Essay by Dan Whipple
I never met Ed Abbey face to face, but I was twice the victim of his generosity. He also violated his one unbreakable rule on my behalf. What happened was this.
Edward Abbey needs no introduction. He is a legendary author, most famously of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its publication this year.
I do need an introduction, though. In the early 1980s, I was editor of High Country News, a regional environmental biweekly newspaper then published in Lander, Wyoming. HCN has since gone on to greater fame and fortune from its base in Paonia, Colorado, but without my assistance.
Anyway. Abbey had long been a friend and fan of HCN. Editor Bruce Hamilton visited Abbey at his home sometime in the mid-1970s and hung around with Ed, hiking and playing the penny whistle. Bruce wrote a charming story about it for the paper. (You can download a pdf of the HCN issue with the story.)
So in early 1983, I was HCN editor, running low on ideas. It occurred to me that maybe we could get some famous names to write for us, raise our visibility. We couldn’t pay them much — I think our rate then was 10 cents a word — but they would be doing a good deed, which they could chalk off against their time in Purgatory. I don’t think I pitched it exactly that way, but you get the idea. It’s like writing for a website in exchange for exposure.
So I sent letters to several writers whose work I admired. Garry Trudeau, for instance, the creator of Doonesbury, had just announced he was taking a sabbatical from the daily grind and wanted to try some different ventures. This is different, I reasoned.
I also wrote to The New Yorker’s John McPhee and to Peter Matthiessen, whose novel Far Tortuga I thought (and still think) to be one of the great works of fiction in English. And of course I wrote to Abbey. I asked each of them if they’d be willing to do a piece on a topic of their choosing to be featured in HCN. In return they’d be showered in glory.
These were, I knew, low percentage plays, but like I said, I was running out of ideas. Trudeau responded with a hand-written postcard — which I still have — saying he’d be unable to do anything for us, but wishing me luck. (Anybody want to buy a 1983 vintage postcard signed by Garry Trudeau?)
John McPhee wrote a nice letter saying he’d love to do something, but that it took him so long to write anything at all that he feared he’d never get around to it. I know just how he felt.
And Peter Matthiessen called me on the phone to say he couldn’t do it, but he appreciated my kind words about Far Tortuga. We had a brief collegial conversation.
In the wake of all this rejection came a large brown envelope from Edward Abbey, containing a typewritten, unpublished manuscript. The typescript had been produced on a manual typewriter — this was before computers and word processors. It was slashed through with revisions and margin notes in Abbey’s hand.
And it was awful.
As best I can recall, it was about an oil company tycoon who had a throne in his basement where he required all of his minions to bow down to him, kiss his ring, kind of a combination king and pope. If it was true, it was incredible but pointless. If it was satire it didn’t work.
Here I had an original piece by one of the West’s best and most famous writers, and I didn’t think I could use it. What to do, what to do? I did what any crusading environmental editor would do.
I shoved it in the upper right hand drawer of my desk and left it there. I couldn’t call Abbey and tell him his piece was awful. I couldn’t edit it. I was me, and he was Edward Abbey. Worse, it was a piece I’d asked him for and he’d responded graciously. Every once in awhile I’d take it out to reread to see if it was really as bad as I first thought and whether I could salvage it somehow. In my fading memory, the manuscript is in red ink, though this can’t be true. Can it?
There things stood until, in September of that year, I got married, left HCN. The publication packed up and moved to its present HQ in Paonia, Colorado. Presumably somewhere in the musty archives from the Wyoming era is this undiscovered Edward Abbey manuscript awaiting the Eureka! moment of some literary archaeologist.
But for Abbey’s reputation, it’s best left buried. Trust me.
In 1984, former HCN writer Don Snow and I started a publication called Northern Lights, in Missoula, Montana. Northern Lights was a public policy and literary publication covering the northern Rocky Mountain states — kind of a Harper’s magazine for the Rockies.
We had better luck attracting high profile writers for Northern Lights than I’d had at HCN. Over the course of my tenure there, we published William Kittredge, Annick Smith, Rick DeMarinis, Ellen Meloy, Geoff O’Gara, Mark Spragg, Terry Tempest Williams and many others.
But the hardest part about starting a publication is not attracting writers. It’s selling subscriptions. This was the pre-social media era, so the most effective way to sell subs was direct mail. We sent complimentary copies of Northern Lights to various mailing lists and we got a very good return, considering. The usual return on direct mail was between 1 percent and 2 percent. We were getting 4 percent to 5 percent. But still we needed something that would make a splash.
Knowing no shame — his earlier submission now fossilized by the ineluctable forces of nature — I wrote to Abbey asking him if he had anything we could use.
Now you might think Abbey would be justified in telling me to conduct some anatomically unlikely contortion. And you would be right. At a minimum, “Why don’t you just use the piece I sent you earlier?”
But he didn’t. Almost immediately he sent me another piece. He wrote in an accompanying note that he had done it for The New Yorker. They had paid him for it, but they weren’t going to use it. So we could have it gratis.
And it was terrific. Sharp, intelligent, funny. And — even better — it was about cows and cowboys. It just so happened we had a theme issue on cows and cowboys coming up that month.
Abbey intended to be provocative, and he was. Cattle should be removed from western public lands, he wrote, because we don’t need them and they’re doing a lot of damage. “Our public lands are infested with domestic cattle,” he wrote in one of several inflammatory passages. “Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the the American West, you will find herds — herds — of these ugly, clumsy, shambling, stupid, bawling, bellowing, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague.”
The only thing worse than the cows were the cowboys: “Cowboys, themselves, are greatly overrated. Consider the nature of their work. Suppose you had to spend most of your working hours sitting on a horse, contemplating the hind end of a cow. How would that affect your imagination?”
There was a lot more of this sort of thing, a hilarious, wildly logical condemnation of the western cattle industry.
We sent this issue out as a sampling lure to a large mailing list. Ten percent of the people we sent it to paid for a subscription to Northern Lights, a phenomenal return that pretty much insured the publication’s survival, at least for a few years. Maybe they were enchanted by Allan Savory’s counterbalancing rest-rotation grazing piece Holism and health of the commons.
But I doubt it.
Northern Lights came out every two months, so the final act played out in slow motion. First, we got some letters, not all of which were flattering. Cowgirl writer Gretel Ehrlich wrote, “A lot of us were appalled by what Abbey said. What’s the sense of printing something so arrogant, incoherent, flippant and nonsensical? Just to use the famous name? That’s bullshit.”
In train with Ehrlich, my failures as an editor were much commented upon. Former rancher Jake Kittle jumped on the bullshit bandwagon, writing, “Ed Abbey has written as irresponsible a piece of bullshit as I’ve ever seen in print on any subject … I think you made a bad mistake in including it.”
And C.R. McElligott of Ione, Oregon, along with a few others, thought the editor — that would be me — had neglected his duties. “You ought to edit Mr. Abbey or clearly label his work as fiction … To hint that Vermont produced more beef than Montana is utter nonsense. Montana is ahead on cattle numbers approximately seven-to-one … The rest of his essay maintains the same high level of believability.”
And so on.
In the next issue — this is four months after his piece first appeared — Abbey broke his cardinal rule to defend himself and, by extension, me. In a letter to the editor, Abbey wrote, “None of these imperfections can be blamed on the editor of Northern Lights; author Abbey was a given a chance to proofread the galleys … but never got around to it.
“Although my official policy is NEVER APOLOGIZE, NEVER EXPLAIN [shouting is in the original], I will make an exception to the rule this one time and hereby humbly apologize for the generally meek, mild, temporizing tone of my address … Why? Because in returning to Arizona, I learned that agents of the U.S. Forest Service (‘our’ public servants) are planning to spray some kind of Union Carbide poison on several thousand acres of mesquite in order to temporarily benefit three or four beef ranchers … Is there no limit to the greed, arrogance and stupidity of the livestock industry? No: there is not.”
Ed Abbey died too young in 1989, the question of abuse of public lands by the cattle industry unresolved. We had no further communication, which probably worked out best for both of us.
But in January 1986, Harper’s magazine — which is kind of a Northern Lights for the eastern seaboard — published a version of the same piece we had run titled, Even the Bad Guys Wear White Hats.
Harper’s left out a lot of the rambling opening of the piece, which I thought had given it a lot of its charm. One of our readers was kind enough to write to me to say he was a little puzzled by this, but that he thought the Harper’s version was “better edited.”
Thanks a lot.
— Dan Whipple is a writer living in Colorado. He is at work on a novel. Sometimes.
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