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