As essayist and environmental spokesman for the American Southwest, Edward Abbey has effectively publicized the need to protect the deserts and wilderness areas of his adopted region. In works such as Desert Solitaire (1968), he has written eloquently of the beauty of the desert environment; in his latest book, Down the River, he shifts his attention to the rivers and canyons of the American West, using the occasion of a series of river-rafting trips on the Green and San Juan rivers in southeast Utah and the Tatshenshini in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon for a series of outdoor sketches and wide-ranging essays on a variety of environmental topics. Many of these essays and articles originally appeared separately in magazines elsewhere, but Abbey has skillfully woven them together here, using the central thematic motif of the river voyage. His narrative models include Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) as well as the numerous journals and accounts of the mountain men and early explorers of the West. “For twenty years now I’ve been floating rivers,” he says in the preface. “Always downstream, the easy and natural way. The way Huck Finn and Jim did it, La Salle and Marquette, the mountain men, Major Powell, and a few hundred others,” he continues.
Parts of the book are written in journal format, with daily entries and reflections as Abbey’s group floats downstream through the canyons of the Green or San Juan rivers. Henry David Thoreau is the guiding spirit through many of these adventures, as Abbey blends quotations and excerpts from Thoreau’s Journals (1906) and from Walden (1854) with truculent comments on contemporary environmental problems in the West: dams, lumbering, strip-mining, urban sprawl, missile silos, military bases, and nuclear weapons plants all come under the attack of his acerbic pen. Abbey reveals his atavistic sensibility in his love of wildness and adventure, and his dislike of crowds, urbanization, and development. Like a latter-day Huck Finn or a Jack Kerouac character, he is happiest when he is on the move, far from the reach of civilization or responsibility, drifting downstream away from the pollution and congestion of the overcrowded and crime-ridden cities that he detests.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Abbey reminds his readers, quoting again from Thoreau. Throughout the book, he equates freedom with the wilderness of the unspoiled river canyons and national forests of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Outdoor recreation, he asserts, is one of the last truly open and democratic activities available in America’s increasingly regimented, urbanized, technological society. Perhaps this is hyperbole, but Abbey certainly has a point about the value of the wilderness for the renewal of the human spirit. Running rivers become for him a symbol of the unrestricted freedom of the American frontier that has largely been lost. He compares the relaxed freedom of his “river rat” companions with the uptight corporate and government types engaged in the armaments business and in environmental destruction. In between lyrical descriptions of running rapids, camping, and enjoying the spectacular Western scenery, Abbey offers his own brand of iconoclastic environmental philosophy—part hippie, part anarchist, part preservationist, and part Native American. Not surprisingly, the Reagan Administration receives his particular scorn, but as he explains, both superpowers are equally committed to “technology, the ever-expanding economy . . . industrialism, militarism, centralized control—the complete domination of nature and human beings.” He contrasts the bold, free, and unexploitative spirit of the American Indians with the acquisitive, capitalist mentality that counts scenic and wilderness areas only as potential “resources” to be “developed” with dams, missile bases, strip mines, or timber-cutting. True to his frontier spirit, Abbey even objects to the permits and restrictions used by the Park Service to limit access to some of the most popular rivers for rafting and canoeing. Wild rivers are not “resources,” he protests, but are “part of nature’s bloodstream.” Yet even he is forced to acknowledge that without some kinds of restrictions, their wild and scenic qualities would quickly be destroyed through overuse. His style of confrontational journalism is effective in calling attention to environmental disputes, but less effective perhaps in suggesting ways to resolve them.