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Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Abbey came west to attend the University of New Mexico on the G.I. Bill. His natural inclination toward anarchism led him to study philosophy, but after earning an M.A. he rejected academic life and worked off and on for years as a backcountry ranger and fire lookout around the Southwest.
His 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy launched his literary career, and by the 1970s he was recognized as an important, uniquely American voice. Abbey used his talents to protest against the mining and development of the American West. By the time of his death he had become an idol to environmentalists, writers, and free spirits all over the West.
Edward Abbey was born in the tiny village of Home, Pennsylvania, on January 29, 1927—born into a heritage that had already tapped roots into Appalachia.
His paternal grandfather, Johann Aebi, emigrated from Switzerland in 1869 at the age of nineteen. Herr Aebi had received his formal education in a French academy, where he learned English, French, and German. He was also fluent in several Swiss dialects. When he arrived in the United States, he changed the spelling of his last name to Abbey.
Johann Abbey began life in the New World as a Pennsylvania coal miner but soon turned to farming. He met and married Eleanor Jane Ostrander, and together they had eleven children. Johann Abbey was a tall, powerful man who, even in his sixties, could "shoulder two bushels of wheat from the ground while standing on a bushel measure." He played both the flute and organ, and sang and yodeled. He was avidly interested in natural history and seemed "to know everything about trees and plants, animals, birds, bugs and bees." He never went to church, although he read from the German Bible.
One day Johann Abbey read a newspaper notice advertising for an experienced farmer to assume responsibility for five hundred acres of cultivated land in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, to try a hand at experimental farming. He applied for the job, and soon the whole family as well as the pigs, chickens, and other livestock moved northeast from the banks of the Monongahela River to the farm near Creekside, Pennsylvania. He farmed successfully for several years, but as his sons grew tomanhood and left home, Johann found five hundred acres to be too much to handle. He bought a smaller farm of 140 acres, and it was there that his wife, Eleanor, died in June 1926. Johann fell prey to the relentless pain of kidney stones and, five years later, died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-one.
Paul Revere Abbey, the youngest of the eleven Abbey children, was born on February 11, 1901. He was attracted by the woods around the farm and remained a woodsman his entire life. His mother, Eleanor, loved to both read and write poetry.
Paul grew up in a self-sufficient family. Eleanor Abbey was a fine seamstress, crafting clothes for all the family, knitting stockings, socks, gloves, and caps and making beautiful quilts. When she was a girl, she had worked for a wealthy family and learned the art of cooking. "It makes me drool to think of her baked roe shad, oysters, turkey stuffing, johnny bull pudding, and caramel cake," recalled her daughter Ida.
Saturday was baking day, when she baked a dozen loaves of bread, fancy rolls, six or more pies, and a couple of cakes. We always had fruit and vegetables, which Mother canned by the gallons, and jelly, jam, and preserves. When Dad butchered, she made lard, sausage, headcheese, and many other things. Nothing was wasted—even the pig's feet, which were pickled, and liverwurst made from liver. Mother raised chickens under the old hens and took care of the milk, which we girls milked. It was kept in large crocks in troughs in the springhouse, and the cream skimmed when it rose. It was churned in a dasher churn for butter.
Eleanor Abbey was a strict Methodist and believed implicitly in the Bible. She allowed neither liquor nor playing cards in her home. Her youngest son, Paul, was shaped in part by this homely milieu and in part by his sensitivity to the flow of Nature. His sister Ida remembered him as a lumberman, naturalist, and rock hound. Paul Abbey was also afflicted with wanderlust and first left home when he was only sixteen years old. For seven years he traveled the country from one end to the other, fascinated by everything he encountered.
He made his first trip west at the age of nineteen and was spellbound by the high desert country west of the hundredth meridian, where the sense of space was boundless. He traveled through the South and encountered the Ku Klux Klan, who inveigled him into their fold until he discovered that their spirit of rebellion was dark with hatred for the Negro, the Jew, the Catholic. After hearing and meeting Eugene Debs in Youngstown, Ohio, he thought of himself as a Socialist.
In 1925 Paul Abbey married Mildred Postelwaite, whose family was highly regarded in Indiana County. A year and a half later Mildred gave birth to Edward "Ned" Abbey, the first of their five children. In 1928 Howard ("Hoots") was born, and a third son, John, was born in 1930. With three small children and the country in a depression, Paul Abbey was called upon to look for work wherever he could. The look of hard times carved the countenance of many a head of household across the nation.
Paul Abbey was a crack shot and a good salesman. He used these characteristics in pursuit of an adventure that took his growing family through much of Pennsylvania and into New Jersey during the summer of 1931. With a squad of National Guardsmen who were all expert riflemen, the Abbey family followed a trail of marksmanship quite literally, since many roads were as yet unpaved. In spite of the depression the Abbey family spirit of adventure ran high. Paul sold nameplates and other sundries along the road to provide the money necessary for survival. Paul, Mildred, Ned, Hoots, and Johnny lived in a tent that summer. In contests of marksmanship Paul's keen eye and steady hand ranked him as one of the best shots in Pennsylvania.
Mildred Abbey tended her three young sons as they traveled generally eastward, camping each night, cooking over campfires, hauling water from nearby springs, relishing the daily foray into the unknown, content to live in the present, trusting in their collective will to survive.
Mildred kept a journal that gives a vivid account of that time:
The first big storm hit us last night. Thunder and lightning and wind! Ned and Hootsie had gone to sleep and I took J.C. [the baby] and crawled into the car while Paul did what he could to make the tent windproof. Then he got into the car, too and stayed until the storm abated. And how it stormed! This morning there was a big dead limb on the ground outside, which, if it had hit the car would have ruined us and our outfit. But we didn't even hear it fall and were probably sitting blissfully in the car, eating Ida's candy and laughing at the storm when it happened....
The grass is thick and green and short. We get our drinking water about a hundred yards down the road. Paul dug out a spring right here in the orchard and Hootsie threw stones in it a few minutes ago so it's quite muddy now. He also emptied my vinegar bottle into an old tin pail to make "mayonnaise"; threw mud into our "refrigerator" on top of the butter; spilled water around in a lot of places where I didn't want it, etc. Some boy! Ned isn't nearly so mischievous as Hootsie but he's such a little grouch that strangers decide that he is the worst of the two.
Later that summer of 1931, Johann Abbey died. As the depression wore on, Paul Abbey took a job selling subscriptions to the Pennsylvania Farmer.
"We had sixty-seven acres here," he recalled.
I sold ten acres of it to that fellow up on the hill. We had real good bottomland. The last tomatoes I raised, I filled up seven bushel baskets with nice rounded tomatoes. Took 'em to town and sold 'em for seventy-five cents a bushel. At the same time, I was selling the Pennsylvania Farmer magazine. By the time I had those tomatoes loaded in the baskets clean and nice and sold for .75 cents a bushel, I'd go off on my subscription route for the Pennsylvania Farmer. I'd go to people's farms to tell them when their subscriptions had run out. And by that evening, I'd made another five dollars. So I didn't plant any more tomatoes.
I raised the family with the Pennsylvania Farmer through the depression. And it was a depression. I really sold the Pennsylvania Farmer. I made money selling it. I didn't argue with anybody. If someone didn't want it, I went to the next guy. That's all there was to it. They all knew the paper. It had been in circulation for years. I worked the panhandle counties down in West Virginia. They hadn't been worked for a good while but all the farmers knew the paper. I would stay down there for maybe a couple weeks at a time. Twenty-five—thirty dollars a day.
When the Great Depression was followed by World War II in 1941, Paul and Mildred Abbey bought a farm of 120 acres and a seventy-five-year-old farmhouse on Red Dog Road near Home. Their family had grown by two more children, their daughter Nancy and their son William Tell Abbey. Paul Abbey worked the land to support the seven Abbeys.
We raised tobacco down here one year. Nancy and I planted vegetables and they all grew. We learned how to plant without stooping. I would walk along and punch the soil with my heel and Nancy would follow along and drop in the seeds. Billy would shovel a little dirt on top. Nancy would go down every day and squash all the bugs on the beans.
I trapped all up and down this stream. I had 140 traps set one year. I'd get muskrat, mainly. Skunk. Possum. Coon. I'd get a fox, occasionally. Mink.
The farm greatly influenced young Edward Abbey. His body was strong and well-knit and his curiosity profound. He learned to read by the age of four and thereafter read incessantly. His sister, Nancy, recalls his cunning:
There was an orchard up there on the other side of Red Dog Road where Ed would escape when work was to be done. He'd go up into the trees and read. Our dad swears that he knew that Ed was up there. One time, Dad was working in the strawberry patch up there. Dad said, "Ned will you go get me a hoe?" Ed said, "Where is it?" And Dad said, "You mean to tell me you've lived on this farm all these years and you don't know where we keep the hoes?" Ed said, "Yes, and I'm proud of it."
Paul Abbey was a handsome man, tall with penetrating eyes. More than one Appalachian lass looked on this outspoken rebel with favor. And more than one neighbor was put off by his politics. Little by little, Mildred Abbey grew embittered by the hardship imposed by his lifestyle of socialist self-sufficiency. There was rarely meat on the table, and that came mostly from hunted squirrels and rabbits.
She responded gracefully, tapping into her personal reserves of energy and imbuing all her children with a sense of her will. She was as devout a Presbyterian as her husband was not, and while she didn't demand Christian faith of her children, she insisted that they comport themselves according to her own spirit of morality and ethics. This tiny woman was loved and respected by all and year after year inspired not only her own family but also the members of her community with her wit and perseverance, her sense of duty to the common good, her wisdom. Generations of Presbyterians in Home, Pennsylvania, were moved by her musical talents as she directed the church choir and played the church organ. Abbey's taste in music was shaped by falling asleep as a child listening to his mother play the music of Mozart or Bach or Handel.
Ned lorded his intellect over his younger brother Hoots, and their rivalry seemed endless. Because they were closest in age and strong as young stallions, they fought, argued, and competed. While Ned may have had a modest edge intellectually, Hoots was tougher. Both were fearless. In their myriad fights, Hoots generally emerged victorious. He recalled that Ned was a faster runner, and when the chips were down, their blood ran thick. Ned would never back down.
One time Ned and I were going to high school in Indiana, just walking down the street. We were about to cross the street where we had the right-of-way and this car pulled up with the hood right across the crosswalk. I started to walk around the front of it and Ned, with his big long legs, just stepped up on the hood and walked across the hood and down the other side. He didn't even look back. Nobody said anything. It just took everybody by surprise.
He would do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. He didn't like policemen. I know that.
Hoots reiterated the tremendous political influence Paul Abbey held over his children.
Dad was a socialist, which was sort of anarchistic in a way. It went against the prevalent theme in this country. He influenced all of us. I went along with Dad's ideas about spreading out the wealth. The rich people had all the wealth and there were too many poor people. Now I see the fallacy of that. In a true communist society, it would be like a bunch of ants in an anthill. Everybody's the same. People aren't the same.
It was Hoots's destiny to do most of the chores around the farm. "Ned shirked work at every opportunity. He believed that manual labor was beneath him." Ned was determined to pursue his own interests first. Baseball was a passion for the Abbey boys, although the Little League had yet to emerge. All the boys had learned to throw well by practicing with rocks from an early age. Hoots played first base or right field. Young brother Johnny was an infielder. Ned was both pitcher and organizer for their pickup sandlot baseball team. Their team challenged other teams around Indiana County.
The Abbey children attended Rayne Township Consolidated Elementary School, where Mildred's father, Charlie Postelwaite, had once been the principal. They later attended high school in nearby Indiana, the county seat. And most of them attended college for at least part of their academic careers at Indiana State.
Young Ned Abbey had a bent for drawing and a good ear for music. He wrote incessantly and well and was regarded as a talented youngster by many of his teachers. Ned became a good cartoonist. His cartoons were thematic, featuring a hero who combated evil, generally manifested in a villain whose elongated thumbnail served as his dagger. Abbey was as independent as his milieu would allow, but not so independent that he could completely shirk his chores on the farm.
He wrote a mini-epic poem in 1948 that recounted much of what he had seen thus far. About life on the farm he wrote:
There was lots of work, I remember that, Hoeing the corn through the sweltering summer, Chasing over hills for fugitive pigs, Steering the cultivator through knee-high corn, Pitching manure in the fragrant springtime, Shocking wheat and pitching hay, Plowing up potatoes and grubbing for them In the loam on hands and knees, Cutting corn and husking corn, And piling fodder on the wagon, Digging holes and setting posts And stretching wire for miles ... and miles. There was always an abundance of work And never a shortage of tasks and chores. I knew then that I hated life on the farm. Now, of course, I'm not so sure.
One of the most significant accomplishments of Abbey's youth was his invention of the portable pigpen. This contraption was about twenty feet square, mounted on wheels so it could be moved from one patch of ground to another as the need arose.
In 1944 the war was raging in Europe and the South Pacific. When he was but seventeen years old and soon to be drafted, Ned was bitten by the Abbey wanderlust. With twenty bucks in his pocket and a bindle of sorts, he stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked across America. He made it to Chicago, a city he instantly disliked. In Minnesota he was picked up by a homosexual shoe salesman whose advances he adamantly resisted. He continued on his journey.
Across a continent I once traveled all alone, Thinking red thoughts and riding on a thumb Of great Ambulatory prowess. I met a man In Madison who told me of a man in Laramie Who knew a man in Jacksonville who had a cousin By the name of Simp Salabaster who imagined That he was a flower of some kind. He was.
In old Pierre I met a man who played the guitar And sang a song about a beautiful virgin girl Who wandered in a park one evening and stretched Out on the grass and fell asleep and dreamed That she was a whore and when she woke up Several hours later and found a two-dollar bill On the Grass beside her she realized that She was.
Ned ran out of money in South Dakota and spent ten days bucking wheat under the hot sun of the northern plains. He continued on to Wyoming and caught his first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains on the far horizon. That magnificent range lured him like the song of the siren and changed his life. Although he was offered a job on a ranch in Idaho, his forward momentum carried him westward until he reached the Pacific Ocean. He had spanned the breadth of the continent.
In Seattle I met a man who told me a story About a little boy of unusual imagination Who liked to toddle out onto the state highway Every morning and lie down on the concrete And pretend that he was the tragic victim Of a traffic accident. One day his mother Went out to get him and found that He was.
He headed south to Portland and beyond and finally caught a ride with a con man named Fern. Fern taught him how to siphon gas from parked cars. Fern also committed a robbery, and he and Ned went on the lam. Farther south, Fern stopped the car so that Ned could take a leak. When Ned returned, the villainous Fern had driven away, taking all of Ned's gear and money with him.
Ned was left with his jackknife and a dime. He bought himself a cup of coffee, which he heavily fortified with sugar and cream. This liquid meal sustained him long enough to find a job knocking pecans out of a tree. A day's worth of nut busting gave him the wherewithal to get to Stockton, California, where he found work in a cannery, hauling crates of peaches to women who peeled and pitted the peaches prior to canning. After two weeks he had saved enough to quit and light out for the south country, forty bucks to the good and considerably wiser, a strong young man with adventure in his heart. He passed through Yosemite and Fresno and traveled south to Bakersfield and onward to Needles.
Needles in the summer is one of the hottest places in America. The Mojave Desert landscape is weird, eerie—pinnacles of stone pointing up into the awesome heat, human survival made possible only by the presence of the Colorado River.
Ned stood the day long, trying to thumb rides from the few cars that drove eastward into Arizona. The meager shade of the mesquite kept him from succumbing to sunstroke or heat exhaustion, but by nightfall he had failed to hitch a single ride. Far from forlorn, he struck up a conversation with a Negro hobo refugee from the previous decade. The two of them cooked up a meal, and the old hobo told Ned that there was a way to travel for free if hitchhiking didn't work. They were going to hop a freight. Anyone who has never hopped a freight has missed one of life's more provocative moments. It is not for the faint of heart or for the uncoordinated. You run alongside the rolling freight car, all too aware of the steel wheels rolling ever faster along the tops of steel rails. You carry your bindle in one hand, grab hold of the edge of the freight car door with the other, test the tug of the increasing momentum, throw in the bindle, and close in a mighty leap of body and faith, pulling yourself up into a dark interior inhabited by ...? Ned made it with the help of his hobo mentor and soon fell asleep as the train clattered through the night.
Halleluiah! I'm a bum! I too Have hopped freights Ridden boxcars Coal hoppers (Tho never the rods) Crept through railroad divisions Outrun station guards Fallen on cinders And seen the land From a side-door Pullman.
They got as far as Flagstaff, where Ned was arrested, hauled off to jail, and tossed into a tank that smelled of vomit, piss, and the deadly breath of wasted winos. A special cell had been set aside for a madman who howled like a dog in the night. Ned wasn't afraid of the sick old men who were his cell mates, but he was stunned by the conditions in the jail.
The next morning Ned was taken before the judge and fined a dollar for vagrancy. Then one of the cops took him to a restaurant and bought him breakfast with the buck he had been fined, deposited Ned at the eastern outskirts of Flagstaff, and told him never to return.
Hitchhiking was fruitless, and Ned spent a cold night shivering beneath the high-country pines. He was now seven thousand feet above sea level, and the nighttime air was thin and icy. The next day he hopped another freight train, solo, and by afternoon he was staring into the mysterious red canyons of New Mexico.
By late afternoon the freight train had arrived in Albuquerque, which in those days had a population of less than forty thousand. Ned departed the moving freight train, walked through the tough end of town to the bus station, and bought a ticket for Home.
My days have been so wondrous free So wondrous free So wondrous free I think no one will ever see Such liberty Such liberty.
A year later, in June 1945, Edward Abbey was drafted. The war had dragged on for nearly four years. Abbey and his fellow recruits were certain that they were going to be part of a massive invasion on the main island of Japan.
Any recruit with a modicum of intelligence and imagination cannot but wonder, "What in the hell am I doing in the army? Do I really believe in this cause enough to relinquish my life?" This became a condition of Abbey's and his fellows' thinking as they prepared for a military landing in which their ranks were sure to be decimated, possibly halved, conceivably annihilated.
Then on August 6, 1945, the newly named U.S. Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands, mostly civilians, in a horrendous moment of infamy that staggered the spirit of mankind. Three days later they did it again to Nagasaki. The era of depersonalized, nonselective, amoral warfare had arrived.
Abbey and his fellow recruits were spared the invasion of Japan—but at what price! On some fundamental emotional level Abbey was victimized by inner conflicts, horrified by man's lack of restraint in inflicting mass mayhem.
Relieved, dazed, sick at heart, Abbey was sent to Italy instead of Japan, where irony fated him for the military police. He was issued a .45 automatic pistol and a motorcycle named "Crash" and charged with the tasks of policing his comrades and thwarting the ubiquitous black marketeers of liberated Italy.
In early 1946 Abbey wrote a letter to his family describing life as a soldier:
Napoli February 27, 1946 Dear Family,
There's not much that's new to write about. I'm still riding "Crash" (motorcycle) and becoming more reckless each day as my skill grows.
The big change is our relations with our Allies. The 803rd no longer rules Napoli. We are not allowed to arrest Limeys (British) or Ginnies (Italians) anymore except when they are fooling with American lives or property. And there are far less Americans around here now since so many Army outfits have moved north to Leghorn and Rome. Raids are being continued, however, for Army property continues to disappear. Let me describe a typical raid:
"Well, men," says the C.O., grinning as he repeats the old introduction. "This is it. Tonight we raid the town of X. We leave here at 2400 hours. At 0130 we pick up 50 carabineri (Italian police). At 0200 we meet companies B, C and D and proceed together to town X. At 0300 we hit them. Co. A is assigned the northwest sector of the town. Every house and building will be searched. Any questions?"
At midnight, we pile into trucks and begin the long rough ride to X, which by now we have found out to be Aversa, a town about the size of Indiana. Aversa is Off Limits to Allied troops and has a bad reputation. I thank myself for drawing a Tommy-gun.
Excerpted from ADVENTURES WITH ED by Jack Loeffler. Copyright © 2002 by Jack Loeffler. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted October 4, 2009
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Excellent biography of one of Americas best authors and outdoorsman. Edward Abbey helped shape my life and way of thinking and Jack Loeffler brings Edward back to life through his writing and friendship with Ed. Adventures with Ed is a good companion with James M. Cahalans, Edward Abbey, a life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 31, 2009
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