Is It Okay to Name a Moab Subdivision After Ed Abbey?

Is It Okay to Name a Moab Subdivision After Ed Abbey?

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Dear Sundog: Developers in Moab are building a subdivision named after Ed Abbey. They’re naming the cul-de-sacs Monkey Wrench Way and Hayduke Court. What a load of crap! Cactus Ed hated all real estate development in his beloved desert—and fought it his whole life. I’m sure he’s rolling in his grave, and I’m sure Hayduke would have blasted this place with dynamite. Wouldn’t it be right to at least go pull all the survey stakes and pour sugar in the bulldozer gas tanks? —Monkey Grinch

Dear Grinch: You’re right that Ed Abbey hated development and loved solitude. “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit,” he wrote in Desert Solitaire. “I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go.” His radical vision was not just for recreational parks—he wanted true wildness with no signs of humanity. But even as he railed against industrial capitalism, he didn’t actually want to go dwell in a cave and grow his own beans. He liked to drive to the edge of the wilderness in his Cadillac, drinking ice cold beer and tossing the cans to the shoulder, then stumble in a mile or so, see nobody, shoot guns, and go home the next day.

Sundog knows the sheer joy of such freedom, having emulated it for the better part of his youth. But as anyone who’s visited Moab in the past decade can attestwhen you get a weekend horde of 30,000 middle-aged men guzzling gas and booze, descending on the desert to do whatever the hell they please, the emptiness fills up quick. In the 50-plus years since Desert Solitaire, the economies of ranching and mining in southern Utah have effectively ended, replaced by the booming business of solitude, or rather, all the hotels, bars, cafes, grocery stores, and gear shops that get you to the brink of that solitude.

“We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope,” Abbey once wrote. “Without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”

Which is just a fancy way of saying we need to be wilderness tourists.The irony of Abbey’s legacy is that he devoted his entire literary career to preserving the arches and canyons just the way he found them, and yet his books have contributed to their ruin, drawing more seekers toward that vast nothingness than decades of redrock-porn produced by the Utah Office of Tourism.

While I agree that Abbey might cringe at the bespoke subdivision, I’d say it’s not an aberration, but rather the consequence of his great success. Who wouldn’t read his sublime words of ravens and awe, canyons and eternity, and not want to spend a week at the gate of rapture? When Abbey quipped that “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell,” he likely did not imagine that the next tumor would be his acolytes, rightly enticed by his version of the holy land.

No, Grinch, I don’t think monkey-wrenching the subdivision is the right path forward, and in the larger picture, clinging to Ed Abbey as an environmental saint is simply revisionist history. After all, who exactly was his unpopulated paradise for? On this point Abbey was clear: it was for white people. “Am I a racist?” he wrote in 1983. “I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals.” His proposed solution to the specter of a brown America? “Militarize our borders.” A few years later in the essay “Immigration and Liberal Taboos” he warned, “it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people.” What’s more, he argued, “the tendency of mass immigration from Mexico is to degrade and cheapen American life downward to the Hispanic standard. Anyone who has made a recent visit to Mexico, or even to Miami, Florida, knows what I mean.” He suggested that by sealing the southern border a “a force of 20,000, or ten men per mile, properly armed and equipped, would have no difficulty—short of a military attack—in keeping out unwelcome intruders.”

His solution to the crisis of the world’s booming population can be distilled to: birth control for brown people, awesome camp-outs for white people.

Abbey was no more tolerant of the people who inhabited his beloved canyons centuries before settlers like himself. Like so many Southwestern rugged types in boots and vests and bolo-ties, Abbey blew sentimental kisses to the indigenous people of yore. “I think I would have loved to have been an early 19th century Sioux or Arapahoe or Cheyenne,” he said in an interview, “part of that great, magnificent horse and buffalo way of life. It must have been one of the glories of human life.”

As for their modern-day descendants? Beyond breezily describing himself one night as “drunk as a Navajo,” Abbey blustered in Desert Solitaire that the typical Navajo “works when he feels like it and quits when he has enough money for a party or the down payment on a new pickup. He fulfills other obligations by getting his wife and kids installed securely on the public welfare rolls.”

Decades later in the New York Times Book Review, Abbey claimed falsely that “Navajos became official wards of the United States Government, gave up their horses for pickup trucks and learned to extract every possible kind of Federal benefit from rich, guilt-ridden Uncle Sam. Like many other Americans, the majority of the Navajos depend for daily sustenance on that stiff, green, monthly check.”

So much bullshit to wade through here! In fact Native Americans are not wards of the state (although their reservations are held in trust by the United States), and do not receive any sort of payment for being Indigenous. In 1996 15 percent of American Indians received Assistance to Families with Dependent Children (aka welfare), a far cry from a majority. Abbey twisted facts—or maybe just made them up—to prop up his hot take on the Indigenous as shiftless moochers. History teaches the opposite, that when it comes to theft, white people stole land, water, minerals and timber from the tribes.

Elsewhere in Desert Solitaire, Abbey describes recovering the corpses of two Native men who died in a car wreck. The car was littered with accoutrements of modernity such as cheap wine, cowboy shirts, and a True West magazine. He concludes: “Nowhere did we see any eagle feathers, any conchos of silver, any buffalo robes, any bows, arrows, medicine pouch or drums. Some Indians.”

The cruelty is withering: Abbey is a member of the society that stole land, broke treaties, massacred civilians, and abducted children to deprogramming camps, and as he surveys Indigenous bodies that survived the genocide only to die young in an accident, he sneers at them for having lost their traditions.

In dreaming of an Eden for whites, he did not imagine that the supposedly drunk Indians might rise up to protect the planet from mining, drilling, and pipelines. In southern Utah, white environmental groups failed for decades to persuade Congress to protect lands as wilderness, but after they joined forces with the five tribes of the Four Corners, President Obama created Bears Ears National Monument. Meanwhile on the Standing Rock Reservation it was Indigenous water protectors who galvanized a worldwide movement against oil pipelines, arguing not for pristine playgrounds but for racial justice and tribal sovereignty.

So let’s not cry for Ed Abbey—and don’t pretend he’s been betrayed. When white environmentalists wonder why they can’t build the kind of coalitions that delivered victories at Bears Ears and Standing Rock, look no farther than their cultish devotion to Abbey.

Meanwhile, Abbey Acres or whatever it will be called seems actually a fitting name. The past decade has forced America to finally reckon with places named after genocidal settlers and slaveholders from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to Sheridan, Wyoming. We’ve wrestled with–and changed–names that commemorate men we no longer admire. But in Abbey’s case there will be no need to re-evaluate. He dreamed of a land free from brown people where white people could play mountain man, and his name will grace the embodiment of his vision.

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