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Celebrating Edward Abbey

Plus, 7 Other Environmental Avengers

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • January 31, 2020

January 29 would have been Edward Abbey's ninety-third birthday (he died in 1989). More than just an environmentalist, the trailblazing author was described as an activist—even an anarchist—decrying what he saw as governmental mismanagement of public lands. In Abbey's honor, we're featuring a reading list inspired by him, along with seven other environmental activists who have written groundbreaking books in defense of nature.

Wilderness. The word itself is music.—Edward Abbey

In 1956, Edward Abbey took a job as a ranger in the Arches National Monument, now a National Park. During that time, he documented his love for the beautiful desert landscape he inhabited. He also wrote of his discord with "improvements" made to increase visitation to the park. These notes became the foundation for his seminal work, Desert Solitaire, first published in 1968. However, the notoriously fractious Abbey resented being thought of as a nature writer, saying, "I never wanted to be anything but a writer, period."

A taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors.—Henry David Thoreau

Author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau is thought of as a founding father of environmental activism. His Walden, published in 1854, provides a contemplative account of his time living alone in a secluded cabin in the woods at Walden Pond. Like Abbey, he was thought of as something of an anarchist, rejecting the actions of several governmental institutions. He was ahead of his time in predicting many of the future findings of ecology and environmental studies and promoting a simpler, less impactful way to live.

In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars.—John Muir

An early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States, Scottish-American John Muir is also known as the "Father of the National Parks" As a young man, Muir took a job tending sheep in the Sierra Nevada. The diary he kept during this time became the heart of his book My First Summer in the Sierra, published in 1911. Finding himself utterly captivated by the beauty of the mountains, Muir devoted the rest of his life to preserving the untrammeled wildlands of Western America.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.—Aldo Leopold

Yale-educated forester, philosopher, and conservationist Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac was published in 1949, shortly after his death. The book is an urgent call for preservation of wilderness areas and the animals and plant species that inhabit these places. Drawing on his extensive experience working for the U.S. Forest Service, Leopold takes readers on a tour of the breathtaking diversity of the unspoiled American landscape—mountains, prairies, deserts, and coastlines.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.—Rachel Carson

Marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson took on some powerful opponents with her 1962 book Silent Spring, which warned against the dangers of the use of synthetic pesticides like DDT. Her work inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to a nationwide ban on such chemicals and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it's not really there.—Bill McKibben

Award-winning journalist Bill McKibben has spearheaded several large-scale, global environmental movements. He is the cofounder of the climate campaign group His focus is on global warming, arguing that we must make a fundamental philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature. McKibben is the author of more than a dozen books, including his first in 1989, The End of Nature, an impassioned plea for radical and life-renewing change.

I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear.—Terry Tempest Williams

Like so many of these authors, Terry Tempest Williams has a proud history of civil disobedience in defense of nature, including illegally purchasing over 1,000 acres of land that was being auctioned for oil and gas drilling. Her 1991 memoir, Refuge, describes her devastation during two concurrent events in the spring of 1983. As her mother succumbed to breast cancer (ostensibly caused by 1950s atomic testing near her Southern Utah home), the Great Salt Lake flooded and threatened the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a beloved sanctuary to Williams. Like much of her work, the book explores humanity's complicated relationship with the earth.

In nature's economy the currency is not money, it is life.—Vandana Shiva

Renowned physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva has written many books arguing the dangers of globalization and natural resource privatization. Earth Democracy, published in 2005, connects the dots between these trends and the rising tide of fundamentalism, violence toward women, and planetary death. Drawing from a deep well of knowledge and experience, she lays out a set of principles for change, a foundation to support a just and sustainable future.

It's not easy being green.—Kermit

The immortal words of Kermit seem pretty apt when it comes to these brave voices raising a clarion call to save the planet. Thanks to all the enviro-warriors who are fighting the good fight for our earth's future. Obviously this list is far from complete. Do you have any favorite nature/environmental writers? Let us know!

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