UNKNOWN TERRITORIES
 

    

 

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH JACK LOEFFLER

Jack Loeffler is an aural historian, writer, radio producer and sound collage artist who was a close friend of Edward Abbey. His book Adventures With Ed (University of New Mexico Press, 2001) chronicles some of their times together.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: When did you first meet Ed Abbey?

JACK LOEFFLER: I guess Ed and I first met in a bar in Santa Fe, back in the early sixties, where I was a bouncer and he wasn’t. But we didn’t really start hanging out together until around 1970.

At that point, some friends of mine and I had started an outfit called the Black Mesa Defense Fund at the request of traditional Hopi Indians, who were very upset about the business that was happening out on Black Mesa in northern Arizona, a place that is the only significant coal deposit in the state. The idea was that the Peabody Coal Company from East St. Louis was to come in, start strip mining the coal, transporting the coal both to a power plant to be constructed on the banks of Lake Powell; the other one to be coal to be slurried to a power plant down near Laughlin, Nevada. The coal to be shipped to the power plant up at Page, Arizona, near Lake Powell, was mostly thought up in order to supply electricity for the Central Arizona Project down the river. The coal to go over to Laughlin, Nevada was basically to fire the power plant to light up Las Vegas. So, basically, a good hunk of the Colorado Plateau, which many think is one of the most beautiful provinces in the entire world, has been greatly ravaged, raped, pillaged in order to supply electricity for the burgeoning growth of the American Southwest.

Ed and I connected on that one. Anybody who is familiar with the book The Monkey Wrench Gang will recognize Black Mesa. That’s where a lot of the affairs took place that were mentioned in the book. Ed and I did a lot of field research together on that book.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: After you met and started working on these things together did you spend a lot of time hiking and getting out into the wilderness?

LOEFFLER: Yeah. When Ed was on his death bed, we were having one of our, well, I guess it was our final real conversation. We concluded in the course of our twenty years of friendship that we basically hiked the equivalent of across the United States together, talking pretty much the whole time. We ran a bunch of rivers together. We’d take off five or six times a year, for ten or fifteen days at a crack, and away we’d go.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: One of my favorite essays by Edward Abbey is “Freedom & Wilderness” and the way he put those two words together.

LOEFFLER: That’s a great pair of concepts. At one point, a long time ago, I recorded Ed delivering a lecture at St. John’s College. The purpose of the lecture was to try to get people involved in the pursuit of protecting the Kaiparowits Plateau from another projected coal-fired power plant, which still could happen. Unless environmentally-oriented people and citizens at large really sit up and take note, we could lose another huge hunk of wilderness.

The concept of freedom with regard to wilderness, and this is something we talked about a lot. Ed, Ed was an anarchist. There are few anarchists around. The idea of that is to be free to govern yourself rather than to be governed by any governing agency, of which there are no dearth.

The idea of being free as a human being means, in a way, to have a big hunk of wilderness inside you to be able to refer to, to be able to swing out in, and really be at large in, and that, I think, is a lot of what Ed was thinking about when he was writing “Freedom & Wilderness” or when we were talking about it.

I think, his great contribution-- it’s interesting: Ed wanted to be thought of as a writer, first and foremost, an artist, which he was, a really good one. But what he did was meld anarchism and environmentalism to found a whole new point of view with regard to how to comport yourself as an environmentalist. He actually was a spiritual guide for the whole radical environmental movement.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Ken Sleight and Jim Stiles both mentioned how Ed really made people think. Ken said that if he blurted something out, Abbey would question him about what he meant.

LOEFFLER: Yeah, well, Ed was like that. You had to be prepared to defend your point of view when you were talking to Ed. I have to say that our conversations wandered through every conceivable point of view and a lot of it had to do with philosophical speculation. We shouldn’t forget that Ed got a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of New Mexico. Ed regarded the Tao Te Ching, for example—I can’t, I’ll come close, but this is still a paraphrase—as the best little book ever written, philosophically. He was very inspired by that book when he was at the university and I think that he retained aspects of that throughout his whole life. He regarded Chuang-tzu, who was actually a student of Lao-tzu, to have been the first true anarchist, which is interesting. That spirit that pervaded, that anarchist spirit or the libertarian spirit, which wasn’t defined until the 19th century, appeared in people like Spartacus. That was somebody that Ed had great admiration for. One of the things that he would say was that one of the reasons that he regarded William Shakespeare as a pompous ass was because there were no real heroes in any of Shakespeare’s work. There was no Spartacus. That’s interesting to me.

One of the things I’d like to bring out, a subject we talked about a lot, was the difference between intelligence and consciousness. It’s possible to be wildly intelligent without having much consciousness at all. The idea there is to use, from within your consciousness, whatever intelligence you’ve been endowed with. That was something we used to talk about. Interesting thought.

Another writer who was very aware of that is Gary Snyder. Gary and Ed never met which is really too bad. Gary is also a good friend. Gary’s also had some really interesting anarchist moments. I used to liken the two of them—this is true—Ed to Bakunin, Mikhail Bakunin, who was the bomb thrower and a great warrior at the barricades; and Gary Snyder to Peter Kropotkin, who never engaged, really, in combat but saw that if indeed anything was manifest with regard to the process of evolution, either of species or of culture, it was founded on a heck of a lot more mutual cooperation than mutual antagonism. However, the two of them together, you could imagine what sort of a dialogue it could have been because Ed was very, very warm to the ideas of Kropotkin. He understood full well but he also had that true warrior streak in him, where he would go whole hog. But there was one rule and that was to never cause harm to a fellow human. It was okay to commit acts which might reduce the terrorist tools, bulldozers or things like that, but never ever harm a fellow human or anything living.

Apropos of that, it’s really important to differentiate between terrorism and sabotage. Because when people think of Ed Abbey, the concept of sabotage more than lurks in the frontal lobes, that’s for sure. Ed regarded terrorism as acts of committing terror against fellow humans, or wildlife, or trees. He regarded chaining down a piñon and juniper, to make an area clear for the presence of cattle, to be a grave act of terrorism. Sabotage, on the other hand, was what he considered justifiable if it was stopping acts of terrorism, whether they be committed by corporate America or the United States government. This is something to really be thought about.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Do you think Ed felt that he could change things with his writing? Was he consciously doing that? I mean obviously he did but—

LOEFFLER: Well, he discovered that he had a voice that was being listened to. He started to become well known back in the early seventies when The Monkey Wrench Gang came out.

I think that kind of set a lot of folks right on their ear. They read that book and somehow it tickled the funny bone and also the responsibility bone of an awful lot of people. So, yeah, he became very conscious that he needed to try to inspire people with his work. But he wanted to inspire their thinking as well as their actions. In my experience, Ed had two great mottoes: one was resolve; and the other was follow the truth, no matter where it leads. I think that Ed, he was as close to that as anybody could possibly get.

...Ed had another favorite person, who was an essayist, who was a really clear thinker. A man named Garrett Hardin, who back in 1968 published an essay entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which became sort of another pivotal piece of writing with regard to how people looked at habitat overpopulation. Hardin, during his time of modest fame, was regarded as sort of a modern day Malthusian. But he had written an essay entitled “An Ecolate View of the Human Predicament.” He made up the word ‘ecolate’: e-c-o-l-a-t-e. I had the opportunity to interview Hardin back in 1984 or ’5 in California, where he was emeritus from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Hardin said that the idea of the word ecolate was the ability to perceive of things in juxtaposition rather than following the linear trail through one’s sense of reality. In order to be successful, you had to be able to think in terms—I’m paraphrasing here because I use this a lot in my own work—but you have to be able to think in terms of a sphere of reference, and identify clusters of factors that are related, and then see how all of these clusters interrelate.

In other words, how does human overpopulation relate to the presence of an arid habitat; to just all manner of interrelated things? Like, where does the water come from? Where does the fuel come from to run a city where a city shouldn’t be, like Phoenix in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, for example? These are things that Ed thought about a lot. He had the ability to see associated clusters of factors. That is something that wasn’t necessarily unique to him but it is certainly not a really popular way of thinking in a lot of American systems. I think that is an important thing to really understand about Ed’s mind. He had this magnificent brain. Extraordinary mind. It doesn’t always show up in his writing. He was a beautiful writer. But the absolute magnitude and, how to put it, the magnitude and the complexity of his thinking, were extraordinary by any human standards. That’s what I learned when we walked for twenty years and three thousand miles.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: One question I wanted to ask, he said something to the effect of ‘ideas without actions are meaningless.’ What do you think he meant by that?

LOEFFLER: Well, thinking about pulling up survey stakes along a road that’s not suppose to be there is meaningless unless you pull up the survey stakes. How’s that?

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Do you think he really wanted to blow up the dam?

LOEFFLER: Yeah. It was interesting. That was his huge, wonderful fantasy. That opened The Monkey Wrench Gang, the concept of blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam. The truth is that dam is really a bad scene. Yet, at this moment in time, if it was taken down, thanks to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the people who live in the upper basin states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming could stand a big chance of having to forfeit their water to the lower basin states. Because the lower basin states have—there’s an article that says that every ten years seventy-five million acre feet of water has to be located in the lower basin states, mostly to California, mind you.

That’s a whole other subject, which I’m very familiar with because I just produced a radio series on the Colorado River. But if that dam were to come down, it could only come down after a whole compact. Which is really like a constitution, in a way, would be redesigned because of legislation. This is where things like the law of the river or, as far as I’m concerned and any good anarchist knows, almost all law is unnatural, unless it is natural law. One of the things that I’m thinking about, and I say to folks when I do a lecture anymore, is to try to imagine the entire Colorado River watershed—this is an idea Gary Snyder came up with—imagining all the tributarial systems and the main stem of the river all flowing in one big thought. In other words, all 244 thousand miles of landscape, which is drained by the watershed, all flowing at the same time. Then imagine about sixty dams in there. It’s like huge plugs of cholesterol in the system.

One of the things that is really grim is that, between them, Lake Mead and Lake Powell evaporate just under two million acre feet of water every year from the surface. That’s a lot of water when you consider that only fourteen million acre feet, as an average, come down the whole Colorado River system in a year at the point of Lees Ferry.

Ed’s thought, with regard to the Glen Canyon Dam, probably first erupted when he and his friend Ralph Newcomb were running Glen Canyon back in the early fifties, at one point, sometime in the fifties. They rounded a final bend and, by golly, there was the Glen Canyon Dam being constructed. It was a terrible sight to behold.

There are some folks, including Katie Lee and, Ken Sleight, and John DePuy, and a fair number of others, myself, who had actually been in Glen Canyon before it started to fill up. As Barry Goldwater noted, it was a total disaster. Goldwater said that if he had known the level of degradation to true beauty he would never have voted in favor of the Glen Canyon Dam. That dam to me and to Ed, and I know to others, is a symbol of the evils wrought by corporate thinking and wrong-minded legislation. That’s why Ed dreamed of blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Were there any hikes, any stories with Ed, you can tell that would sort of describe the character of Ed Abbey?

LOEFFLER: One that I mentioned in my book: Ed was doing an article. I have forgotten who for at this point. But he was supposed to write an article on Big Bend country. He called up one day and asked if I’d be up for going on a trip into the Big Bend. I love Big Bend. We’d floated part of the lower canyons together years earlier. So we loaded up my truck. He flew into Albuquerque and I picked him up. We headed down into the Big Bend country. That trip actually describes a lot of the way Ed was.

When we first got there, we went up near Emory Peak. Went up on the mountain and went for a walk. I was busy watching Ed figuring out what he was going to gather, what information he wanted to gather, for his article he was going to write. He was a great tracker. So we tracked different creatures. He noted as many different species of both wildlife and flora that he could identify, bearing in mind that Ed detested being known as a naturalist. This was not natural to him, to be thought of as a naturalist. But he was a good one in spite of what he said. Anyway, we hiked five or six miles and wandered around. We looked at information. He asked my impressions as to what bird-life I might be able to identify because I was always pretty heavily into the birds. This is Chihuahuan Desert country we are talking about. Emory Peak rises above the desert but it’s still very much a part of the Chihuahuan. We camped a few nights here and there.

Then one day we decided to take a drive down the river road. The river road had two signs. The first one said: ‘four-wheel drive vehicles only.’ Then the sign behind that said: ‘road closed to all vehicular traffic.’

Well, I had a two wheel drive pick-up truck. But we drove around the four-wheel drive sign. We sat in front of the road-closed sign. We couldn’t stand it. We wondered why the road was closed. Ed was as antsy as I’ve ever seen him. He wanted to get down that road. So we started down the road. The road got worse and worse and worse. Finally, we went down into an arroyo and shot off the other side. We knew we’d never make it back if we had to turn around and go back. So we were committed at that point. We kept on going.

We finally came to a place in the road, it said: ‘road blocked.’ Well, it was blocked. It was just closed. We looked and we’d seen the Rio Grande had undercut the road. The course of the river had scooched a lot of the dirt away. So about half the road was not held up by anything. We stood there and looked at it. We’d both got out of the truck. I said: ‘Well, let’s give it a shot’ and Ed said: ‘Let’s go swimming first.’ I said: ‘No, I want to do it now.’ I was driving and you get your chops up and it’s time to go. Ed said: ‘No way.’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ We got in a real argument. I said: ‘The hell with you.’ I climbed in my truck and just did it. It didn’t cave in. I lived and the water didn’t drown the truck or anything. Ed came running up behind me, as mad as I’ve ever seen him, and we almost got into a fist fight. We didn’t quite. Finally, the whole thing got so absurd that I started to laugh. The more I laughed, the madder Ed got.

So, I went over and got a couple of beers out of the cooler in the back of the truck. I gave one to Ed. I went over and sat down and started to read, finally. A little while, a couple of hours, went by. Ed came over and he was sort of kicking in the dirt. He apologized and said: ‘I don’t know how I got so mad,’ and all that sort of thing, and ‘Are we still friends?’ We made up, you know, and then we went swimming in the river.

But that evening we got into one of the best talks about literature and anarchist thought. It just delved deeper and deeper and deeper. We basically sat up until dawn, drinking beer in front of a campfire that was probably illegal and camped illegally in Big Bend. I don’t suggest that because you know we ought not to be visiting all these places [sigh].

 

 

Loeffler

Jack Loeffler

© 2012 All rights reserved