Letter From the Desert: Ed Abbey and the Border Wall

One of the most nuanced honors one can receive in this business of writing about the desert is to be compared to the late Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey, who died 30 years ago this year at age 62, is one of those larger than life cultural figures that stands in the public mind for far more than his actual output of words, which was formidable.

Desert Solitaire had its own anniversary last year: 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of its publication. There were a handful of events in and near the California Desert to mark the occasion, and I was asked to speak at a couple of them, so I re-read the book. This essay has been brewing since.

I will readily grant that Abbey’s prose about the desert is at times luminous, at times prescient — an example of the latter being his polemic in Desert Solitaire against the National Park Service’s promotion of motorized tourism. The good aspects of Abbey’s writing have heavily influenced my own, both directly and by way of influence on other writers I have admired over the years. I also count among my friends a few people who knew him well, who regarded him highly, even loved him. My connection to him is non-trivial.

Abbey also wrote some things that were horrendous by any measure other than grammatical. Women are close to nonexistent in Desert Solitaire, despite that book’s eponymous solitude having been experienced partly in the company of Abbey’s then-wife Rita Deanin. That may make Desert Solitaire Abbey’s least sexist work. In Monkey Wrench Gang, ensemble character Bonnie Abbzug is three dimensional mainly when Abbey describes her physical attributes. She is still an interesting, if eyerollingly stereotyped, character. Other books come out worse. In Black Sun Abbey creates a mouthpiece for the misogynistic viewpoint, the character Art Ballantine. In later books, such as his semiautobiographical A Fool’s Progress, Ed dispenses with the degrees of separation and has the protagonist espouse the sexism directly. His nonfiction doesn’t escape, as for example in an essay on a river trip in which, apparently as an attempt at humor, suggests knocking women companions on their heads with an oar.

It’s clear Abbey intended at least some of the more egregious expressions of sexism as deliberately provocative hyperbole: Ed was, in more updated terminology, an inveterate troll. I have seen the argument made that putting on a deliberate show of prejudice you don’t actually believe in, as a literary device or a way of kidding around, is different from being a sincere bigot. I have way less patience with that argument than I used to.

And there were times when it was clear Ed’s expressions of prejudice were dead earnest. In September 1983, he wrote the following in his personal journal, later compiled and published as Confessions of a Barbarian:

According to the morning newspaper, the population of America will reach 267 million by 2000 AD. An increase of forty million, or about one-sixth, in only seventeen years! And the racial composition of the population will also change considerably: the white birth rate is about sixty per thousand females, the Negro rate eighty-three per thousand, and the Hispanic rate ninety-six per thousand.

Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.

That spectacularly ugly piece of writing, intended for no eyes but his own, was emitted in the context of complaining that his essay “Immigration and Liberal Taboos” was having trouble finding a willing publisher. The Phoenix New Times eventually took it. The last paragraph of that essay has gotten a lot of attention in discussions of Abbey’s take on immigration:

… if we must meddle, as we have always done, let us meddle for a change in a constructive way. Stop every campesino at our southern border, give him a handgun, a good rifle, and a case of ammunition, and send him home. He will know what to do with our gifts and good wishes. The people know who their enemies are. 

Some people find a defense of Abbey here. I used to. But talk of conscripting refugees into fighting the wars we provoke in our client states, which we could end by striking a line item from the CIA’s budget, is at best a supremely meager defense.

One also sometimes hears the old chestnut that times were different, and that we cannot judge a person’s past statements by today’s standards. To which I can only respond: these words were written in 1983. I remember 1983 just fine. We knew perfectly well in 1983 that racism was bullshit.

In any event, the important piece of that essay is to be found four paragraphs prior:

Therefore — let us close our national borders to any further mass immigration, legal or illegal, from any source, as does every other nation on earth. The means are available, it's a simple technical-military problem. Even our Pentagon should be able to handle it. We've got an army somewhere on this planet, let's bring our soldiers home and station them where they can be of some actual and immediate benefit to the taxpayers who support them. That done, we can begin to concentrate attention on badly neglected internal affairs. Our internal affairs.

There are just two things that distinguish this sentiment from those expressed by our present-day border-wall-building Commander-in-Cheeto. The first is Abbey’s honesty about wanting to end legal immigration, a desire the current regime shares but is afraid to own up to. The other is Abbey’s careful attention to grammar and syntax.

The essay hasn’t been mouldering in the paper archives of the New Times. Influential racist activist Steve Sailer promoted the piece on his blog as recently as 2012. (Before you click that link, full disclosure: Sailer’s is a repellent blog hosted by professional anti-semite Ron Unz.) Sailer has been credited (if that is the right word) with providing the intellectual (which is definitely not the right word) underpinnings of Trumpism, especially in its treatment of racial issues. And he’s an admirer of Ed Abbey’s writing on immigration.

Speaking of that border wall, my colleague and good friend Kevin Dahl in Tucson went out to the southern edge of Organ Pipe National Monument recently, and caught some photos and video that have gotten a lot of attention in the last week.

Photo: Kevin Dahl/NPCA

Border wall construction has begun again in the Sonoran desert, and contractors working for the Department of Homeland Security are killing the column cacti that Organ Pipe NM was established to protect. In the picture above, you see a vehicle barrier installed in the mid-2000s, which I reported on here: the intent was to keep smugglers from driving through the wilderness, while affording those on foot — including Sonoran pronghorn and tortoises and Pinacate beetles — free passage.

That “free passage” thing, like most kinds of freedom, is anathema to those in power, so the vehicle barrier is being replaced with this:

In order to build that wall, the crews are taking saguaros like this one:

and knocking them down, then pushing them into piles with bulldozers. The below video shows what happened to that brave little saguaro, so trigger warning.

Fun fact: there are 55 miles of southern boundary of Organ Pipe, most looking like this, that are vulnerable to wall construction, and Organ Pipe is just one patch of land along the border.

This shouldn’t be as shocking as it is. We have long known what this wall would do to the saguaros and organ pipe cacti, to pronghorn and Mexican wolves, to other wildlife, to public safety. One version of this wall or another has been proposed seriously since the Clinton administration. There has been study after study, report after report, about the damage this hare-brained scheme would cause.

The images are shocking anyway, to those of us who retain the capacity to feel shock.

I am not claiming that there is a direct line between Ed Abbey’s fulminations on the topic of immigration and ancient cacti being scraped from the face of the Earth. That would be far-fetched even for me. I think it nearly certain that if Abbey had survived the esophageal varices that killed him in 1989 and lived into his 90s, he would have felt the same revulsion many of us feel at the avarice, cruelty, intellectual incuriosity, and ecological rapacity of the current regime.

But thoughts like those he espoused took root in the fetid minds of the hateful, and this is the result.

That’s a tenuous connection to be sure, but it’s on my mind anyway. When Abbey died, his friends hauled his mortal coil out to the same desert, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge just west of Organ Pipe, and buried him surreptitiously about a day’s walk from the border now being walled off. So Ed’s got a front-row seat to witness the horror made possible by ideas like the ones he voiced in his least humane moments.

So there’s him being prescient again, reposing there near a stone carved by his friends, with the words he requested as an epitaph: “No Comment.”