A ‘wrenching’ new film explores the legacy of Edward Abbey

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wrenched-abbey-filmImagine a darkened performance hall with over 200 people, silently waiting for a film to begin. The screen lights up to show a grizzled man in a plaid shirt, who begins to speak:

“I found myself a displaced person shortly after birth, and I have been looking half my life for a place to take my stand…. I regard the wilderness as my home, and now it’s being invaded by clear-cutters and strip miners. I feel that not only it is my right, but a duty, to defend it by any means that I can.”

These words, spoken by Edward Abbey over two decades ago, still ring true to many in the crowd, who are watching the third ever public screening of the documentary “Wrenched,” in Moab, Utah, on March 14, 25 years and one day after Abbey died.

There are a lot of myths and echoes surrounding Ed Abbey and what he did and did not do: Was he a good man, a misogynist, a curmudgeon, or criminal? Why was he so opinionated? If he was an environmentalist, why did he throw beer cans out the window of his car? Where is he buried, really? Most people know of or about him by his words and actions, and some were lucky enough to know the man himself, with friendships they call “uncomfortable” or “bumpy.” No matter what, Ed Abbey seems to stir up strong feelings.

“Human society is like a stew: if you don’t keep it stirred up, you get a lot of scum on top,” is one of Abbey’s statements demonstrating just how comfortable he was doing what might make others squeamish.

He had five wives and five children from three of those marriages. He was a rifleman in the U.S. Army in Italy at the age of 18, and then received a Fulbright scholarship to Scotland upon graduating with a B.A. from the University of New Mexico. After the Fulbright he tried graduate school, but dropped out of Yale after two weeks. Two years later, he tried UNM again, this time receiving an M.A. in philosophy with a thesis titled, “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence.”

Abbey is perhaps best known for his environmental activism, stemming from work as a part-time park ranger and fire lookout, which he began after receiving his M.A. His outdoor work for the National Park Service included 15 years of service in Western places that are remote, stunning, and quite frequently full of tourists: Glacier National Park, Lees Ferry, Arches, Grand Canyon, Sunset Crater, and Lassen Volcanic National Park. Unfortunately, a lot of the wilderness that Abbey came to love was not preserved in national parks, and began to be developed in the 1960s and ’70s. Abbey, burning with cynicism and lack of faith in the powers that be, started to take action along with his friends – doing things like pouring sand into the gas tanks of bulldozers, or even, in at least one instance, pushing a bulldozer over a cliff. In the meantime, Abbey scrawled a fictive version of their activities into a novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which would earn him notoriety if not a living.

The documentary film “Wrenched,” produced and directed by M.L. Lincoln, details the actions of Abbey, his friends and followers as they engaged in what has become known as “monkey-wrenching.” The film screened at the Star Theatre in Moab to a full house and many people in the audience were in Abbey’s inner circle, some even characters from the novel and the movie. His last wife Clarke was there, as were “Seldom Seen” (outfitter Ken Sleight), and ex-girlfriend “Bella” (Ingrid Eisenstadter), who flew in from New York City for the event.

Ken Sanders of Dream Garden Press, which put out the 10-year anniversary edition of “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” illustrated by R. Crumb, was there, along with a signed copy of that edition selling for a mere $500.

Moab held a special place in Abbey’s writings and life, due to his tenure at Arches, which was the foundation of his first best seller, “Desert Solitaire.”

“I think Southeast Utah is one of the great adventure places left on earth, and I think we should try to keep it wild and primitive,” he said in a 1972 interview with KUTV.

Indeed, Moab as it is today was in part shaped not only by “Desert Solitaire” but also by “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” heralded for its celebration of a kind of anarchist activism in which individuals take things into their own hands. Walk down Moab’s main street at any time of year and hints of Abbey and his eco-activist philosophy are evident: T-shirts with his face or quotes are now sold in tourist shops, and everyone seems to be looking for some of that desert “solitaire” that Abbey so fiercely defended. “Wrenched” documents Abbey’s philosophy, with stunning film clips by Doug Peacock showing Abbey driving his red convertible on a dirt road through scenic desert vistas, spouting bits of environmental wit and wisdom.

One of the film’s original field producers came up with the title, and remembers: “ ‘Wrenched’ was a good past-tense title that expressed the general point of stopping the developers in their tracks.”

Many of Abbey’s friends interviewed for the film discuss the complexities of those early days of environmental activism. Robert Redford, Charles Bowden, Dave Foreman, Katie Lee, Jack Loeffler, Doug Peacock, John DePuy, and Paul Watson, among others, all speak to Abbey’s influence on their own lives, the environmental movement, and eco-activism today. Many are influential in their own right, including not only Redford, but Watson, who helped to found Greenpeace, or Foreman, who started Earth First! in response to Abbey’s writing.

The screening in Moab was to begin at 7 p.m., but by 5:15 there was a crowd gathering. Folks rode up on bicycles, some with bike carts and kids in tow. Gray-haired individuals hugged old friends, the greetings marked by exclamations of great joy. It felt like a family reunion. Some were hosts and bustled into Star Hall carrying flyers, posters and a freshly painted banner that said, “Protect, Defend Canyon Country.”

One young woman with short hair and a T-shirt that said, “People Uprising” and a white-haired woman in Frye boots worked the crowd with their clipboards, asking for signatures on a petition to stop the latest round of oil and gas development in the region. Others, wearing plaid shirts, faded jeans and worn ball caps, shuffled up shyly and stood on the edges, waiting quietly in the warm afternoon sun. The crowd was mostly made up of people who appeared to be from Abbey’s generation. Yet interspersed among the grayhairs were a few younger people sporting T-shirts saying, “Hayduke Lives” and a fellow with dreadlocks whose clothing slogan said, “I can only see a better world built upon the ashes of the old one.”

The film explains why environmentalists become so passionate and might really want to see the old world in ashes, a theme Abbey explored in his apocalyptic novel about Phoenix, “Good News.”

“Wrenched” portrays Abbey and friends with ruthless honesty. Some laugh at the an tics of the early days, when black plastic was unrolled over the edge of the Glen Canyon Dam to represent a crack. The harmless activity brought welcome media attention that gave environmentalists a forum to voice their protest of the dam, one of Abbey’s favorite topics. A tape made on that day in 1981 can still be found on YouTube, showing Abbey seriously pronouncing that, “Surely no manmade structure in modern American history has been hated so much by so many for so long for such good reason as Glen Canyon Dam.”

This statement was greeted with cheers, and that action is now noted as the founding moment of Earth First!

Not everyone was or still is in agreement about what has now come to be called eco- “terrorism,” but the film explores the idea that government pushback against the early environmentalists set the tone for the contemporary environmental movement, in which peaceful citizen resistance continues to play a primary role. The documentary intends to illustrate the links between Abbey’s influence and writings, and today’s activists. One of the ways it does so is by documenting the plight of Tim DeChristopher, the young man also known as “Bidder 70,” who attended an auction held by the Bureau of Land Management on Dec. 19, 2008, in Salt Lake City.

DeChristopher, an economics student at the University of Utah, realized that he could bid on parcels being offered for sale to the oil and gas industry for development. Many of the parcels were adjacent to Canyonlands National Park, and a lawsuit blocking the sale had been filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other groups, to no avail. DeChristopher disrupted the sale, which was cancelled and ruled illegal because of his bids – yet he did so at great personal expense, being ultimately convicted and jailed two years for his actions, with several of his primary defense arguments dismissed.

DeChristopher cites Abbey as his inspiration. In a clip from the film he says, “I started reading Ed Abbey at 18. I was old enough to understand it but not quite old enough to realize that it wasn’t a manual.”

“Wrenched” details DeChristopher’s story as it played out, and establishes the necessity of continued environmental action through interviews with the surviving old-timers who support ongoing protests by the younger generation.

Interspersed with spectacular footage of the Four Corners region, the movie lets us in on why and how Abbey and his pals thought what they thought. Doug Peacock asks, “Why am I an environmentalist? It is because I saw so much destruction in front of my eyes.”

Ken Sleight, river guide, outfitter, and owner of the Pack Creek Ranch where Abbey hid out and wrote, continues: “What it is – it makes you realize it’s worth fighting for. What I loved about Abbey is that he lays his voice to what we all felt. He had the voice and he made the most of it.”

“Wrenched” makes the most of Abbey’s quotes and the dedication his friends have to him and their beloved wilderness. It closed to a standing ovation in Moab.

After the movie, Bob Lippman, a lawyer, river guide and environmental activist living in Moab, who brought the film to the Star Theater (and stars in it), organized a panel featuring the “old guard” of Sleight and Ken Sanders, the “youngsters” Loren Wood and Sarah Stack, and the filmmaker M.L. Lincoln.

However, before the panel began, Abbey’s former girlfriend Eisenstadter took the microphone to express her gratitude for the film, and for the audience. Tears were in her eyes as she said that all these years later, even living in New York City, she is still inspired by Abbey’s words, and now by the film.

“There’s more to this movie than Ed Abbey,” noted Wild Billy Kneebone, guitarist for the Porchlights of Dolores, Colo., who have some of their music in the film. “Now I’m reading ‘Desert Solitaire’, and looking for a copy of that movie ‘Lonely are the Brave’.” (That movie, based on Abbey’s “Brave Cowboy,” stars Kirk Douglas and is also featured in “Wrenched.”)

On stage, Sleight, 80, was frail, whitehaired, and sporting a hearing aid. Next to him sat Stack, who grew up in Castle Valley, who told the audience that Earth First! is still alive and well. One by one, members of the audience came up to comment or ask questions of the panel. Almost the entire crowd stayed. One man suggested that since corporations now have rights like those of people, “We need an amendment that says nature has rights.”

Lippman asked the youngsters what fuels their positive energy and what needs to happen today. Loren responded that there are allies in every corner of the world, and that “the movement is getting fierce.” “It’s in your power to get involved,” she said.

Sleight said more Environmental Impact Statement hearings are needed on proposed projects. Sanders told the audience to “try to follow a sustainable lifestyle the best you can.”

Meanwhile, out in the foyer, another crowd was building for the impromptu 10 p.m. showing for all those turned away at 7. As the panel concluded, Sleight stepped down, coming over to shake hands with his friends. “I’m really, really happy to see the young people here. Keep up the good work,” he said, patting me on the shoulder with a great bear hug. Oops, I just got wrenched!

The website for the film “Wrenched” is http://wrenched-themovie.com/.

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From April 2014.