Jay Meehan: Songs of the desert rats
"He squatted in country that I had known and loved since my boyhood and made it singularly his own. His books were burrs under the saddle blanket of complacency. His urgency was a lever under inertia. He was a red-hot moment in the conscience of the country."
The timing couldn’t have been better. There they were, the recent edition of High Country News with its issue-length tribute to the late visionary and man-of-ghostly-letters Charles Bowden sharing space with a DVD of the documentary film "Wrenched: How Edward Abbey lit the flame of environmental activism and gave the movement its soul."
Nuzzled up against one another in the mailbox, plotting, no doubt, some future rage against the machine, they exuded a comfort zone only longtime desert-trampin’ eco-warriors could appreciate. As would be expected with the combined legacies of Abbey and Bowden being channeled, a collective gruffness lay upon the land that was deep enough to mow. This week, Abbey and the film; next week, the legacy of Charles Bowden.
Now, this isn’t my first go-around with "Wrenched." Having caught its initial Salt Lake screening at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center some time back with its subsequent Q&A featuring filmmaker ML Lincoln, local movement-vortex-manager Ken Sanders, and radio programmer Doug Fabrizio, I was pretty much already hipped to its many intertwining storylines.
Plus, of course, with a large chunk of my past spent trekking the Colorado Plateau to retrace actual locations from Abbey’s literary canon, especially "The Monkey Wrench Gang," for me anyway, they were singing to the choir. I had long been onboard the good ship "Wilderness." Their Gospel fit like a glove!
Besides the film itself, the DVD contains a slew of classic raw-footage interviews featuring many of those who shared trails and philosophies with Cactus Ed along his singular journey. It’s on his legacy and where the climate justice movement goes from here, however, where the film hangs its hat.
With the stakes for the future survivability of our species having been raised considerably (along with global temperatures) and the torch having been passed to a younger demographic, it’s evident to all who have been paying attention that it’s much too late for Abbey-style monkey-wrenching alone to turn the tide. Not that it should ever be discontinued, by any stretch.
And that being said, it’s obviously far, far too late, as laudatory as such practices might be, for the switching out of incandescent bulbs for fluorescent lamps or the recycling of empty Scotch bottles (I do my part!) to do much to arrest the current velocity of climate change.
Not that the film and the interviews aren’t highly entertaining and guffaw-rich. As dire as the unfolding science appears, this is anything but a morose film. It’s more a championing of heroes of the movement, from the actual individuals from whom Abbey developed the characters of his Monkey Wrench Gang to those of his wider flock who have played significant roles in environmental activism throughout the years.
And what a beautiful and motley crew of desert rats they are: Ken Sanders, Charles Bowden, Doug Peacock, Ken Sleight, Ingrid Eisenstadler, Katie Lee, Dave Foreman, Jack Loeffler, Paul Watson, Kim Crumbo, Jim Stiles, Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Redford, Tim DeChristopher, and other true believers of the red rock ethic.
The interviews, individually and collectively, are a symphonic chorale. Spinning yarns not of some public figure but of their buddy Ed Abbey, tones fraught with wistfulness and exalted melody paying homage to his flaws, hypocrisies, and insights of terrible beauty — their voice becoming his becoming theirs becoming ours.
And what a voice! A few minutes into the film, it fills the room:
"Who needs wilderness? Civilization needs wilderness. The idea of wilderness preservation is one of the fruits of civilization, like Bach’s music, Tolstoy’s novels, novocaine, space travel, free love, the double martini, secret ballot, and a thousand other good things one could name, some of them trivial, most of them essential, all of them vital to that great, bubbling, disorderly, anarchic, unmanageable diversity of opinion, expression, and ways of living which free men and women love, and which the authoritarians of church and state and war and sometimes even art despise and always have despised. And feared!"
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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