us snap the tabs from cans of beer, kept cool like catfish in gunny sacks trailed in the river. Fssst! The others stare. Impossible to muffle that sudden release of CO2 under pressure, the conspicuous pop! Sounds like a grenade attack. Incoming! Nobody here flinches but everyone knows who is drinking the beer. And who’s been hoarding it. Would be helpful if some clever lad invented a more discreet, a more genteel mode of opening beer cans. A soft, susurrant, suspiring sort of … s i g h … might serve nicely. A sound that could pass, let us say, for the relaxed, simple, artless fart of a duchess. Ingenuous. But our technology continues to lag behind genuine human needs.

–“Running the San Juan,” from Down the River

I love this image of Abbey the hardcase, on the morning following some hard drinking, when everyone’s hungover, shocking his fellow river rafters with this beer can and picturing a more private option. And how about that artless fart of a duchess? An image if I ever read one. The sound effects and the concepts tickle me. Who wants a beer?

book beginnings on Friday: Walking It Off by Doug Peacock

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Doug Peacock was a good friend of Edward Abbey’s, and was the inspiration for the Hayduke character in Abbey’s highly regarded The Monkey Wrench Gang – thus, obviously, my interest in this memoir. It begins:

High in the shadow of Dhaulagiri they are bleeding the yaks. Two Tibetans hold the curved horns of the shaggy beast and a third man uses a wooden bowl to catch the bright red blood that pulses and spills out a hole in the yaks’ neck.

So, a little rough in the beginning if you don’t like pulsing blood! I’m okay though. 🙂 What are you reading this weekend?

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

I fear this review won’t do this book justice. Maybe I’m just intimidated. But I read it on vacation and sadly took NO notes – nor do I usually, but it took me a little longer after reading to write the review, and those were hectic days. And it’s a significant book: one of Abbey’s two most famous books, that alongside the nonfiction Desert Solitaire really made his career and solidified his celebrity, as well as birthing the Earth First! organization and movement. If ever a book had a cult following, this is it.

The story follows four individuals. Seldom Seen Smith is a Jack Mormon with three wives in three small towns in Utah; they gave him his nickname for being rarely around any of their three households; he guides river raft trips down the Grand Canyon and generally camps out and around in the natural world more than he stays home. Bonnie Abbzug is a Bronx Jewish girl working out in Albuquerque for Dr. A.K. Sarvis, who when he is widowed takes refuge in Bonnie’s desirable arms. She is much younger and beautiful and very capable; she manages his medical practice as well as satiates his considerable sexual urges. As the book opens, Bonnie and Doc amuse themselves by cutting down billboards with a chainsaw. George Hayduke is a young, muscular, angry Green Beret Vietnam veteran who returned from war with nothing on his mind but the beautiful desert country he loved; upon finding it defiled by industry and roads, he wanders around in a murderous mood until happening upon the other three.

The four form a conflict-ridden union of semi-organized, anarchic environmental activists – stress on the “action” part. They destroy heavy machinery and blow up bridges and the like. The group’s greatest ambition is to take out Glen Canyon Dam and free the mighty Colorado River (and liberate Seldom Seen’s hometown, now underwater, of Hite, Utah). They have adventures and do battle with a small-town Search and Rescue team lead by the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Bishop Love, which is really just a posse of renegades angry at Seldom Seen and whose profits are tied up in the industry that the Monkey Wrench Gang is bent on destroying. There is gunplay; there is infighting; there is sex and camping and nature-praise. It’s rather glorious; The Monkey Wrench Gang is funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously, although its values (pro-nature, anti-development) are definitely heartfelt and poignantly expressed. It’s easy to see how this novel, published in 1975, led like-minded young people to try to live it out.

Common critiques are easily spotted. Most glaringly for me, Bonnie is a sex symbol. Doc is her lover despite being “old and bald and fat and impotent” (the first three are true, the forth patently not; there is reference to his “grand erection,” on which more in a minute) but Seldom Seen openly worships her (which is accepted by all) while Hayduke tries to resist his equally obvious desire. This dynamic is not PC, although I fear it is entirely realistic even today. Knowing just a little about Abbey (one biography, check), it is painfully obvious that Doc (and Hayduke, and Seldom Seen) live out various forms of Abbey’s own lust for vastly younger women (their thighs, their buttocks…) – see again Doc’s “grand erection” even when threatening impotence. This is clearly indulgent of the author’s lechery. But somehow I note that and carry on unoffended. To be fair, Doc is rather laughable. Further, the group is not PC in its attitudes towards American Indians (somewhere in here is the often quoted line “drunk as a Navajo”) or Mormons, continue the list from here. And these are not your average environmentalists; they eat a lot of meat and drive big cars and throw beer cans out the windows along the highway (another famous Abbeyism).

But it’s a hell of a story; I was totally involved, and what can I say, I buy into Abbey’s greatness and went right along with his self-indulgent fantasy. I wanted to see the Glen Canyon Dam come down, too. I wish there was more. Oh wait! Hayduke Lives! That’s gotta be next on the list.

Rating: 8 sticks of dynamite.
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