It was a time of pushing limits. How can you take Aldo Leopold one step further? Or Henry David Thoreau? How can you make those kinds of people relevant—not that they’re irrelevant, but more relevant—for the twentieth and the twenty-first century?
1981-Salt Lake City
THE VOICE ON THE PHONE scraped like a flat-bottomed boat on river rocks. “Ken, this is Ed. There are some sort of spring rites going on at Lake Foul. Might be a good time if you want to get together.”
Ken Sanders was flattered. Edward Abbey rarely used the telephone, preferring pithy messages written on cheap postcards. Occasionally there was a letter, like the one to his friend Jack Loeffler fondly addressed: “Dear Monkeyfucker.” The editorial pages of daily newspapers were recipients of Abbey’s epistolary largesse. But rarely, if ever, a phone call. Abbey’s tendency to hide his whereabouts might have started as a way to dodge alimony payments, but after a while illusoriness became part of his mystique. Abbey had plenty of that. As David Quammen wrote of Abbey’s 1968 book. Desert Solitaire, “A man wrote a book, and lives were changed. That doesn’t happen often.”
In fact, Ed Abbey did more than change people’s lives. He created a new kind of nature writing. He may not have been a hippie, but Ed Abbey did some of his best writing in the 1960s and 1970s, when the outer layer of sexless, well-bred conventionality was lifting off American life. In everything from movies to comic books, sentimentality was out, gritty realism was in. The new role models were Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding motorcycles on a drug-laced odyssey across America. Antiheroes like the neurotic Spiderman were replacing square-jawed Superman and Captain America. The louche Cabaret blew apart the conventional Broadway musical. After all, people do not unaccountably launch into uplifting song-and-dance numbers at the most stressful points in their lives. Irreverence was the only sure sign of artistic integrity.
By the time Desert Solitaire was published in 1968, John Muir’s transcendental maunderings felt hopelessly sugarcoated, only most nature writers hadn’t figured it out yet. Abbey made it impossible for the genre to lapse back into babbling brooks and heavenly birdsong. In his books, real people fought, made love, and threw beer cans out of car windows. They did all of it in the midst of devastating natural beauty, a landscape under siege by thick-headed Mormon developers and, invariably, the United States government. Ironically, it took a writer who believed in biocentrism—the idea that nature, not humanity, is the measure of all things—to take Nature off its pedestal and populate it with memorable characters. Ponderousness and poetic mawkishness, the bane of most nature writing, were foreign to Abbey. So was self-righteousness. Abbey merged the personal and the political like a maestro conducting the ultimate orchestra: the world itself (The real world, muchachos, in the words of B. Traven, the author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and a favorite of Abbey’s.) Readers either loved him or hated him. The same was true of critics.
For Ken Sanders, it hadn’t been love at first sight. Sanders’s initial reaction to the 1975 bestseller The Monkey Wrench Gang was shocked disapproval. He had no problem with the book’s hearty endorsement of ecosabotage, but he was appalled by George Washington Hayduke’s pesky propensity for littering.
Sanders soon discovered that Abbey saved his irascibility for print. After the author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang did a reading at the Cosmic Airplane, the bookstore Sanders owned in Salt Lake City, Sanders was smitten. Descended from Mormon aristocracy—one of his great-greats was a heavyweight capo of patriarch Joseph Smith—Sanders had relinquished any claim to respectability in the state of Utah when he grew his hair down to his waist and dropped out of high school. Sanders had the autodidact’s tender reverence for books, and a soft spot for writers. His friendship with Abbey, while occasionally volatile, was an important part of his life. It didn’t take much convincing for Sanders to accept Abbey’s invitation to attend the mysterious spring rites.
Sanders couldn’t figure out what the hell Ed, of all people, was doing up at Lake Powell. Nobody hated Glen Canyon Dam more than Abbey, except possibly Katie Lee, the river runner best known for posing nude, framed by sandstone canyon walls. Certainly nobody wrote more beautifully about the canyon that it had flooded. A hundred miles from any town, the turrets and minarets of Glen Canyon exemplified wilderness to Edward Abbey and a generation of river runners and desert rats. Just months before the dam’s sluice gates folded shut. Abbey had navigated the stretch of Colorado River that ribboned along the canyon floor. “Down the River,” Abbey’s essay on Glen Canyon in Desert Solitaire, was one of the best pieces he ever wrote. Memoir and diatribe run side by side in its pages, twin currents in a Colorado still big and wild enough to contain a soul. Abbey knew that Glen Canyon wasn’t just archetypal wilderness; it was archetypal American wilderness. Eden violated by Progress. In this instance, Progress was the last giant water project built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a soaring 587-foot dinosaur called Glen Canyon Dam, an ugly concrete canker sore left over from the winning of the West.
Sanders, of course, had read Desert Solitaire, as well as The Monkey Wrench Gang. In both books Abbey fantasized about “some unknown hero with a rucksack full of dynamite strapped to his back” who would descend into the bowels of the Glen Canyon Damn [sic], depositing his charges where they would do the most good. Abbey’s imaginary hero would enter the abomination’s concrete core on the most public occasion possible, the dam’s dedication ceremony. Maximum effect.
That dark day had passed some eighteen years ago. Sanders noted, however, that the scheduled date of the so-called rite of spring was not lacking in significance. March 21, 1981. The equinox. Intriguing, thought Sanders. Plus, the campground Abbey had mentioned, Lone Rock, was built around a cigar-shaped sandstone monolith typical of the ones nearby that were used as a backdrop for a bare-chested and equally monolithic Charlton Heston in The Greatest Story Ever Told. It all sounded mysterious and druidical. Sanders delayed a backpacking trip he had planned for the Maze at Canyonlands National Park.
Louisa Willcox was also making plans to be in Glen Canyon. She had been one of the first people to hitch up with the Buckaroos when they poured themselves back into Wyoming after their spiritual debauch in the Pinacate the year before. Louisa was working as a reporter for High Country News at the time, living in Lander, a medium-sized town north of the Wind River range. News traveled so fast in Lander that Louisa heard about Earth First! practically before the Buckaroos limped homeward. “When they came back from the trip—that sort of seminal backpack—it was buzzing around Lander. It was sort of like, yeah, this great idea [Earth First!] . . . The Sierra Club was talking about it and other people were talking about it.
“At that point it wasn’t a confusing discussion of violence versus nonviolence. It was, ‘There needs to be a benchmark on the Left.’ There needs to be a voice which speaks for the rights of wild country, wild critters, just for themselves,” said Louisa.
“The Wilderness Society was eliminating that whole cadre of people that grew up in the trenches. There was this sense in the Watt years that the groups were getting too top heavy, concentrated in the Beltway, concentrated in the cloakrooms of Washington and maybe a bit forgetful of the grass roots.”
It might have been a good concept, but it was pretty clear that the Buckaroos hadn’t figured out how to make it work yet. “I mean, really, it was just a camping trip,” said Louisa. “A group of people basically sat there and said there’s a time and a place for earth to come first in our minds and in our actions. That’s all it was initially, this sort of funny idea.”
In Lander, Wyoming, a town of about 8,000 people near the Wind River Range, all you needed in those days was an idea. Lander, a was a happening place if you were an environmentalist. Bruce Hamilton was running the Northern Plains office of the Sierra Club, right across the hall from High Country News. High Country News was a center for subversion itself, a newsprint flagship for environmental consciousness in the New West. Before joining the Sierra Club staff, Bruce had worked as the paper’s news editor. Bruce’s wife, Joan Nice, still worked there as managing editor. Later, when Bruce was promoted to the club’s national office in San Francisco, she became an editor at Sierra magazine. Joan was an Amelia Earhart look-alike whose gaze always seemed to be fixed on a distant and very icy mountain range. Together, the Hamiltons made the perfect environmentalist couple, both willowy, long-limbed, soft-spoken, and Anglo-Saxon in a pained sort of way. Their home was a magnet not just for Louisa, but for Bart, too. Bart’s romantic nature was the antithesis of Bruce’s hardheadedness, but there was a tender loyalty between the two men. More often than not it was Bruce and Joan’s floor where Bart would end up sleeping when his mania had worn him out, long after it had driven everyone else to ground.
To Louisa, Joan and Bruce were a kind of family, too. They helped her believe that marriage and family were possible as she rode through her share of the roller-coaster love affairs that everyone was living through those days. With all the craziness, she sometimes wondered what she was doing out there, climbing mountains and drinking in cowboy bars. Louisa’s life had begun in a different milieu, as distant from the squat military houses of Dave Foreman’s youth as it was possible to imagine. She was a good-natured jock from an affluent Quaker family whose Main Line roots stretched back to the 1600s. As a teenager, she rode in fox hunts in the green hills outside her hometown. Crouched into a jump, she wore the de rigueur tight tan jodhpurs and tailored riding coat, her curls pressed flat under a hard velvet hat. She was a good girl and she was expected to go to college and get married in fairly orderly progression. As a Quaker, she might want to give back to the community some of the benefits that she had received, perhaps by tutoring disadvantaged youth or volunteering at a local hospital. Louisa Willcox ended up trying to save a different corner of the world. Something in her was freed instead of shackled by her advantages. Adventure was easy; without being self-destructive, she breezed through physical danger the way her horses flew over fences. At fourteen, she spent the summer at her uncle’s ranch in Sunlight Basin on the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. She was hooked, not on horses anymore, but on the West. At sixteen, she scaled the Grand Teton, gripping nylon ropes as she pressed her body against blue-gray ice and granite. A few years later she laughed off macho jibes to become one of the early female mountaineering instructors at NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Lander. Eventually she would become one of the most influential conservationists in the northern Rockies.
In fact, the Lander environmental scene was bigger than NOLS and Joan and Bruce and the High Country News. The Wyoming Outdoor Council, where Bart Koehler launched the Children’s Crusade, had an office in town. So did the Wyoming Wilderness Association, the group that Howie had helped start. This was one of many statewide groups that came together to push through RARE II wilderness bills, often with support from national organizations. Louisa was volunteering as newsletter editor for the wilderness association. She knew the turf; not only had she hiked through many of the wilderness areas, she also had worked with Bart and Howie on Alternative W, the environmentalist proposal for a RARE II wilderness bill. Coincidentally she had interviewed Dave Foreman a year or two previously for High Country News. Even then he enjoyed a mild kind of celebrity among the cognoscenti. Here he was, a Buckaroo who had made good in Washington.
Louisa’s sense of adventure made her a perfect candidate for Foreman’s new endeavor. Foreman had learned that one of the keys to organizing was giving people the chance to do things they wanted to do anyway. Now was the time to push it a little further, to find out how the ideal of individual freedom worked in a social context: anarchism made real, the wilderness tribe reborn. Being in the tribe meant that you shared a worldview, but it also meant that you had the freedom to choose how to put it into action. The whole thing was so laid-back and hip, it was enough to make you cringe if you weren’t captured by the romance of it all. Or if you didn’t know that beneath the western drawl, intellectual intensity was assumed. It might not be cool, not quite macho cowboy, but you were expected to ask the hard questions, share the common culture of young environmentalists who had seen enough of the world to make them angry, but weren’t jaded yet. There was something eternal about it, at least eternally youthful, this never-ending late-night bullshit session of hard-core idealists.
“It was a time of pushing limits,” Willcox said. “How can you take Aldo Leopold one step further? Or Henry David Thoreau? How can you make those kinds of people relevant—not that they’re irrelevant, but more relevant—for the twentieth and the twenty-first century?”
So they talked philosophy and tactics, usually via memo. Foreman, in particular, gave stellar memo, shooting them off like fireworks from his parents’ home in Bernalillo, New Mexico. By the late spring of 1980 the memos were tumbling into action. With the help of Koehler, Wolke, and Roselle, Foreman organized the first Earth First! rendezvous in Dubois, Wyoming (egregiously pronounced “Doo-boys”) at the T-Cross Ranch at the edge of the Washakie wilderness. Consciously invoking patriotic symbolism, he scheduled it for July fourth. Koehler came up with the name Round River Rendezvous, after Aldo Leopold’s metaphor for an ecological worldview. “For years some of us had realized that the best work at every conference got done informally, not in the formal sessions, but in the bullshitting around afterwards,” Foreman said. The Buckaroos decided to have a conference that was all bullshit session.
The flyer for the campout was written in a bad imitation of western branding lettering and ran down the event this way: “WHY: To reinvigorate, enthuse, inspire wilderness activists in the West; to bring passion, humor, joy, and fervency of purpose back into the cause; to forge friendships, cooperation, and alliances throughout the West; to get drunk together, spark a few romances, and howl at the moon.”
Participants were told to bring “camping equipment, food, booze (lots), weird wilderness outfits, musical instruments, bizarre toys, imagination, a good and gonzo attitude,” but sensibly, no pets. Mindful of the popularity of movement gossip. Foreman dangled hints of hot info to come, plus an opportunity to learn the trade from the pros. “WHO: Wilderness warriors, shamans, and chiefs from around the West and a few honorary westerners from Washington, DC. A few of the grey-hairs of the tribe to pass on the torch. Meet people you’ve only heard rumors about before.” Finally, he wrote: “Plan to sleep out or wherever you pass out.”
Not surprisingly, the new Earth First! looked a lot like the old Wilderness Society. In fact, Foreman and the other Buckaroos hedged their bets by holding the Rendezvous at the same place the Wilderness Society staff had celebrated the Bicentennial and billing the event as a combination Earth First! gathering and Wilderness Society reunion. Foreman published a crude mimeographed newsletter. Number 0, which came out a few weeks before the Rendezvous. He gave it the horrible name Nature More, from a Byron poem that was quoted on the first page. “I love not man the less, but nature more,” read the poem, perhaps the best of a succession of feeble and rather disingenuous attempts to grapple with the charge that the group was misanthropic.
The founders soon realized that Nature More had the honor of being the worst name of any environmental publication. It was quite an achievement to beat Not Man Apart, the Friends of the Earth newspaper. David Brower, FOE’s founder, had lifted the phrase from a poem by Robinson Jeffers. After the organization grew, Brower successfully defended the name to his board despite overwhelming statistical evidence that readers—and his own staff—hated it. Fortunately, the Earth First!ers didn’t have to deal with someone of Brower’s stature, ego, or stubbornness. The name of the second issue of the Earth First! newsletter uneventfully became Earth First. (The exclamation point had not yet made its appearance.) By then, Foreman had found a Stephen Crane poem that expressed the group’s goofy vision of apocalypse.
Built a huge ball of masonry
Upon a mountaintop
Then they went to the valley below.
And they turned to behold their work.
“It is grand,’’ they said;
They loved the thing.
Of a sudden, it moved;
It came upon them swiftly;
It crushed them all to blood.
But some had opportunity to squeal.
The second issue—Number 1, Volume 1—announced that Earth First! was ready and willing to squeal. “Like Pallas Athena springing fully armed from the brow of Zeus, Earth First enters the wilderness fray…’’ trumpeted the mimeographed sheet. “ ‘What!?’ you say. ‘Another wilderness group? There are more wilderness groups than plague fleas on a New Mexico prairie dog! I already belong to nine of the damn things. Why another one? Why Earth First? Because we’re different.”
Earth First! truly was different. The agenda set by the Buckaroos in Earth First No. 1 was the substance behind the satire, Earth First’s contribution to history. The Buckaroos had been reading up on the new science of conservation biology. Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, and Mike Roselle were among the first people outside the scientific community to recognize that the earth’s sixth great extinction was mowing down species from Bozeman to Bhutan and they were damn well going to do something about it.
Attorney Gerry Spence and his client, Dave Foreman, outside the courtroom where Foreman stood trial.
Earth First! photo on the Great Salt Lake by Len Irish
Susan Zakin 2018