On Wilderness: An Introduction to Edward Abbey’s Black Sun and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Part III — Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy

abbey monkeywrench

Edward Abbey’s attitude toward wilderness and its preservation is much more controversial than Stegner’s, but he has had no less an impact on contemporary attitudes. With a well-established reputation as an iconoclast, Abbey has presented ideas ranging from the thoughtfully considered limitation of national park access to those on foot, bicycle, or public transportation, to the preservation of wilderness through acts of eco-sabotage, illustrated through the actions of the characters in the Monkey Wrench Gang. But at the heart of Abbey’s writing, despite the extremes, run the same threads as in Stegner’s fiction: The importance of understanding our history, and the need to adapt to our environment rather than engineer it to fit our needs. Central to developing these themes is Abbey’s disgust with industrialization and mainstream culture and its effect on society.

lonely brave

While Stegner, the historian, uses a dual time frame to examine attitudes and how they have changed, Abbey places the reader squarely in a contemporary time frame. Often, a single character upholds the wilderness idea, while mainstream culture tries to batter the main character into submission. The Brave Cowboy, his second novel set in the mid 1950s, establishes this contrast. Jack Burns is the cowboy who is attempting to live the life of man and horse outside the rules and expectations of society. Early in the novel he rides out of the desert, where the signs of civilization encroach upon the wilderness.  “. . . five volcanoes to the south, lined up like old ruined tombs” are juxtaposed against “a barbed-wire fence, gleaming new wire stretch[ing] with vibrant tautness between steel stakes driven into the sand and rock. . . . the fence itself extended north and south to a pair of vanishing points, an unbroken thin stiff line of geometric exactitude scored with a bizarre, mechanical precision over the face of the rolling earth” (Abbey, Brave, 11). The “petroglyph of a wild turkey chiseled in the stone” is negated by “a pair of tincans riddled with bullet holes of various caliber, brass cartridge shells, an empty sardine can dissolving in rust” (14). Riding along the dirt streets of a Hispanic village, women smile at him and recognize him as “not a stranger, or something more than a stranger, a figure out of a grandfather’s tale heard in childhood, a man thought to be utterly forgotten now returning.” These earthy women “touch the medallions between their breasts and watch him go” (18). His horse balks at the first touch of hoof to asphalt in the suburbs on the outskirts of town, and the Anglo “women remained indoors and stared out with pale bleak faces at the strange creature going by on horseback . . . disembodied faces transpiring in the casement windows like potted plants, forlorn, unwatered and unfertilized” (19). His horse whirls in terror at the crossing of a four-lane highway that Burns realizes he could never outflank, noting that the “track of asphalt and concrete was as continuous and endless as a circle or the walls of a cell” (20). Burns allows himself to be arrested in order to break out with his friend, a draft dodger. In jail, dreaming of freedom, Burns tells his friend, “I can smell them mountains already,” and in response to the question, “which mountains,” he replies, “The mountains. Any mountains” (128). Afterwards, Burns is pursued by the full technological might of modern law enforcement: jeeps, radio, machine guns, helicopters. Ironically, it is his inability to adapt to modern technology which leads to his death. With the only possibility of escape to the wilderness freedom of Mexico meaning he must abandon his horse and climb the mountain and cross the highway on foot, Burns refuses, and is struck down crossing the highway by a cargo truck bearing the logo “ANOTHER LOAD OF ACME BATHROOM FIXTURES! AMERICA BUILDS FOR TOMORROW!” (41). A good part of the novel’s appeal is that it builds on the romantic conventions of the American Western, where a solitary, idealistic hero fights the forces of evil, but it has also been criticized for its oversimplified depiction of the rift between civilization and wilderness, where there is no middle ground, and one side is completely good, the other evil. To be honest, the book offers no practical advice for how to reconcile our paradoxical attitude toward Nature.

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