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  • New Materialism, Ecomysticism, and the Resolution of Paradox in Edward Abbey
  • David Tagnani (bio)

In a journal entry dated August 18, 1988, Edward Abbey complains about the treatment of his work in the New York Review of Books: “like most other book reviewers I’ve had to endure now for the past twenty years, [reviewer Bill McKibben] seizes on one narrow aspect of my writing (the desert-loving, deep-ecology bit), and ignores the other ninety percent, thus misrepresenting my books and falsifying my life” (Confessions 349–50). With apologies to Ed, I aim to do the same thing in this essay. I’ll take his word for it that such emphasis falsifies his life, but there is no denying that the “desert-loving, deep-ecology bit” is the heart of his work, the motivation that propels all the brash political tirades and belligerent critiques of mainstream American culture and values. It all flows from his love of place, his love of the American West. But what exactly is the mechanism by which place inspires such love? One answer lies in the tension between materialism and mysticism that marks much of Abbey’s writing.

This tension is often an explicit theme, particularly in his nonfiction. In the “Author’s Introduction” to Desert Solitaire, for instance, Abbey introduces this theme by announcing that although the reader might object that the book deals too much with “mere appearances,” Abbey himself is “pleased enough with surfaces” (xiii). But Abbey is not immune to the hypothetical reader’s desire for “true underlying reality” (xiii). Throughout Desert Solitaire he wrestles with the impulse to imbue the material with myth and abstraction and to overlook “surfaces” in favor of metaphysical speculation. He [End Page 317] sees these two modes—the material and the ideal, the physical and the mystical—as oppositional, antagonistic: he must suppress his mystical impulse in order to keep faith with the material world.1 I will attempt to dismantle this dichotomy by arguing for the synthesis of materialism and mysticism into a material mysticism—what I term ecomysticism. Ecomysticism inspires Abbey to identify with and love his nonhuman surroundings by facilitating the sense of union so common in mysticism. Since ecomysticism is a material mysticism, the object with which union is achieved is translated from a supernatural entity or force into the material world of the desert Southwest. By means of this translation, ecomysticism helps resolve an inherent tension in much of Abbey’s nonfiction and forms a significant motivating factor for the ecocentric ethos that underlies it.

A Brief History of Ecomysticism

Though I am using “ecomysticism” in a unique way, I did not coin the term. In 1996 New Scientist used the term as the title of a five-sentence book review of E. N. Anderson’s Ecologies of the Heart, and a few other reviews of cultural ecology texts published in journals around the millennium continued the casual use of the term. Mary C. Grey dedicates a chapter to the concept in her 2004 book, Sacred Longings: The Ecological Spirit and Global Culture. Grey writes from a Christian perspective, and her use of the term is explicitly theistic in orientation. Jo Farrow and Alex Wildwood’s Universe as Revelation (2013), a book that examines Quaker theology in the context of environmental problems, uses “ecomysticism” in its subtitle—another theistic connotation. The term mysticism already carries with it the weight of theism; referring to the experience of gods or deities or other supernatural entities in the natural world may simply be indicated by the compound noun “nature mysticism.” Therefore, I am rescuing the term ecomysticism from its theistic connotations to denote an experience that has yet to find concise expression in the scholarship: a mysticism predicated entirely on the material world.

The only vaguely accordant use of the term occurs in Carl Von Essen’s 2010 book, Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual Guide. Von Essen takes an explicitly advocatory approach, [End Page 318] positioning his work as an attempt to address the foundation of the ecological crises of the twenty-first century. Ecomysticism argues that mystical experiences are in fact natural rather than supernatural, material rather than...


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