I admittedly go through these phases when I discover a new author and proceed to read nearly everything that they ever wrote. I’m still not sure how it took me so long to find Edward Abbey’s works, but I also believe that every good book, like many things in life, comes to us at our exact time of need. This Monkey Wrench Gang book review will provide a brief overview of the book’s plot and include a discussion of a few of the book’s major themes.
Disclosure: In the immediate months following the original publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang there was a serious national conversation. Those of you who decide to read it will eventually understand why, but I want to be clear that, in suggesting you DO give this book a read, I am NOT condoning any action (big or small) that is in violation of U.S. law, statute, or regulation. If you’re not still curious, feel free to check out one of my other reviews!
Edward Abbey originally published The Monkey Wrench Gang in 1975. This country was a very different place more than 40 years ago, but so many of the statements Abbey makes still ring true today. His story is centered around a quartet of individuals who are equally disenfranchised with the American ‘development machine’ and passionate about the conservation and preservation of “wild places everywhere.”
The story’s main characters are George W. Hayduke, A.K. Sarvis, M.D., Seldom Seen Smith, and Ms. Bonnie Abbzug. Each unique and each an essential character in his or her own right, the four form a powerful team dedicated to slowing the progress of expansion, development, and resource extraction throughout the American southwest.
Much of the book’s plot takes place in either Utah or Arizona, with the group flying, driving, or hiking their way across, through, over, and around one of the driest, most treacherous, and excessively gorgeous environments of the entire North American continent.
The brush shoulders with law enforcement (in the form of an overzealous Search and Rescue Team) and perform various “missions” best described as “controlled sabotage.” All the while, they are working toward the realization of the final goal, ultimate mission, and coup de grâce (def. the ultimate and merciful death-blow that ends another’s suffering): the destruction of the indomitable Glen Canyon Dam and release of the languid waters of Lake Powell.
Theme #1: There is Value in Untouched Wilderness
For my part, I couldn’t agree more. There are always interests that will say it’s better to open up lands to drilling, mining, or other forms of resource extraction. They’ll argue that the financial gains are far more valuable than what is being lost. But do they really understand what is being lost?
Aside from the centuries of history we’d be paving over, digging up, or otherwise degrading, people need wilderness to be healthy. We need places where we can disconnect from the office, leave behind our technology, and put our feet (and I’d also recommend your hands) in the dirt!
For the morose doomsday preppers out there, I’ll also offer a sentiment from one of Abbey’s previous works, Desert Solitaire:
“…the wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny. What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift toward the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?”
Theme #2: America Needs Resistance
This theme hits home for me more than it ever has in my life before. We need folks who are unwilling to accept the status quo. As a society, we need individuals who take a stand for what they believe in, no matter what that is. We don’t need more people willing to roll over and play dead in an office building in some city somewhere (all cities are ONE. One what? Does it make a difference?)
We need groups of people to design lifestyles that are counter to the options we’ve been shown for most of our lives. We need alternatives that treat the planet with care and respect, instead of with a sharp set of tractor blades. We need smart people to design machines and systems that don’t rely on the endless consumption of air, water, and oil.
As it’s said often, nothing that is truly worth doing comes easy. Going against the grain takes work. It requires patience and resolve. It means truly standing for what you believe in and remaining unshakable in that belief. But you are out there, you “crazy,” “different,” “wacky,” and beautiful individuals. We need you!
Theme #3: Dams are Evil
According to our good friends at Wikipedia (I know it’s a crap source, but we don’t need accurate statistics to illustrate our point here), there are an estimated 84,000 dams impounding roughly 600,000 miles of river in the United States. Do y’all remember learning about the water cycle in elementary or middle school? I seem to remember a large part of that lesson centering around the fact that water needs to flow.
We are still working to understand the immediate and long-term impacts on damming rivers and streams to this extent in the United States. These dams segment rivers and destroy watersheds and habitats for riparian flora and fauna. The larger impacts, such as how the holding of massive amounts of water in reservoirs effects atmospheric changes, are still just beginning to be understood because many dams have only been operating at capacity for two or three decades.
If you’re interested in learning more about the effects of dams on ecosystems, watersheds, and climate change, check out this study published by William L. Graf, Department of Geography at Arizona State University
If you lament the state of wilderness protections in our country, want a story to distract you from the federal government’s affront on national monuments, or simply like a good, old-fashioned underdog story, The Monkey Wrench Gang is for you. There’s one thing I can tell you for certain after reading it: I’ll never look at a tractor the same!
If you liked what you read, didn’t like what you read, or have questions about what you read, I’d love to hear from you! Also, if you’ve read this selection already, I’d love to know your thoughts, feelings, and what you took away from it.
Please leave a comment below if you are inspired, perplexed, saddened, or angered by any of the ideas presented above. I welcome any and all comments and will do my best to respond in a timely fashion.
I’d also encourage you to share this with others if you found it particularly insightful or helpful. Be sure to tag @ballisterwriting on Facebook or Instagram if you do! The point of social media, after all, is to be SOCIAL! I don’t need followers or likes, but I’d like to contribute to a real conversation about how we continue to improve as a society and as individuals.
Thanks for your support!