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  • Resurrection after the “Blue Death”Literature, Politics, and Ecological Redemption at Glen Canyon
  • Laura Smith (bio)

The blue death, Smith called it. Like Hayduke his heart was full of a healthy hatred. Because Smith remembered something different. He remembered the golden river flowing to the sea. He remembered canyons called Hidden Passage and Salvation and Last Chance and Forbidden and Twilight and many many more, some that never had a name. He remembered the strange great amphitheaters called Music Temple and Cathedral in the Desert. All these things now lay beneath the dead water of the reservoir, slowly disappearing under layers of descending silt. How could he forget? He had seen too much.

—Ed Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang

Somewhere under the heavy burden of water going nowhere, under the silence, the old rocks of the river channel waited for the promised resurrection. Promised by whom? Promised by Capt. Joseph “Seldom Seen” Smith; by Sgt. George Washington Hayduke; by Dr. Sarvis and Ms. Bonnie Abbzug, that’s whom.

—Ed Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang

It is the emotion and evocation in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang that inspired the title of this essay. For as long as Glen Canyon has been flooded and replaced by Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, there has been a call to arms to restore the Glen and a free flowing Colorado River. But Abbey is not the only voice speaking out for the restoration of Glen Canyon. His may have been one of the loudest and most political, but it is only one among many.

While many ecological and political arguments have been made for its restoration, it is a literary Glen Canyon, I will argue, that reveals an emotional, moral, and ethical entreaty to restore the canyon [End Page 39] landscape. By overlaying the literary Glen Canyons of Edward Abbey, Katie Lee, and other southwestern writers onto the contemporary geopolitical context of Glen Canyon, this essay examines how literary expression influences ecological and political action. My argument responds to David N. Cassuto’s recognition that there is a “compelling need for an ecocritique of the cultural symbiosis that exists between literature and politics” (1). Writing prior to and during the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in the 1950s, desert stalwarts Abbey and Lee recorded the slow inundation of Glen Canyon and fought for its salvation. Glen Canyon Betrayed tells of Lee’s river running trips through the Glen between 1954 and 1957, while “Down the River,” a chapter in Desert Solitaire, recounts Abbey’s only float trip through Glen Canyon in 1959.

Abbey has long been of interest to literary scholars of the desert Southwest. In Western American Literature alone, studies of Abbey frequently center on the themes, motifs, and rhetoric found in Desert Solitaire and in Hayduke Lives!, and also scrutinize Abbey’s anarchist environmental philosophy,1 with an Edward Abbey Special Issue published in 1993. Furthermore, there has been a renewal and reinvigoration of interest in Abbey’s writings and philosophy through the recent publication of three texts: David Gessner’s All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West; Sean Prentiss’s Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave; and John A. Murray’s Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century, as well as the documentary films Dam Nation and Wrenched. This essay further contributes to this dialogue by examining the role Abbey’s writings—and those of Lee and other desert writers—have played, and continue to play, in developing and shaping an environmental movement to restore Glen Canyon.

I begin by outlining the environmental threats facing Glen Canyon before examining the history of its literary representations. Memory, emotional and aesthetic expressions, and performance all coalesce in the literary call to arms for a restored canyon. The rhetorical tropes inherent in the literature speak to the imaginative geographies of Glen Canyon restoration, for their value rests in the possibility for ecological redemption and resurrection. I then turn to the contribution of other authors to political reform elsewhere in [End Page 40] the desert Southwest and what this might suggest for Glen Canyon restoration. Finally...


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