Wit and Wisdom in ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’

The cover art of Edward Abbey's book "The Monkey Wrench Gang"Per a friend’s recommendation I read Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang this year. The novel follows four unlikely companions who– angered by the destruction of their beloved southwestern American desert by ever-expanding industry– turn to sabotage.

The gang is comprised of the wise and eloquent Doc Sarvis, the strong-willed Bonnie Abbzug, the “incorrigibly bucolic” Seldom Seen Smith, and the brutish, testosteronic Vietnam vet: George Hayduke. These characters come from diverse backgrounds, but are unified in the conviction that no one has a right to destroy the the impeccable and essential wilderness they cherish.

So they disassemble bulldozers, they blow up assembly lines, they uproot survey stakes… you know… eco-terrorist stuff. They come together to strike back against the oil companies, coal companies, and mining companies destructively extending their greedy paws into the pristine desert of the American southwest.

Entertaining and artfully constructed, the book challenges the assumption that permanent growth is both desirable and necessary, which seems to be largely ingrained into the American psyche. Though Abbey’s writing is often confusingly scattered and alarmingly opinionated, it is also excellent. Abbey unleashes an impressive vocabulary– often bending obscure words into unlikely contexts, in a way I find beautiful and exciting– and presents many deep and compelling thoughts.

Here are some examples of the wit and wisdom exhibited in The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Seldom Seen Smith on the value of nature of civilization:

River, rock, sun, blood, hunger, wings, joy—this is the real, Smith would have said, if he’d wanted to. If he felt like it. All the rest is androgynous theosophy. All the rest is transcendental transvestite transactional scientology or whatever the fad of the day, the vogue of the week. As Doc would’ve said, if Smith had asked him. Ask the hawk. Ask the hungry lion lunging at the starving doe. They know.

Doc Sarvis on “The plastic dome” and civilization:

“The anthill,” said Doc, “is sign, symbol and symptom of what we are about out here, stumbling through the gloaming like so many stumblebums. I mean it is the model in microcosm of what we must find a way to oppose and halt. The anthill, like the Fullerian foam fungus, is the mark of social disease. Anthills abound where overgrazing prevails. The plastic dome follows the plague of runaway industrialism, prefigures technological tyranny and reveals the true quality of our lives, which sinks in inverse ratio to the growth of the Gross National Product.”

Doc Sarvis on cars (while driving):

“Look at this traffic,” he said. “Look at them, rolling along on their rubber tires in their two-ton entropy cars polluting the air we breathe, raping the earth to give their fat indolent rump-sprung American asses a free ride. Six percent of the world’s population gulping down forty percent of the world’s oil. Hogs!” he bellowed, shaking his huge fist at the passing motorists.

“What about us?” [Bonnie] said.

“That’s who I’m talking about.”

Doc Sarvis on Progress/ Industrialization:

The doctor was thinking: All this fantastic effort—giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belt, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred-million-dollar coal-burning power plant; ten thousand miles of high-tension towers and high-voltage power lines; the devastation of the landscape, the destruction of Indian homes and Indian grazing lands, Indian shrines and Indian burial grounds; the poisoning of the last big clean-air reservoir in the forty-eight contiguous United States, the exhaustion of precious water supplies—all that ball-breaking labor and all that backbreaking expense and all that heartbreaking insult to land and sky and human heart, for what? All that for what? Why, to light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built, to run the air conditioners of San Diego and Los Angeles, to illuminate shopping-center parking lots at two in the morning, to power aluminum plants, magnesium plants, vinyl-chloride factories and copper smelters, to charge the neon tubing that makes the meaning (all the meaning there is) of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake City, the amalgamated metropoli of southern California, to keep alive that phosphorescent putrefying glory (all the glory there is left) called Down Town, Night Time, Wonderville, U.S.A.

Doc Sarvis on clear-cutting:

In clear-cutting, he said, you clear away the natural forest, or what the industrial forester calls “weed trees,” and plant all one species of tree in neat straight functional rows like corn, sorghum, sugar beets or any other practical farm crop. You then dump on chemical fertilizers to replace the washed-away humus, inject the seedlings with growth-forcing hormones, surround your plot with deer repellants and raise a uniform crop of trees, all identical. When the trees reach a certain prespecified height (not maturity; that takes too long) you send in a fleet of tree-harvesting machines and cut the fuckers down. All of them. Then burn the slash, and harrow, seed, fertilize all over again, round and round and round again, faster and faster and tighter and tighter until, like the fabled Malaysian Concentric Bird which flies in ever-smaller circles, you disappear up your own asshole.

Seldom Seen Smith on the dawn of agriculture:

“Never did have much use for farmers,” Smith goes on. (Trudge trudge.) “And that includes melon growers. Before farming was invented we was all hunters or stockmen. We lived in the open, and every man had at least ten square miles all his own. Then they went and invented agriculture and the human race took a big step backwards. From hunters and ranchers down to farmers, that was one hell of a Fall. And even worse to come. No wonder Cain murdered that tomato picker Abel. The sonofabitch had it coming for what he done.”

Hayduke on eco-terrorism:

Hayduke bellows into the roaring wind (for the jeep’s rag top is down), and he blinks, trying to remember Jefferson’s words, “eternal hostility against every fucking form of tyranny”—getting it slightly wrong but absolutely right—“over the life of man.”

Finally, Doc explaining to Smith why he fights the eco fight:

“Doc, I don’t mind saying I kind of wonder about you too. You’re older than the rest of us and a hell of a sight richer, and—you’re a doctor. Doctors aren’t supposed to act like you act.”

Doc Sarvis’s turn to reflect. Reflecting, he said, “Don’t step on the Cryptantha. Spiny little bugger.” He stooped for a better look. “Arizonica?

“Arizonica,” said Smith. They strolled on.

“But about your question: it’s seeing too much insulted tissue under the microscope. All those primitive blood cells multiplying like a plague. Platelets eaten up. Young men and women in the flower of their youth, like Hayduke there, or Bonnie, bleeding to death without a wound. Acute leukemia on the rise. Lung cancer. I think the evil is in the food, in the noise, in the crowding, in the stress, in the water, in the air. I’ve seen too much of it, Seldom. And it’s going to get a lot worse, if we let them carry out their plans. That’s why.”

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