Alibi V.16 No.7 • Feb 15-21, 2007 

The Real Side

Flogging Abbey’s Ghost

The Monkey Wrench Gang heads to the big screen

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang is only three months away from movie production. After many fits and starts, the film will be made here in New Mexico and probably released next year. Hat tip to local blogger Coco for the news.

Catherine Hardwicke, who directed Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown and The Nativity Story, told Deseret News her film will be “a wild rumpus, an anarchist's romp, about people that care passionately about the land." At the same time, she compares The Monkey Wrench Gang to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary about global warming. “[Monkey Wrench] is going to be a rallying cry to shake people up to care about the land, the world and do something about this planet.”

A “wild rumpus” about people whose passions for wilderness push them over the edge sounds like fun. But The Monkey Wrench Gang as political and environmental inspiration is a really bad idea.

The alcohol- and testosterone-drenched antics in Monkey Wrench will definitely entertain theater audiences. But ultimately it is a sad story for anyone who cares about ground truth in environmental activism. Despite attacks on trains and construction equipment, the monkey wrenchers saved not one acre of wilderness. The anti-hero Hayduke rides off into countercultural mythology while the West continues to fill with people and roads. When you get beyond the book’s cheap thrills, you’ve got to wonder if it’s more about the four key characters wrestling with their own demons than it is about protecting wilderness.

Seeking inspiration from Edward Abbey is like taking health advice from someone who smokes. His life ended as sadly as his novel. The most thorough Abbey biographies, including one by his best friend, Jack Loeffler of Santa Fe, portray a man we should keep at arms length.

His personal life was a disaster. “Philanderer” is too antiseptic a term for his sexual excesses and the pain he caused his many wives and children. He died of esophageal varices. Translated, he drank himself to death. He succumbed to the same physiological consequences of chronic alcoholism that kill many Bowery bums.

From people who were very close to him, I’ve learned he fudged the factual premises of his nonfiction writing. His most famous work, Desert Solitaire, claims to recount his solitary life in Utah’s canyon lands. He was, in fact, living at the time with one of his wives and their child. His accounts of superhuman feats of wilderness adventure are hard to believe considering what his superhuman alcohol consumption was doing to his body.

Abbey had an unfortunate toxic effect on environmentalism. He provided rhetoric and theology for eco-terrorists. His verb “to monkey wrench” continues to describe the act of covertly destroying property judged harmful to the environment. A few impressionable kids will have time to thoroughly study all of Abbey’s writings as they grow old in federal prison for burning SUVs (insured and replaced) or torching ski resorts (quickly rebuilt).

Abbey wanted wilderness set aside for himself and his drinking buddies. He worshipped a “brutish mysticism” in nature. He helped drive a wedge between environmentalists and ranchers, and turned natural allies into enemies.

Hollywood won’t likely make a movie about how New Mexico’s Valle Vidal was saved, though it’s a truly heroic story. In an oil and gas state, during the Bush-Cheney administration, at a time of record fossil fuel prices, a coalition of ranchers, Boy Scouts, hunters, business people, conservationists, Democrats and Republicans put this area permanently off limits to energy development. It worked because Valle Vidal is used and loved by lots of people. It worked because the coalition avoided the weirdness and extremism with which Abbey had infected decades of environmental activism.

You could call the struggle to save Valle Vidal the Milagro Gas Field War. There’s more to learn from this saga than anything Abbey ever wrote.

It has taken 30 years for Abbey’s influence to fade. Many young activists know him only for his anti-immigrant reputation and have never read one of his books. We’re again hearing wilderness campaigns emphasize that land must be protected because it is a resource important to lots of people. Finally, we’re seeing hope for the large wilderness protection campaigns that were far more common before “monkey wrenching” forced itself into our vocabulary.

Abbey lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in Arizona. Once a year his best friend pours a beer on the soil covering his bones. Maybe Monkey Wrench will be a box office hit. That would be great for New Mexico’s film industry. But let’s hope the movie’s success leaves Cactus Ed where he is.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail