Monday, January 13, 2014

Kati Standefer Has An Edward Abbey Problem

I have an Edward Abbey problem.
Which is to say: Ed makes people I like angry. Ed makes my students angry. Ed sometimes makes me angry. But I like him. I own everything he’s ever written, with the exception of Jonathan Troy.

Over the years, I’ve gotten good at shrugging: When my spitfire environmental justice professor said, “What a misogynist. I got snowed in with that guy in a cabin one Christmas and it was hell.” (Well.) When my activist friends say, “He’s a little extreme.” (Well yes but.) When I read, “In everything but brains and brawn, women are vastly superior to men.” (Um. Ed!)

I admit I slept with a man on the first date after he wiggled his beautiful arm out of a flannel shirt to show me the monkey wrench tattooed on his shoulder. (My tribe!) And I’ve danced with Doug Peacock, Abbey’s real-life model for George Hayduke, which may be as close to Ed as a girl can get these days.

What is it about the guy? I can’t give him up.

“If there’s anyone still present whom I’ve failed to insult, I apologize.” (One Life At A Time, Please)

When I teach Ed, some of my students whip into a frenzy. “Um…Okay,” one student wrote this fall. “This guy hasn’t the slightest clue about how the world works and now he just sounds ridiculous. If people thought like him, we’d still be wearing loin cloths (sic). It isn’t the fault of the rich that this guy’s contribution to society isn’t valuable enough to warrant a high income.” (Ouch.)

Another: “What I do hate is environmentalists who act righteous, like their opinions are the best things since sliced bread but are just as selfish and self-oriented as the people they aim to destroy.” (emphasis student’s)

During these class periods, I stand before my students with a funny half-smile screwed to my face, redirecting the conversation back, again and again, to his craft. “Why do you think he chose to use language like this to make his point?” I ask. “What about the structure? How else could he have written this essay?” Students get angry, sure. But craft is a trump card. If they can ignore Ed’s ire over paved roads and transmission towers long enough (if he’d seen their iPhones!), they wind up admitting—somewhat bitterly—that he is a very good writer. In “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” they feel tricked by his humor (“These hard-working fellows whom I wish to praise are trying to get drunk on three-point-two! They rise somewhat heavily from their chairs and barstools and tramp, with frequency and a squelchy, sodden noise, toward the pissoirs at the back of the room, more waterlogged than intoxicated”). They want to have hated him the whole time, and not just when he suggests we stop heavily accommodating the elderly within National Parks (“…after all, they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled”).

A few students, of course, raise their hands shyly. He got it, they say. He captured something; he said something that felt true, and they’re still thinking about it. They’ll be reading Abbey again, tracking down more of him. I ride my bike home smiling. (My tribe!)

“Belief? What do I believe in? I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. I believe in blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos, and broom-tailed horses…” (Vox Clamantis En Deserto)

The first time I heard Ed’s name, I was crouching over a Whisperlite stove in the scraggly Wyoming Range, not far from the banks of Lake Alice. “Monkey Wrench, definitely,” the instructor of my month-long Leadership Course said, carefully running his pocketknife across a block of melted-and-re-melted cheese.

Our leader-in-training shook his head. “Desert Solitaire!” he said, journal in his lap. “Think of how many more people his nonfiction reaches. It’s sharper.”

This was 2002. Ed had been dead thirteen years. I was seventeen and depressed about living in suburban Illinois eleven months out of the year. Though I didn’t have an opinion as to which was the more important book, I wanted to. For the last three years, I’d spent winters saving money—babysitting and mowing lawns, selling outdoor gear, swabbing desks and emptying the trash in a cigarette-smelling office building on Sundays—in order to spend July in Wyoming or Alaska, sleeping on frosted ground under bone-shard stars. This Abbey guy: he sounded like he was for me. I scrawled Abbey’s name in my journal (alongside Aldo Leopold’s), and when I arrived home at the end of July I began to track down the books. Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang were easy. Later, I leaned over the Special Orders desk at the Borders Bookstore not far from my high school, waiting to hear what they could get me. The Brave Cowboy. The Journey Home. Good News. Whenever I traveled, I ducked inside bookstores and went straight to the As: not only did they have Abbey, but which ones? I needed more Edward Abbey, all the time.

“For the first time in nearly two days and nights he felt himself to be a whole and living creature, a man again and not a derelict stumbling through a mechanical world he could not understand.” (The Brave Cowboy)

I loved Ed because I hurt for place. This is to say, Chicagoland in the eighties and nineties was rocking swiftly toward carrying capacity. In the middle years of my childhood, the last marshes were bought up and paved, tangled woods turned into McMansions. Old barns were stranded inside long lines of cheaply-made tract homes. My own subdivision, built on farmland in the ‘60s, became flanked by strip malls and parking lots, every inch of landscape managed and controlled, trimmed, weeded, brightened, cut to ninety-degree angles. Nothing wild, it seemed, could live. On the rare occasions I was reminded what this ecosystem would have been, seams of grief opened inside me.

In the damp Midwestern dark, the interminable winter, a loud voice seemed necessary. Hostility—or anger, even, if it might wake someone up. Yes: I was angry. I remember standing in my parents’ kitchen at fifteen, staring at the sink. A long-necked faucet. A square stainless-steel basin. A tiny label marking the brand: Kohler. “What did they do to the river?” I remember crying aloud in the kitchen. “What was wrong with the river?”

In Ed’s work, I felt all of my own desperation, my urgency. Abbey’s books burned in my hands, but in a good way, like leaning too close to the fire on a cold night, allaying my sense that I spoke into a vacuum. I appeared like a ghost, five days a week, in the hallways of high school, where no one was bemoaning faucets. At best, friends could embrace my weirdnesses, but I found no one for whom ecological dissociation was so acutely painful. My senior year, I’d lace on my hiking boots on winter nights and walk to the end of the street, where bulldozers were turning a pumpkin farm into an Aldi parking lot. I’d grip the chainlink in my hands and spit Ed’s words: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.” No one around there needed another grocery store. I’d wish I had more of a spine: to scale the fence, to wreck the ‘dozer, to be, like my Abbey-penned heroes, an eco-warrior. To introduce even the slightest kink into the growth machine.

“In the cabin at midnight, by the soft light of the lantern, he writes the letters that he should have written years before. Burns them. The fire mutters in the stove, the wind pours through the forest outside, moaning in the pine trees, shaking the dry dead yellow leaves of the aspens. The sound of many rivers. The sound of falls. The sound of human voices. Under the old moon deer pass like phantoms through the clearing. Dead limbs of a pine grate against one another, the noise like a groan of pain, and the deer pause for a moment to listen.”
(Black Sun)

Later, when I began working in conservation, I sometimes flinched at Ed’s tone, at his off-color barbs. I began to suspect that black and white statements were rarely helpful; I found his comments on cattle grazing and immigration in need of some updating. And yet when I slide his books off my shelf these days to read a passage or two, I’m more likely to hit a description of the gleam of rain on slickrock than an angry tirade. Perhaps one reason Abbey has so endured is simply the quality of his prose: clean, fierce sentences, laid out easily. His sentences contain the economy of the places he loved best, never cluttered and always rich.

I live in Tucson now, and I’ve never stopped thinking of it as Abbey’s country, from here all the way up to where the Wasatch sprouts in Utah, every devilishly-hot canyon, every slickrock spread, every patch of ugly, open dirt. His anger was right for me, and so, later, was his love. Creosote. Juniper. The touch of a man. Misogynist or not, the guy wrote the hell out of sex, and wrote the hell out of open country—the two things I like best. The kind of human I try to be.

So I keep him.


Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Arizona, where she teaches creative writing and composition. She lives in a little orange house with saltillo tile floors and a yard full of birds. A recent UA Foundation Award recipient, she is working on a book-length work on the body, consent, and medical technology.

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