Essay by Dan Whipple
I never met Ed Abbey face to face, but I was twice the victim of his generosity. He also violated his one unbreakable rule on my behalf. What happened was this.
Edward Abbey needs no introduction. He is a legendary author, most famously of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its publication this year.
I do need an introduction, though. In the early 1980s, I was editor of High Country News, a regional environmental biweekly newspaper then published in Lander, Wyoming. HCN has since gone on to greater fame and fortune from its base in Paonia, Colorado, but without my assistance.
Anyway. Abbey had long been a friend and fan of HCN. Editor Bruce Hamilton visited Abbey at his home sometime in the mid-1970s and hung around with Ed, hiking and playing the penny whistle. Bruce wrote a charming story about it for the paper. (You can download a pdf of the HCN issue with the story.)
So in early 1983, I was HCN editor, running low on ideas. It occurred to me that maybe we could get some famous names to write for us, raise our visibility. We couldn’t pay them much — I think our rate then was 10 cents a word — but they would be doing a good deed, which they could chalk off against their time in Purgatory. I don’t think I pitched it exactly that way, but you get the idea. It’s like writing for a website in exchange for exposure.
So I sent letters to several writers whose work I admired. Garry Trudeau, for instance, the creator of Doonesbury, had just announced he was taking a sabbatical from the daily grind and wanted to try some different ventures. This is different, I reasoned.
I also wrote to The New Yorker’s John McPhee and to Peter Matthiessen, whose novel Far Tortuga I thought (and still think) to be one of the great works of fiction in English. And of course I wrote to Abbey. I asked each of them if they’d be willing to do a piece on a topic of their choosing to be featured in HCN. In return they’d be showered in glory.
These were, I knew, low percentage plays, but like I said, I was running out of ideas. Trudeau responded with a hand-written postcard — which I still have — saying he’d be unable to do anything for us, but wishing me luck. (Anybody want to buy a 1983 vintage postcard signed by Garry Trudeau?)
John McPhee wrote a nice letter saying he’d love to do something, but that it took him so long to write anything at all that he feared he’d never get around to it. I know just how he felt.
And Peter Matthiessen called me on the phone to say he couldn’t do it, but he appreciated my kind words about Far Tortuga. We had a brief collegial conversation.
In the wake of all this rejection came a large brown envelope from Edward Abbey, containing a typewritten, unpublished manuscript. The typescript had been produced on a manual typewriter — this was before computers and word processors. It was slashed through with revisions and margin notes in Abbey’s hand.
And it was awful.
As best I can recall, it was about an oil company tycoon who had a throne in his basement where he required all of his minions to bow down to him, kiss his ring, kind of a combination king and pope. If it was true, it was incredible but pointless. If it was satire it didn’t work.
Here I had an original piece by one of the West’s best and most famous writers, and I didn’t think I could use it. What to do, what to do? I did what any crusading environmental editor would do.
I shoved it in the upper right hand drawer of my desk and left it there. I couldn’t call Abbey and tell him his piece was awful. I couldn’t edit it. I was me, and he was Edward Abbey. Worse, it was a piece I’d asked him for and he’d responded graciously. Every once in awhile I’d take it out to reread to see if it was really as bad as I first thought and whether I could salvage it somehow. In my fading memory, the manuscript is in red ink, though this can’t be true. Can it?
There things stood until, in September of that year, I got married, left HCN. The publication packed up and moved to its present HQ in Paonia, Colorado. Presumably somewhere in the musty archives from the Wyoming era is this undiscovered Edward Abbey manuscript awaiting the Eureka! moment of some literary archaeologist.
But for Abbey’s reputation, it’s best left buried. Trust me.
In 1984, former HCN writer Don Snow and I started a publication called Northern Lights, in Missoula, Montana. Northern Lights was a public policy and literary publication covering the northern Rocky Mountain states — kind of a Harper’s magazine for the Rockies.
We had better luck attracting high profile writers for Northern Lights than I’d had at HCN. Over the course of my tenure there, we published William Kittredge, Annick Smith, Rick DeMarinis, Ellen Meloy, Geoff O’Gara, Mark Spragg, Terry Tempest Williams and many others.
But the hardest part about starting a publication is not attracting writers. It’s selling subscriptions. This was the pre-social media era, so the most effective way to sell subs was direct mail. We sent complimentary copies of Northern Lights to various mailing lists and we got a very good return, considering. The usual return on direct mail was between 1 percent and 2 percent. We were getting 4 percent to 5 percent. But still we needed something that would make a splash.
Knowing no shame — his earlier submission now fossilized by the ineluctable forces of nature — I wrote to Abbey asking him if he had anything we could use.
Now you might think Abbey would be justified in telling me to conduct some anatomically unlikely contortion. And you would be right. At a minimum, “Why don’t you just use the piece I sent you earlier?”
But he didn’t. Almost immediately he sent me another piece. He wrote in an accompanying note that he had done it for The New Yorker. They had paid him for it, but they weren’t going to use it. So we could have it gratis.
And it was terrific. Sharp, intelligent, funny. And — even better — it was about cows and cowboys. It just so happened we had a theme issue on cows and cowboys coming up that month.
Abbey intended to be provocative, and he was. Cattle should be removed from western public lands, he wrote, because we don’t need them and they’re doing a lot of damage. “Our public lands are infested with domestic cattle,” he wrote in one of several inflammatory passages. “Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the the American West, you will find herds — herds — of these ugly, clumsy, shambling, stupid, bawling, bellowing, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague.”
The only thing worse than the cows were the cowboys: “Cowboys, themselves, are greatly overrated. Consider the nature of their work. Suppose you had to spend most of your working hours sitting on a horse, contemplating the hind end of a cow. How would that affect your imagination?”
There was a lot more of this sort of thing, a hilarious, wildly logical condemnation of the western cattle industry.
We sent this issue out as a sampling lure to a large mailing list. Ten percent of the people we sent it to paid for a subscription to Northern Lights, a phenomenal return that pretty much insured the publication’s survival, at least for a few years. Maybe they were enchanted by Allan Savory’s counterbalancing rest-rotation grazing piece Holism and health of the commons.
But I doubt it.
Northern Lights came out every two months, so the final act played out in slow motion. First, we got some letters, not all of which were flattering. Cowgirl writer Gretel Ehrlich wrote, “A lot of us were appalled by what Abbey said. What’s the sense of printing something so arrogant, incoherent, flippant and nonsensical? Just to use the famous name? That’s bullshit.”
In train with Ehrlich, my failures as an editor were much commented upon. Former rancher Jake Kittle jumped on the bullshit bandwagon, writing, “Ed Abbey has written as irresponsible a piece of bullshit as I’ve ever seen in print on any subject … I think you made a bad mistake in including it.”
And C.R. McElligott of Ione, Oregon, along with a few others, thought the editor — that would be me — had neglected his duties. “You ought to edit Mr. Abbey or clearly label his work as fiction … To hint that Vermont produced more beef than Montana is utter nonsense. Montana is ahead on cattle numbers approximately seven-to-one … The rest of his essay maintains the same high level of believability.”
And so on.
In the next issue — this is four months after his piece first appeared — Abbey broke his cardinal rule to defend himself and, by extension, me. In a letter to the editor, Abbey wrote, “None of these imperfections can be blamed on the editor of Northern Lights; author Abbey was a given a chance to proofread the galleys … but never got around to it.
“Although my official policy is NEVER APOLOGIZE, NEVER EXPLAIN [shouting is in the original], I will make an exception to the rule this one time and hereby humbly apologize for the generally meek, mild, temporizing tone of my address … Why? Because in returning to Arizona, I learned that agents of the U.S. Forest Service (‘our’ public servants) are planning to spray some kind of Union Carbide poison on several thousand acres of mesquite in order to temporarily benefit three or four beef ranchers … Is there no limit to the greed, arrogance and stupidity of the livestock industry? No: there is not.”
Ed Abbey died too young in 1989, the question of abuse of public lands by the cattle industry unresolved. We had no further communication, which probably worked out best for both of us.
But in January 1986, Harper’s magazine — which is kind of a Northern Lights for the eastern seaboard — published a version of the same piece we had run titled, Even the Bad Guys Wear White Hats.
Harper’s left out a lot of the rambling opening of the piece, which I thought had given it a lot of its charm. One of our readers was kind enough to write to me to say he was a little puzzled by this, but that he thought the Harper’s version was “better edited.”
Thanks a lot.
— Dan Whipple is a writer living in Colorado. He is at work on a novel. Sometimes.
— Columns and essays are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at email@example.com.
Just a correction, the Magazine Piece
on Courtenay Davis was in Sept of 1980
in New West Magazine.
The Magazine had many prominent writers, and won many awards.
The piece on Courtenay Davis
Won an American Bar Association Award.
The Magazine folded, went out of business.
It was an excellent Magazine, in a big market. It went kaput in the pre digital
Era. Hopefully, the old crews of the light
and HCN can draw it up and read it on
cattle and markets.
The author was a top gun, award winning
New York has more cows than Wyoming.See Data from the USDA.
So, this piece has implications, where are they now?
The Publisher,then, (HCN) Ms Jill, who drifted into Wyoming came from Stanford University, as a young lassie fresh off her Ivy academic West Coast classes.
She is now in Seattle, and lists herself as President of a University with a nitch of
“sustainability” at some organization that calls itself Pinchot University.(WWW/ google, a MBA program). This is curious because of the Y Cross situation. The vision that Amy Davis had was one that had Y Cross at its center piece, and experiences in Horse Creek(Wyo) since 1941.
Would reputed monkey-wrencher Abbey be cheering, given his opus on cows, in his bovine-phobia.This is all interwoven with Sternberg(ex President of UW) who headed back to New York, Connell U, after some weird dustups in Laramie. It is curious why HRC never wrote on Courtney Davis, or the U of Wyo Magazine. He was the subject of a 1985 piece in New West Magazine by an award winning writer, and the piece got an ABA award. Courtney Davis had a degree from Princeton, & a law degree from a top tier law school, Northwestern, and a life in Chicago before he moved to Horse Creek Wyoming. The University of Wyoming(UWF) could not sustain the Y Cross under its management, therein lies many many issues, that many a MBA, or resource economics program could study for the next 25 years. Except UWF( the U of WYO FOUNDATION) has the overarching objective to keep matters secret. Yes, Horse Creek Wyoming the center of resource, environment, economic issues, that don’t just drift off the radar. This all begs questions on the Burke Ranch, North of Casper, too. I suppose one could wonder if one becomes a high school drop out, like Abbey, and drifts around then does that give one a perspective on cows, as if
cowboys are merely his targets, and his life is so elevated in the bigger sum of matters.
Really, put up his opus on OIL and lets explore that perspective, now that the U S has entered into a new hydrocarbon era. Courtenay Davis’s son Court, as he was called, never got a chance to return to Y Cross, he was killed in combat in Korea (the Korean War). He was a grad of West Point. Honor, duty country, those are not the values of Abbey, were they? You all raised the issues: NON PROFITS
Ooops, this(Y Cross see above) flashed up, before I could edit on sheep, and lawyers that come from Calif to the Thunderhead Ranch for some Gerry-Juice Karma, Wind River Spirits. E L Newton was from Lander, a once Newspaper owner(pre digital era), Spence can’t claim he won his criminal case against him, when he charged him as the D A in Fremont County. Oh, the mythology of the Cowboy Lawyer, and the Cheyenne Club, and the proverb: The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the water rights. See on Norm Pattis, and Thunderhead Ranch, and non-profits, and linked in the great cyber sphere, more on Fremont County, and
justice gone awry.
It is ironic, the Y Cross matters, then the chap who inspired the Earth First, and monkey wrenches, and a manuscript in red ink on oil, and power. Then, we have the chaps at U of Wyo (Foundation) trying so hard to prove Y Cross(the Ranch) was a loser, & did not cut it on cash flow, and thus they had to dash the vision of Amy Davis, but did any read the exclusion provisions in the MOA on the “saddle”, etc. Well, Ed A dished men like Mr Courtenay Davis, who came from Chicago, as he drifted into Arizona from the East. Maricopa, there must lots of irony to be found there, on Justice Towers. Before Y Cross, was the bankruptcy of the ex Governor of Wyoming on his reputed ranch near Lander. (in Times Magazine 1985. At least, teh Ex Governor did not run lawyers through sheep pen, in a ranch called Thunderhead
FROM the L A Times, May 1985.
“Wyoming is the cowboy state. Its license plate for more than 50 years has been a cowboy on a bucking horse. It’s a state where everyone wears boots. Where beef and lamb are the main dishes. Where people turn up their noses at the mention of chicken and fish. No poultry farms here”.
In 1985, Time Magazine did a piece on the WYO Governor (Ed H) declaring bankruptcy over troubles on some reputed cattle ranch.( not too far from Lander).
Actually, Wyoming has 23 states ahead of it in the USA in terms of cattle production.
Some people turn their nose up at fish. Too bad they never ever traveled to some rivers in Alaska for the greatest salmon fishing in the world, or tried some halibut fishing in Alaska waters. What now, it seems to be in vogue that are some turning their nose up at real cattle ranchers. The Y Cross incident, YEAH where is the BEEF.
“The USA is a key market for Australian beef and lamb exports and its importance is growing: Australia’s beef exports by volume to America shot up by 53% in the first half of 2014, [calendar year] compared with the same period in 2013, making America its largest beef export destination so far, Meat & Livestock Australia chief economist Tim McRae told GlobalMeatNews.”
Laramie: ALL Hat and no cattle, or little to really speak of. The Y Cross saga/ bovine incidents.
Do professors at U of WYO(UWF), wear boots? The all-the herd? VEGGIES, and YOGURT, and mushrooms. See on Texaco and the jungles: and Ecuador, and the Lander hall of FAME, the son of the magazine publisher from Lander, E L N , and troubles. The L A Times has too many PICS in its old pre digital cabinets of Dick Cheney in a cowboy hat.(no cattle Dick and LIZ, and “exceptional” bull).
Wyoming is only 24th, at least it came in ahead of Ohio.
SOURCE USDA data base. Really, the Y-Cross was not run as a dude ranch in the 1990’s, or 1980’s or 1970’s, etc.
Given assorted bovine matters and OLD MAIN(UWF), this might noted as to states and cattle rankings:
What a different cross current from Boulder, given issues on Y Cross.
Courtenay Davis was not a dude rancher. The ungulate jungle, and the herd,
in the Republic of Boulder, Lander, and CSU, Sun Beamers, and Big SKY, and the green machine.
Thanks everyone for the kind comments.
Classic Whipple. Thanks for digging that one out, Dan. Loved it.
Which legendary author are we talking about here, Abbey or Whipple?
Thank you for your wonderful guest column “Me and Ed.” And thank you for tracing the impressive tradition of low-budget, public service journalism back to the Lander days of High Country News and the Missoula Northern Lights (wonderful name that!). Somehow it may me feel even better about WyoFile and what it represents.
Please commit now to let WyoFile publish something your upcoming book.
Wyoming still rues the loss of Whipple and HCN. Bring ’em both back.
How good to hear from Dan. I like the photo too. Maybe if he doesn’t have time to finish the novel he can write more pieces for Wyofile.
R T Cox
Good to hear from Whipple and be reminded of Northern Lights. I was living in Sheridan, WY, a subscriber of HCN who was sent Northern Lights and subscribed. It was a great combination of politics, policy and prose. I missed that voice when it shuttered. I agree–more essays.
Dear Mr. Whipple,
Talk about sacred cows! You shook things up and commanded attention. Abbey would be proud.
More essays, please.
Joan Nice Hamilton