Wrenched: Edward Abbey and The Monkey Wrench Gang on the Big Screen

“An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people
(thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests
and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our
churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.”
–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p. 50.

Wrenched is director and producer ML Lincoln’s new film on Edward Abbey [1927 – 1989] and his legacy in the American environmental movement. Abbey was an author and activist whose writing blended anarchist politics with a deep love of the American Southwest. Abbey is best known for his books, Desert Solitaire—essays inspired by his work as a ranger in Arches National Park in the 1950s—and The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel about a group of environmental activists who plan to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam. In defense of wilderness, the protagonists burn billboards, sabotage bulldozers, and cut power lines. Monkey wrenching now refers to all sorts of direct action environmentalism from the sabotage of industrial equipment to the disruption of bureaucratic or legal proceedings.

Abbey’s writing and politics were deeply rooted in his love for the American Southwest, in particular the Colorado Plateau. It’s a land of dramatic landscapes, such as the one pictured here in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Photo Credit: Charles Carlin.

Abbey’s writing and politics were deeply rooted in his love for the American Southwest, in particular the Colorado Plateau. It’s a land of dramatic landscapes, such as the one pictured here in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Photo Credit: Charles Carlin.

Lincoln offers viewers an homage to Abbey. It’s a wonderfully constructed conversation that narrates his adoption of the desert southwest as a land worth fighting for, the rise of monkey wrenching, and his continued legacy in contemporary environmental action. She brings Abbey and the environmental movement he inspired to life by mixing contemporary interviews with archival photos, videos, and audio recordings of Abbey reading his work. Lincoln uses the story of Tim DeChristopher, a young activist whose efforts shut down an illegitimate oil and gas lease auction, to give the film a contemporary narrative thread.

As a viewer, I felt like I was eavesdropping at the campfire while Abbey and his friends reminisced. Jack Loeffler, Abbey’s biographer, narrates the film. Commentary comes from author Charles Bowden, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, actor Robert Redford, and lesser known figures like Doug Peacock, who was the inspiration for the character Hayduke, hero of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Director ML Lincoln uses archival sources like photos, news clips, and audio recordings to bring Abbey to life. Image credits: Abbey with cigar, Richard Byrd; Newspaper, Los Angeles Times; Earth First! Arrest, NBC Universal Archives; screen shot taken from Wrenched.

Director ML Lincoln uses archival sources like photos, news clips, and audio recordings to bring Abbey to life. Image credits: Abbey with cigar, Richard Byrd; Newspaper, Los Angeles Times; Earth First! Arrest, NBC Universal Archives; screen shot taken from Wrenched.

Let’s be clear about what this film does not do. Lincoln chooses not to address many of the controversies inspired by Abbey or Earth First!. For example, Abbey advocated militarizing the border to protect against population growth and infamously called Mexican immigrants “hungry, unskilled, and culturally-morally-generically impoverished people.” With less incendiary rhetoric, Earth First! has similarly stated that population control is essential to wilderness preservation. This position has been widely criticized as xenophobic.

The absences haunt the film as an anxious anticipation, and I kept waiting for them to surface. Abbey, his friends, and his critics rarely shied away from controversy. In The Fool’s Progress, Abbey’s autobiographical novel, he details the rise and fall of his romantic relationships and the personal damage they wrought. Charles Bowden, a friend of Abbey’s who was sympathetic to many of his other positions, called Abbey’s take on immigration an “argument without a heart.” On the other hand, Dave Foreman continues to argue that population growth should be a central concern of the environmental movement. Viewers hoping for critiques of these dicey issues will be disappointed.

Ken Sleight worked as a river and horse packing guide in Utah for over thirty years. Sleight reviewed a draft of The Monkey Wrench Gang for Abbey while on a trip down the Dolores River, which flows through Southwestern Colorado and Southeastern Utah before draining into the Colorado River. Image credit: Bill Adams with permission from June Adams, date unknown.

Ken Sleight worked as a river and horse packing guide in Utah for over thirty years. Sleight reviewed a draft of The Monkey Wrench Gang for Abbey while on a trip down the Dolores River, which flows through Southwestern Colorado and Southeastern Utah before draining into the Colorado River. Image credit: Bill Adams with permission from June Adams, date unknown.

The film is at its best when Lincoln turns her attention to figures in Abbey’s world who aren’t as often in the spotlight. River runner Ken Sleight is one example. Sleight worked as a guide all across Southern Utah, including leading trips down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon before it was dammed. Abbey fictionalized Sleight as Seldom Seen Smith, the polygamous river rat in The Monkey Wrench Gang. In addition to interviews with Sleight, Lincoln offers us pictures of river trips that he and Abbey took together as well as photos of Sleight in Glen Canyon before completion of the dam.

Watching the film and seeing the photos, I felt Sleight’s bewilderment, grief, and rage at the injustice of the dam. Describing a trip up Glen Canyon shortly after the dam was finished, Sleight said, “I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared for it. It surprised me how fast it came up. I’m an environmentalist because I saw so much destruction right in front of my eyes.”

Folk singer Katie Lee is also featured. In the film, we see Lee both in the 1950s and 60s as a young artist exploring Glen Canyon and in the present day as an elderly woman continuing to defend monkey wrenching. Lee’s song, “Wreck-the-Nation Bureau,” serves as the musical accompaniment to a slideshow of images of Lee and others in Glen Canyon before and after the dam was built. It pillories the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, two of the federal agencies in charge of the project:

A pox on the Wreck-the-nation Bureau
Down with the Wreck-the-nation Bureau
Up with the Wreck-the-nation Bureau
And their little cousins,
Hard-hats by the dozens,
The stupid Army Corps of Engineers!

Through figures like Lee and Sleight, Lincoln offers us an intimate portrait of the sense of loss and violation as well as the creativity and energy that motivated monkey wrenching activities like sabotaging equipment, blockading roads, or theatrical acts (such as the famous “cracking” of Glen Canyon Dam.)

Katie Lee and Ken Sleight at Ken Sanders Rare books in Salt Lake City, Utah, 2007. Image credit: Peter Mills.

Katie Lee and Ken Sleight at Ken Sanders Rare books in Salt Lake City, Utah, 2007. Image credit: Peter Mills.

Lincoln positions the birth of Earth First!, inspired in part by Abbey’s writing, as an antidote to the boredom and limits of conventional environmentalism. In the film, Charles Bowden recalls, “If I had to go to one more Sierra Club meeting there were only two possibilities. I was either gonna kill them or commit suicide. I was tired of how loving the natural world had become a sort of dull religion.” In place of that dull religion, we learn about Abbey’s “night work.” Artist John DePuy tells stories about how he and Abbey cut down some 200 billboards in and around Taos County, New Mexico, in the 1950s, and how they ran a D3 Caterpillar tractor off a 500-foot tall cliff near Blanding, Utah. I can only imagine how satisfying that must have felt.

Lincoln’s film shines in these moments of storytelling. She brings the Monkey Wrench Gang to life, showing us the artists and adventurers that feel compelled to do what they can to protect the lands they love. Against the distorted narrative of ecoterrorism offered by the government—a deeply cynical rebranding of environmental activism as a threat to the state—Lincoln shows us a fiery community committed to both fun and activism. Here, monkey wrenching is theater as well as sabotage, and action is always rooted in love of place.

By almost any account, the environmental crisis on Western lands has become increasingly dire since Abbey’s death. Lakes Mead and Powell are drying up. Critics’ characterizations of the dams as short-term solutions to a long-term problem appear to be true. The Utah state house is attempting to wrest control of public lands from the federal government in order to open protected areas to drilling. Environmental activists continue to be branded as terrorists and face government persecution, and more Western lands are being given away for industrial exploitation.

A boat launch ramp at Hite Marina, located at the Northern end of Lake Powell. Water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell have been declining for years, causing the lake to contract. Lake Powell is currently 45 percent full. Image credit: Charles Carlin, 2013.

A boat launch ramp at Hite Marina, located at the Northern end of Lake Powell. Water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell have been declining for years, causing the lake to contract. Lake Powell is currently 45 percent full. Image credit: Charles Carlin, 2013.

And yet, activists still score points with direct action. The so-called “Flood Wall Street 11” were recently acquitted for staging a sit-in on Wall Street that drew attention to the connections between corporate capitalism and climate change. The Idle No More movement has brought indigenous activists and allies into the spotlight through their protests and actions against tar sands exploitation. And Wrenched shows Tim DeChristopher using direct action to halt an oil and gas lease auction that would have led to drilling around Canyonlands National Park. DeChristopher’s action fueled a new wave of activism aimed at protecting federal lands in Utah and interrupting the excesses of fossil fuel extraction.

Wrenched makes the case that monkey wrenching is an important part of environmental activism. While those featured in the film are clearly ambivalent about monkey wrenching as a stand-alone tactic, Lincoln tells the story in a way that makes clear the importance of direct action as one part of the movement. As Abbey said, “Society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up, you get a lot of scum on top.”

Charles Carlin is a PhD candidate in the department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also works as a wilderness guide. Charles studies the use of wilderness spaces in education, psychotherapy, and spirituality. He holds an M.A. in Counseling & Psychology from Prescott College. Contact.

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