Down the River, by Edward Abbey, pub. by E.P. Dutton, New York, 1982, pb, 242 pp. The first word is that this is not a paddling or camping book. Abbey is a good author, and the book is well written, but the title does give the impression that there is something here that isn’t; that is unless you are looking for some whitewater rafting or Sportyaking, and even that is just mentioned in passing. The book is a series of short stories or essays on a variety of topics. The message here is the same as in “Freedom and Wilderness,” which is a call against the stripping and development of the American West.
In spite of service in the military and employment as a park ranger, Abbey was so outspoken against the government and its policies of managing public lands that the FBI kept a running file on him for most of his adult life. When he learned that the FBI was watching him, he said he’d be disappointed if they weren’t. It’s a blessing that he passed away in 1989 and isn’t here now to see what is going on with Trump, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt and their open destruction of all things related to nature and the environment. Abbey devoted his life to preserving the nation’s natural beauty.
Abbey wrote 23 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and three anthologies. Several were made into movies and documentaries. The two listed as his best and most influential were “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and “Desert Solitaire.”
Abbey is capable of producing some memorable smiles. For example, he complains about the conspicuous and attention-zeroing sound produced by the opening of a can of beer. He supposes it “would be helpful if some clever lad invented a more discreet, a more genteel mode of opening beer cans. A soft, susurrate, suspiring sort of …s i g h… might serve nicely. A sound that could pass, let us say, for the relaxed, simple, artless fart of a duchess.” Now there’s an image to conjure every time you open a beer! Another memorable quote of his, which he in turn attributes to Louisa May Alcott, is “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
Some of the topics covered in “Down the River” are the court proceedings for trespassers and protestors at an atomic weapons manufacturing plant, the beauty and simplicity of the family farm, Thoreau, bears, glaciers, river rafting, fire tower employment, and Sonora, Mexico. My favorite was the story on the mining ghost town of Bodie, CA. However, if paddling is what you are after, you may wish to draw a line through this title. It’s good reading for any lover of nature and the environment, but off target for those wanting the pages to conjure up the sound of the paddle.