Find­ing Abbey by Sean Pren­tiss, Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press, 230 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Adele Oliv­era

When the en­vi­ron­men­tal writer and ac­tivist Ed­ward Abbey died in 1989, he left spe­cific in­struc­tions for his friends re­gard­ing his burial. He dic­tated that his fi­nal rest­ing place be a hid­den grave deep in the desert, far from the reach of civ­i­liza­tion. Be­fore the au­thor­i­ties or the press learned that Abbey was dead, his friends wrapped his body in his blue sleep­ing bag and packed it with dry ice, placed the bun­dle in the flatbed of a pickup truck, and drove to a re­mote lo­ca­tion in the desert out­side Tucson. There, they car­ried his body away from the road and laid him un­der­neath a stone that reads, “No Com­ment.” The ex­act lo­ca­tion of the gravesite is un­known to all but Abbey’s fam­ily and clos­est friends.

Abbey was known for his rad­i­cal, an­ar­chis­tic ap­proach to con­ser­va­tion. Born in ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia, he hitch­hiked west as a young man in the 1940s and spent much of the rest of his life living in the South­west. He re­ceived a BA and an MA from the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico and lived all over the re­gion, in­clud­ing stints in Santa Fe, Arches Na­tional Park in Utah, and Tucson, where he died. Abbey’s meth­ods and many of his opin­ions are still con­tro­ver­sial; for in­stance, he en­gaged in “mon­key­wrench­ing,” or sab­o­tage as protest — like fill­ing a bull­dozer’s tank with sand at the site of a pro­posed strip mine, or blow­ing up bridges and dams. A staunch ad­vo­cate for pop­u­la­tion con­trol (de­spite fa­ther­ing five chil­dren), his views on im­mi­gra­tion and eth­nic mi­nori­ties are rightly crit­i­cized as racist.

But for many con­tem­po­rary en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, Abbey is a sem­i­nal fig­ure whose writ­ings on preser­va­tion and sus­tain­abil­ity, es­pe­cially in the South­west, still guide the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ver­sa­tion to­day. It helps that Abbey was ar­tic­u­late and multi-tal­ented: he was both a per­sua­sive polemi­cist and a gifted lyri­cist. Though Abbey re­sisted the la­bel of “na­ture writer,” his writ­ing about the West is un­de­ni­ably ro­man­tic, and res­onates with many who love the desert. In his 1968 es­say col­lec­tion, Desert Soli­taire: A Sea­son in the Wilder­ness, Abbey writes: “The fire. The odor of burning ju­niper is the sweet­est fragrance on the face of the earth, in my hon­est judg­ment; I doubt if all the smok­ing censers of Dante’s par­adise could equal it. One breath of ju­niper smoke, like the per­fume of sage­brush af­ter rain, evokes in mag­i­cal catal­y­sis, like cer­tain mu­sic, the space and light and clar­ity and pierc­ing strange­ness of the Amer­i­can West. Long may it burn.”

Find­ing Abbey , a new book by Sean Pren­tiss, a writ­ing pro­fes­sor at Nor­wich Uni­ver­sity in Ver­mont, is the story of Pren­tiss’ search for Abbey’s desert grave and a per­sonal jour­ney. “Through Abbey, I found a mytho­log­i­cal ver­sion of the West, and a new, more com­plete ver­sion of my­self,” Pren­tiss writes. While the book in­cludes in­ter­views with Abbey’s old friends, in­clud­ing Jack Lo­ef­fler and Doug Pea­cock, too much of Find­ing

Abbey is about Pren­tiss him­self, and thus reads as con­fes­sional mem­oir. When the book opens on the tail end of the Great Re­ces­sion, Pren­tiss is em­ployed as a pro­fes­sor and owns a house in Grand Rapids and a cabin in Colorado, where he spends sum­mers.

For much of the time, Pren­tiss rails against his life in the city, call­ing on tired tropes like his mind­less com­mute and — a fate worse than death — watch­ing sit­coms in the evening. He’s in his late thir­ties and un­hap­pily un­mar­ried. Much of the thrust of the first three-quar­ters of the book is sum­ma­rized by Pren­tiss thusly: “[T]his search for Abbey’s grave is about much more than just Abbey’s grave. It’s a search for an­swers to nag­ging ques­tions: Will I stay in Grand Rapids, in the trap of the city, or will I build up the courage to move to the moun­tains? Or is mov­ing to the moun­tains ac­tu­ally run­ning? Run­ning from place to place, never set­tling down? Run­ning from re­la­tion­ships? Run­ning from com­mit­ment to a job, to adult­hood?”

Though Pren­tiss’ pas­sion for Abbey and the West is pal­pa­ble, he doesn’t en­gage with Abbey’s more dif­fi­cult ideas un­til the last quar­ter of the book, and in many cases, he merely dances on the edges of th­ese big con­cepts. Pren­tiss ac­knowl­edges, for in­stance, that his per­sonal pol­i­tics take a nu­anced view of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, one that con­sid­ers the le­gacy of colo­nial­ism and the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal pres­sures of glob­al­iza­tion, while Abbey ad­vo­cated build­ing an im­pen­e­tra­ble wall across the Mex­i­can bor­der. But Pren­tiss merely notes th­ese po­si­tions; he does not ex­am­ine what it means to be a stu­dent of Abbey’s but also to op­pose him in cer­tain fun­da­men­tal philoso­phies.

In Find­ing Abbey’s fi­nal chap­ters, Pren­tiss searches the desert for two days with his best friend, Haus (a wel­come pres­ence), camp­ing and look­ing for Abbey’s grave. In this last sec­tion, Pren­tiss loses the solip­sism, and his dia­logue with Haus reads like the be­gin­ning of a search for Abbey, not its con­clu­sion. More than any­thing, th­ese threads of con­ver­sa­tion serve as an im­pe­tus for the reader to go straight to the source, and find Abbey.

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