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March 23, 2006

The environmentalist as macho, working class, cowboy: Richard D. North on Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang and Doug Peacock's Walking It Off

Posted by Richard D. North

The Monkey Wrench Gang
by Edward Abbey
first published in 1975
available in Penguin Modern Classics, £7.99

Walking It Off
by Doug Peacock
Pp. 208. Eastern Washington University Press, 2005

Edward Abbey's second bestseller, The Monkey Wrench Gang, was published in 1975 and soon sold – according to his admirer, the conservationist and writer Doug Peacock – 500,000 copies. It is said to have spawned the Earth First! "eco-terrorist" movement, and it certainly inspired some of the people in America's West who began to take direct action against loggers, strip-miners and the rest. It might also be thought one of the progenitors of the Earth Liberation Front and the sabotage of SUVs which is now almost fashionable. These facts alone would make the book interesting. But its re-issue as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2004 begs the question: is it any good?

Perhaps oddly, I circled this book for twenty years before reading it. I suspected that it would be poor stuff and that its consequences mattered more than its probably slight literary merit. What's more, I resisted the hero-worship Abbey attracted before his death in 1989, and ever since, especially amongst the self-appointed defenders of the wilderness of the Western states.

In the early 1990s I made a kind of pilgrimage to meet some of these people. Like Julian Pettifer (who went later for the BBC), I spent some time in Tucson - one of the West's nicest cow-pat cities – where Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First! (but also something of a changed character), was friendly. He opened the way to a Saturday evening with various admirers of Abbey. I am pretty sure that Doug Peacock was there. He had inspired and was later the amicus mortis to Edward Abbey. Jim Harrison certainly was there.

Harrison will rank with Willa Catha or Kate Chopin, say, as a minor novelist who deserves more attention. Not a Hemingway or a Faulkner, maybe, but worth reopening. With six films based on his work, including Legends of the Fall, 1994, he may also rank with Annie Proulx (with her Brokeback Mountain, 2005 and The Shipping News, 2001) as a novella and short story writer who inspires directors. Someone kindly took me for a walk into nearby cactus desert whilst Jim cooked supper (lamb au jus, salad, much butch fussing over the making of vinaigrette). But we didn't hit it off: being with them made me feel European, effete, and wonkish. Their determined male-ness struck me as over-bearing: it was as though they were congratulating themselves for having struggled out of lumberjack gruntiness and into gruff articulacy. They wanted more wilderness and mourned its passing. I was inclined to think the official US did wilderness really quite well and even overdid its nervousness about the Wise Use of huge tracts of its land. Still do.

I was at least half wrong about my hosts' hero, Abbey, and his Modern Classic. This book contains some really lovely writing, such as:

A trickle of water shone like tin, reflecting the last of the starlight.
Abbey can takes us to canyons and cactus country with muscular adjectives. I have a limited but definite appetite for this kind of material. It will suit even better those who can take W H Hudson or Richard Mabey in quantity. It's worth noting, by the way, that modern "nature writing" is in terrifically good shape: it has emerged as the larky insouciance of a Simon Barnes (in his How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher) and has a more overtly spiritual or at least sociological wing in the likes of William Fiennes (with his The Snow Geese).

Abbey was not exactly a campaigner. There is no hint in his novel that he wants to start a movement – certainly not any kind of organisation. Abbey doesn't aim to reproduce, say, Aldo Leopold's Sandy County Almanac, one of the founding texts of modern America’s love affair with the wild, and its "Land Ethic" agenda for reform of land management. He is more, well, existential than that.

In any case, Abbey's book aims to be more thrilling, more fun, more tittilating than nature description or policy proscription allows. It likes and recalls a more yellow, pulp tradition. In this, it is more obviously in the mould of John D MacDonald and his Travis Magee novels. MacDonald has been credited with being literary – he is admired by the literati – and rightly so. Abbey's being cited in this league is meant to be praise indeed.

Travis Magee was an ex-military man living on a houseboat in the Florida Keys (houseboats figure in The Monkey Wrench Gang). He was a hard-bitten chivalric type, drawn to maidens in distress, but was most willing to work for them when he was short of cash. He would only work for a half share of whatever booty they'd been deprived of and he could retrieve – neither more nor less. His real and permanent hatred was reserved for the developers who were wrecking Florida. But there was something more general too, a certain snobbery: he was given to sitting at 30,000 feet in a Jumbo jet and looking down on the gas-guzzling depredations of the vulgar horde crawling and scuttling below him on the ground. So far, so environmentalist: those at the top of the feeding-chain decry the damage done by the unnecessary hoi polloi.

This is a profound problem for the Monkey Wrenchers. We note from Peacock's memoir, Walking It Off, that Abbey went out and damaged the equipment of developers who were bulldozing the desert at his own back fence. And so it goes on, this NIMBY humbug: everyone in tract housing bemoaning the spread of the cowpat whose expansion gave them the home they dreamed of. Unless the web lies, Abbey had a large Cadillac towards the end of his life. His hero in Monkey Wrench Gang cheerfully litters the countryside with his beer cans. But that's all good really: Abbey isn't writing a novel about virtuous people, but interesting ones, and didn't posit himself as an example to anyone.

Our hero in Monkey Wrench Gang is a rougher, more damaged version of a Travis McGee. He's George Washington Hayduke. He's short, hairy, and very angry. His experience as a Green Beret medic in the Vietnam War has gobbled him and spat him out: he wants to put his military skills and his neuroses to good use at last. His personality and its formation was based on Doug Peacock, and though Doug resented the caricature, it seems quite accurate. Perhaps Doug resented the sheer bone-headedness of Hayduke. He is made out to be thick, the better to need a supporting cast.

He meets a wordy surgeon, Doctor A K Sarvis MD; the surgeon's girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug; and a "Jack" Mormon, Seldom Seen Smith. They have come to the same destructive conclusions, and become a gang.

Doc Sarvis is rather like Travis Magee's economist side-kick, Doc Meyer: both are their author's alter-ego, allowed to speculate, philosophise. Sarvis says:

I'm against all government, including good government.
He regurgitates encyclopaedia-loads of arcana. By chance, he hates domes. Kicking over a rounded anthill, he declares:
Thus do I refute R Buckminster Fuller… Thus do I refute Paoli Soleri, B F Skinner and the late Walter Gropius.
The prevalence of ants, he says, is a sign of over-grazing and thus:
prefigures technological tyranny.
Doc has set himself to destroy advertising billboards: his motivation is more intellectual than Hayduke's: he hates the vulgarity and the mind-bending of capitalism. Bonnie is crucial to his enterprise: she can drive and is brave.

It's not clear what makes Bonnie tick. She is well-written though: a Whole Earth Catalogue hippie-chick who could have found her way to a centrefold in a Playboy of the time. She's hot, stacked, willing, mildly discriminating, a graduate in classical French and a little angry about the silliness of men and their hold over her. Her locution is that of any of Travis Magee's girls: the guys' gal briskness perfected by Angie Dickinson in a dozen movies. She lives in a geodesic dome, a la Buckminster Fuller. She loves Doc -

Not much, perhaps, but enough.
Not enough to deter her switching her affections to Hayduke.

Seldom Seen has three wives and a melon farm. He also runs a boat-trek firm, and hates the Glen Canyon Dam which has wrecked the Colorado River and drowned his home town. He dreams of blowing it up. They all do. He's more of a native than Hayduke or Doc, and much more than the Brooklyn-born Bonnie: he's in tune with local society, and understands the posse which eventually sets out to tame the Monkey Wrench Gang.

It needs saying that there is nothing right-on about our gang. They are cheerfully down on the feckless America natives – the First Peoples – who mostly can't be bothered to defend their homelands. Indeed, the gang invent what they think is a rather improbable radical native group as a cover for their sabotage. This isn't the snooty ambivalence of a Henry David Thoreau (only an intermittent fan of the Indian). There is proud, red-neck, unreconstructed Neanderthal quality to the thinking here. It is a howl against namby-pamby liberalism. This is cowboy, working class, anti-Establishmentarianism. It is the world of Walk the Line (2005) or the Rat Pack much more than it is the world of Dylan.

And so they set off on a crusade in the backcountry. Rushing around in jeeps and small planes, or hiking, they wreak real and not always small physical havoc. The technical details of wrenches, trains, explosives and small arms are all there with the same poetic intensity with which the cry of an owl is recorded. Abbey takes you there, though his doing so again and again becomes tedious. There is pace and there is development, there is a narrative arc. The book could lose a third of its bulk and gain in quality.

It is perhaps the gang's living rough as fugitives which comes off best. The idea of a man becoming feral hits home. It's the core of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (though we tend to forget that Crusoe thought he was being punished and would need to get home and back to church for redemption). Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male is a better comparison: a virtuous man – who tried to assassinate a leading European fascist leader - goes to ground because officialdom has mis-read his motives and behaviour.

Abbey does not go as far as he might. He's not really an extremist. Like many a military man (as posited, for instance, in the movie Jarhead, 2005), Hayduke quite wants to kill someone. He has, after all, been driven nearly mad by his war. Helicopters are the personification of evil, and their pilots hardly worse. He has been attacked by their friendly fire in Vietnam and supposes it's the same people in the same choppers who are hunting him in Utah. But the others are worried enough by the destruction of property, without hurting people. When Doc frets about the possibility of things getting out of hand, Hayduke retorts:

What's more American than violence? ….It's as American as pizza pie.
Hayduke is posited as the most effective of the Monkey Wrench Gang, but not as the one with the purest motives. His team-mates are, as it were, trying to find an activism which is proportionate to the moral wrong they more or less objectively perceive. Hayduke's got other issues.

My impression is that Abbey and his immediate followers did not actually do very much monkey-wrenching – that was taken up by younger, even angrier people. My impression, too, is that Abbey and his circle did not have quite the alienation which I imagine to be required to be seriously destructive anarchists. In his memoir, Peacock admits to their light destruction (the odd haphazard tossing of junk down happened-upon drill-holes, for instance.) Well, he would perhaps dissemble on such things. But there is one clue which (unless planted) is helpful: Peacock notes that:

As part of his research for the Monkey Wrench book, Abbey had purchased a lot of Army surplus gear, including a camouflage net….
Writing Monkey Wrench seems to have required play-acting.

Does this matter? It rather does. I am much less bothered by damage to property than I am by intimidation of (let alone damage to) persons. Still, I am pretty exercised by the fashionable view that formal representative democracy is defunct and that various forms of activism are all that's left. Actually, I hate it.

But fiction is fiction. I don't merely mean that we don't have to worry about the ethical premises of The Monkey Wrench gang because it's only a story. I mean that fiction gives us a heightened reality in which we are bound to be asked, and be willing, to bend our moral perspective. Watching The Soprano's on TV, I like and sympathise with Tony, whose real-life counterparts I would like to see gaoled – or dead. It's not even that we have to be de-sensitised to enjoy gangster movies: it's more that we think it great fun and perhaps important to occasionally bend our moral perspective through dozens of degrees.

Of course it is a standard trope in American writing that politics is just another commodity to be bought and sold. Carl Hiasson's thrillers deal with little else than the corruption which well-heeled plunderers (in his case, Florida's sugar, property and drugs barons) wreak on democracy. For the Monkey Wrench Gang, the conservation movement is either the plaything of serious political manipulators or simply wimpish, or both. Doubtless, Earth First! and plenty of others still feel this as the Bush administration sizes up the chances of getting at more of Alaska's oil.

It is perhaps not fair to concentrate on the living and brave Doug Peacock and his latest book only after dealing with his late friend's thirty year old work. But Peacock deliberately opts to be judged in Abbey's jetstream. His book is in large measure about his admiration and love for Abbey, though in some part it is about surviving the loss of his mentor. It features very prominently the event by which one fears Peacock will be defined: his twice-over illegal burial of the corpse of Abbey in the desert. His old friend had not been certified dead by a doctor, and people can't be buried on public land willy-nilly.

There is more to this memoir than that: Peacock does establish himself as a troubled planet in his own right, not merely as one orbiting Ed. He says:

My life was a catalogue of psychotic twitches and addictions.
His writing, to be honest, seems stylistically cloned from that of the Master. But you do see the reasons why Abbey might have been envious of Peacock. It is natural to admire men who have been in combat, and perhaps especially if they were warrior medics. It is natural to admire people who have lived close to grizzly bears. Walking It Off doesn't address the latter (but Peacock's earlier Grizzly Years, 1992, does). However, its words on his wartime experience are compelling: he notes the casual shooting of the obviously innocent, and describes being on the receiving end of his compatriots' fire. Like many of us, he worries that war now has elements of a video game. If he didn't keep reminding us of his obsession with Abbey, Peacock would emerge as a stronger figure in is own right. But it would still be a figure from whom one could have hoped for more aggressive reflection.

It isn't clear to me why nature is so redemptive for so many people, nor why - liking it – they are not more cheerfully grateful that their taste is so expensively gratified by modern societies. The issue I wish Peacock would address is this: isn't nature worship open to the challenge that it is merely escapist?

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world. He is also the editor of

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"What's more American than violence? ….It's as American as pizza pie."

The quotation is an allusion to an episode from the race riots of the 1960s.

"I say violence is necessary. It is as American as cherry pie."

H. Rap Brown, press conference (1967)

Brown (a/k/a Hubert Gerold Brown 1943-10-4 --) became notorious in the 1960s as the "Justice Minister" of the Black Panther Party.

He spent five years (1971-1976) in the Attica Prison after a robbery conviction. While in prison, Brown converted to Islam and changed his name to Jamil Abdullah al-Amin.

In 2002, he was found guilty of killing a Georgia sheriff's deputy, and wounding another officer in a gun battle at his store, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Pizza, of course, is, ironically, not American, it's Italian. Does the quote mean that violence is an Italian import?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 23, 2006 05:13 PM

The Enlightenment was great, better perhaps than the fanatical religion which proceeded it, but the world it gave us is not sustainable. Wanting nature lovers to stop their escapism isn't going to get us more drinking water nor the ability to provide food for all of us. It's having a functioning natural world which will do that.

Posted by: Nathan Brody at May 2, 2007 06:23 AM

Saw this, linked from and thought it applies here.
USA Today story, Re: Radical environmentalism

Posted by: G.W. Hayduke at October 18, 2007 10:07 PM

This is one of the best pieces of literary criticism I've read for ages.
I came away from it with my curiousity piqued and really, quite excited.
I'm unfamiliar with all these authors but on the strength of Richard D North's piece I'm going to read Krakeur, Harrison
and The Money Wrench Gang. Might see the Sean Penn film as well.
Many thanks.

Posted by: B Wood at November 27, 2007 10:02 AM

On the charge of escapism: I believe that "The Monkey Wrench Gang" is actually a reaction to the escapism of hippies and other liberals in the flower era. Such folks are criticized on multiple occasions in the book. The Gang tries to live a very active, engaged life. Any charge of escapism on the part of environmentalists can just as cheaply be returned to Western materialists. What are people working 80-hour weeks, trying to make it rich on the stock market, and purchasing houses and garages full of toys trying to get away from? What's at the beginning of the rat race that makes people run it? That has a smack of escapism to me...

Posted by: Ian R at December 15, 2007 09:47 PM
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