Thursday, August 29, 2013

Where Have All The Abbeys Gone?

I once had an editor tell me that my biggest (among many, apparently, according to him) weakness as a writer was that I was always too polemical, that I injected too much anger and/or humor into my writing (and too many foul words). So I lost my temper, cursed his lineage and then beat him to death with a rubber chicken. Ba dum ba! He was an asshole, anyway (he also told me that I used way too many parentheticals) (what did he know, right?).

But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role, or lack thereof, of anger in writing, specifically nature, conservation and/or outdoor writing. This probably comes as no great surprise, but I’m a big fan of provocation, agitprop and good old-fashioned outrage. I like my comedy, my journalism and my music to be angry, intelligent and sincere.

Unfortunately, it seems - to me, anyway - that while a lot of current environmental and conservation writing is both intelligent and  sincere in its great pains toward objectivity (more on that later…), it seems to be lacking a bit in the outraged sense of justice department, as if honest emotion, heartfelt opinion or (god forbid!) offending or insulting some person, group, thing, concept, scheme, plan, entity or idea so obviously and eminently worthy of offense or insult, somehow weakens your case or disproves your thesis.

I, too, have been a willing victim of this cult of objectivity (Breathless, Self-Serving Monologue Warning).

I have stood at the base of a giant, leaking corporate hog farm lagoon, with untold thousands of gallons of fetid, toxic, bacterial pigshit swirling about my feet, and had a slick-haired, smooth-talking PR flack tell me everything’s fine even as his hired goons grabbed at my camera. Could I call him a goddamned liar? Nope, because that would have been “taking sides.”  

I have attended a David-and-Goliath environmental regulatory agency hearing in which platoons of $300-an-hour hired Gucci Guns, fresh off the Lear jet, strode into the room reeking of the kind of smug arrogance and contempt that comes only from the knowledge of a pre-ordained outcome. And when the whole obscene, set-piece Kabuki theatre was over, when the bought-and-paid-for deciders had made their bought-and-paid-for decisions and then filed out of the room in jocular, back-slapping unison and the hired guns has snapped their briefcases closed in triumph and high-tailed it back to civilization and all that remained in the room was a small, shell-shocked group of ordinary, extraordinary people for whom the word “home” had forever changed, could I write “Corrupt Kangaroo Court Fails Its People?” Nope, because that would have been “biased reporting.”  (and bad alliteration)

I have watched, incredulously, as one of my life’s abiding passions, indeed, my life’s anchor - one that once tethered me and kept me from floating out to doom on the same riptide that has taken so many other fatherless latchkey kids - grows increasingly vile, cheap and desensitized to anything resembling respect, reflection, or restraint, instead becoming ever more corrupted, rotted, ugly, commoditized, fetishized, falsified, mythologized, branded, packaged, sold, traded, digitized, distributed and wholly co-opted by those for whom the act of hunting and killing is always something to be made easier, quicker, cooler, more efficient, more spectacular, more entertaining, and above all, more profitable.  Could I point to these people and say (or write) “You, sir, are a peckerwood of the highest order, and what you represent is a disgrace to the sport you profess to love.” No, because to do so would take speaking with a discordant voice, and in that industry, media included, unvarnished opinion - or at least unvarnished opinion of the wrong sort- is an undesirable thing.

But unvarnished, even raw, opinion is, in my mind, an absolutely crucial component to effective writing, if the purpose of your writing is to get people’s attention and focus it on what you’re trying to reveal to them. If, however, the purpose of your writing is to be promptly forgotten, or not even finished, then by all means strip it of anything resembling life or vitality. And I mean journalism, too.

And that’s where Edward Abbey comes in. As you can obviously tell from my header photograph, I am an Abbey acolyte. I still remember, with vivid clarity, discovering Desert Solitaire in the paperback rack at Noble Junior High School. It’s a cliché now shared by many, but at the time it was beyond transformative for me. I had never, ever read anything like that (until I discovered Vonnegut that same year. Then Robert Ruark’s books. Then Bradbury.  Then girls. Then my hand. That was a damn educational year…)

What was it about that randy, beer-swilling, gun-toting, philosophy-spouting, monkey-wrenching, misanthropic, womanizing, unapologetically contradictory - and kinda freaky-looking- iconoclast that stoked me so?

Well, it sure as hell wasn’t his objectivity and fair-mindedness and his even-keeled approach to making sure all the various “stakeholders” in the debate were fairly represented and given voice. Shit, no. It was his words. His energy. His unfettered joy in writing exactly whatever the hell he wanted to write, and reaction be damned. He wasn’t always right, and sometimes flat wrong, but he damn sure believed he was always right, and wrote that way. Compromise had no place in Edward Abbey’s writing, and that lack of compromise about what he loved, made you love it, too.

The thing is, almost anyone can evoke place. There are legions of working travel, nature and conservation writers out there who (I’m guessing here, ‘cause I’m sure as hell not one of them) make a decent living by evoking a sense of place… adequately enough. Who report on a region’s issues or problems…adequately enough. Who hit all the key issues, get a quote or position statement from all the key players, maybe even weave the narrative around a little first-person longform riffing to give the piece some color, and do it… adequately enough.

But to evoke a sense of place with as much humor, rage, pathos, bravado, bullshit, outrageousness and sheer feeling as Abbey did is a rare thing, indeed. It stuck with you. But Abbey died in 1989. The world’s a vastly (or perhaps not) different place. I need a new Abbey. We all need a new Abbey to stick with. But I’m finding that not much is sticking with me these days.

Don’t get me wrong: thorough, sober, fact-based (more on “facts” later) environmental reporting is a crucial and needed thing, I guess, but I fear that in pursuing the grim, lifeless doctrinaire of objectivity, we’re losing passion. And interest. You simply cannot have one without the other. I don’t read as much nature writing these days as I probably should because it quite frankly bores me, the kind of thing you pick up, start reading and then just sort of…disengage from.

Where are the Abbeys? It’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know, because we need some damn Abbeys, and quick.

Now, the case could certainly be made (and probably has) that we don’t need  anger and outrage, that anger and outrage are simply weak ad hominem literary devices used by inferior writers  to make up for a lack of depth, thoughtfulness and substance, and in my particular case you’d be absolutely right. I recognize my limits as a writer and thinker. Like most bloggers, I’m mostly just a polemic, ranting bomb-thrower with nothing terribly useful to offer up besides profanity and rhetorical outrage, which may be entertaining to a point, but doesn't really bring anything useful to the table.

But some writers can pull off anger, humor and deep thought, and in the process hook us and engage us totally with the issue. Abbey was one of them. And he did it the faintest pretence of “objectivity.” In fact, I’d argue he did it in spite of objectivity. Because, really, there’s no such thing. Science (and much philosophy) tells us, in a roundabout way, that there is no reality, that everything we “see” is merely an interpretation created by our brains based on patterns of light photons hitting the photoreceptors on our retinas. Those light waves are then converted to electrical nerve pulses that are sent to the brain in certain patterns, to be analyzed and decoded by said brains into mental images. Viola! Reality! So in a very real sense (such as it is…) “reality” is all in your head.

The entire concept of “facts” and/or “objectivity” is no different, really, just streams of information photons hitting receptors and being recorded, converted to electrical impulses and then sent to the brain for analysis and interpretation. And I promise you that whatever your brain’s computer spits out as “fact” at the end of this process - regardless of how immutable it may seem to you – will be contested by someone else’s equally obvious, immutable and diametrically opposed fact. Ever it was thus, and ever it shall be.  Just like quantum physics, no one’s yet managed to come up with a unified field theory of what constitutes factual objectivity, and no one is ever likely too, either. Your “fact” is my steaming pile of horseshit, and vice versa. Reductio ad absurdum

So screw it. Don’t try. Seriously, give it up. Because you’re simply bullshitting yourself if you think facts and objectivity are effective persuasive devices. They’re not, because they don’t exist except in your head. Generally, we’re wired to accept the facts our wiring and environment predisposes us to accept. Can you re-wire yourself? Sure, but it’s damn hard, and facts in and of themselves aren’t the best tool to do so, IMO.  Just look at the world around you. Do you think it turns on fact and objectivity? No. It turns on the eternal struggle between competing fact translation processes.  As  Cassius famously said (uh,sort of, more or less…), “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in our fucked-up noggins.”

That’s why I’ve always believed that opinion - pure, sweet, unadulterated opinion, the kind at which Abbey excelled - is the highest, truest and most intellectually honest form of truth. Because it’s your truth, and (impending metaphysical doublespeak gibberish warning!) there is no other truth besides the truth you believe.

And so naturally, I think the highest calling of writing, and yes, journalism, isn’t to go out and simply be a stenographer laboring under the laughable yoke of objectivity. It’s to attempt to re-wire others to see your truth, whatever it may be.  And despite what the fair-and-balanced-stick-to-the-facts objectivity cultists may say, there’s not a goddamned thing wrong with that, and much to admire (just as long as your truth jibes with mine, of course. Otherwise, you’re a lying, manipulative asshole…).

So dump objectivity. Tell the “fair-and-balanced” crowd to shove it up their asses. Go experience and write what you see and feel to be the truth regardless of who, what or how many it pisses off, offends or insults: Rage, disgust, wonder, sorrow and joy - as long as they are genuine - are far more powerful agents of change than the tepid, illusory gruel of “objectivity.” Because there’s always going to be a competing, equally “objective” truth. Make yours stronger.

 But just don’t expect to sell it anywhere, because, well, truth, even passionate, heartfelt truth, doesn’t sell for shit. Paying markets want listicles*. So write the truth for yourself, write listicles for dough.

*Oh, just Google it…


  1. I can see why a 21st-century, national hunting magazine was such a good fit for you, Chad. I'm sure Abbey would have loved that world just as much.

  2. The other smart thing that Abbey said was "be a half-hearted activist." In other words, don't be so busy fighting the multitudinous good fights that you fail to take time to enjoy whatever is you are fighting for, because that way lies burnout.

  3. When I was 18 or 19 I read all of my roommates Abbey of which Desert Solitaire was my favorite. I took my dad a copy Desert Solitaire. He went down stairs and brought me back up a copy of A Sand County Almanac. Game, set, match to my old man. Over a decade later those works still form a bedrock for me as I engage with the great outdoors. I would be happy to nominate you for the role except for the post in which you called the Hungarian partridge a Slav. Seriously wtf. And here is the part where I say "long time reader, first time commenter, keep up the good work etc".

  4. Bravo, Jesus H Christ, Bravo.

    By the way, The Doosh ain't gonna like this.. he's already pointing to his Fox News tattoo under his Bone Collector shirt.

    1. Did you know that the Boner Collector has over 400,000 Facebook friends? Saw that on one of those "suggested friends" things. The mind boggles.

  5. And hence, the blogosphere... where writers write, whiners whine, and truth is the first and last victim... bleeding in the highway, smashed flat by a truckload of toilets.

    Too much of the modern audience couldn't handle an Abbey. They don't have the attention span to follow Vox Clamantis and catch the redundancies, much less keep track of anything of substance. I think Abbey recognized it then, which probably gave him license to wax hypocritical and self-contradictory. But those things are what made his writing so great.

    So rant on, Chad. The next Abbey will come. Or he won't. So you might have to be the change yourself. Sort of like that discovery of your own hand (and oddly enough, I went to a Jr. High School called "Noble" as well)... sometimes you just have to satisfy your own desires.

    1. I think you're right, sadly. And it makes you wonder, with all the research into whether electronic devices actually help rewire our brains to ever-more stimulation and shorter attention spans, if anyone would even notice modern Abbeys...

  6. I heard "Cactus Ed" speak to many years ago. He entered the room, wearing (surprisingly) a suit. Smiling, he said that he would gladly entertain any dissenting opinions. He then reached into his jacket, pulled out a pistol and put it on the lectern. Quite a guy, entertaining as hell.

  7. I second Steven Jarvis' "Amen, Brother". Those were the first words that came to mind.

  8. Equality happened. Dam the reasoning (allow me one pun), everyone is equal in every way or we will make it so. (Which is of course bullshit. Everyone is different- our thoughts, experiences, traits, skills, perspectives.)
    Aiding in equality for all is the listicle laden crap spattered across waiting rooms and tire dealerships, barber shops and campus libraries. It's life sucking that readers find it so life giving, YOLO right?. Conveying tricks, skills, patterns and whatnot to give everyone an equal shot at becoming just like their dreamed up or copied persona has robbed human nature of anything natural. You know what? Johnny can't play first base, for that matter he can't play any position on the diamond so get lost in your own reality Johnny, 'cause baseball ain't it. If that was allowed, we as a species might find the next Harry Caray, Rembrandt,the next Buddha, maybe even the next Cactus Ed. Educate how to learn, Encourage creativity, and Exit the individual. Let them be their own. Then perhaps, we get something back from an individual perspective that doesn't stem from objective collective thought and is, as you say, passionate. If we're fortunate they won't explain in ten easy steps how they did it, but dammit some hungry journalist will ask them within the time it takes to spit over your shoulder when a covey rises. So, we're left to read the op-ed pieces from time to time and maybe even linger a little too long when a factual story full of truth finds it's way into print elusively shuttled by some asleep at the wheel editor who didn't hack the account to conformity before allowing their ad sponsors to pay for the publishing.

  9. Damn interesting freeform, Wyknot...