January 29

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 29, 1927:

Edward Abbey is born

Uncompromising environmentalist and author Edward Abbey is born in Home, Pennsylvania.

A self-proclaimed "enemy of the modern military-industrial state," which he believed was destroying the natural world and human freedom, Abbey's passionate dedication to protecting and preserving wilderness lands began in 1944, when he first visited the American Southwest as a 17-year-old hitchhiker. Enraptured by the beauty and untouched wilderness of the deserts and canyons, the young Abbey believed he had found his true homeland, and for the rest of his life, he never strayed far from the Southwest.

In 1951, Abbey graduated from the University of New Mexico, where he had edited a student literary magazine; and after several attempts at graduate school, he decided to try to make a career as a writer. Abbey did not initially plan to become a "nature writer," a term he later came to despise. His earlier works, like the 1956 novel The Brave Cowboy, focused more on the modern destruction of the western spirit of independence and self-reliance than the destruction of the land itself. In 1968, though, Abbey put together a collection of essays and diary entries he had written during several summer stints as a ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah and published them as Desert Solitaire. A celebration of the "hard and brutal mysticism" of the Utah desert, Desert Solitaire won Abbey a national following and an enduring reputation as a zealous advocate for wilderness preservation.

Whereas Desert Solitaire offered a philosophical argument of why humans needed to preserve wilderness, Abbey's most influential book, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), offered a radical plan for exactly how they might do so. A fictional story of an irreverent band of wilderness advocates battling against the encroaching forces of modernization, the book became something of a blueprint for radical western environmental groups like Earth First! Environmentalists adopted the term "monkey-wrenching" to refer to the non-violent sabotage of development projects that threatened the wilderness. Abbey's book offered advice on how to sabotage heavy earthmoving equipment or road-building projects, and a small but highly visible minority of wilderness proponents actually put his ideas into action.

In 1989, Abbey died of cancer at his home outside of Tucson, Arizona. At the author's request, friends and family buried him in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vast reaches of the Arizona desert.

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