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February 5, 2012 / nethergrove

The Monkey Wrench Gang

Where do JCBs, diggers, tractors and dumper trucks go to die? In The Monkey Wrench Gang, they get driven into lakes, into canyons, or cremated in the night. They have their oil drained and their pistons fused immovably to cylinders and block, ‘one unified immovable entropic white-hot molecular mass’ (244). In Devon, they go to the tractor graveyard, where one of my neighbours salvages spare parts for his farm machinery maintenance business. As New Mexico, Utah, and the Colorado River are a bit far for me to go, I’ve packed my sandwiches and headed a mile or so down my lane to read Edward Abbey’s eco-terrorist classic.

It’s winter now, so the brambles, birches, alder and hazel aren’t giving the dead and rusting machinery as much cover as usual. Old fashioned combine harvesters slowly deteriorate, paint flaking off, tyres covered in moss, grain spouts arching overhead like metal dinosaurs. There is metal everywhere, most of it I can’t identify. ICB tanks, wheels, tyres, hoppers, boilers, all veiled in algae, their once bright colours now inevitably merging into the browns, greys and greens of the wood in winter. I sat in the driver’s seat of an old JCB, the cold smell of grease mixing with the smell of mould and mud, and read.

The members of the Monkey Wrench Gang are bored, and increasingly angry at what’s happening to the American wilderness. Their boredom is both symptom of the age and stimulus to rebel. Doc and Abbzug  relieve the boredom by vandalising advertising billboards. Hayduke and Smith by getting outdoors and going on trips into the remaining wilderness. When they meet up by chance on a river tour, they set their eyes on bigger targets, and the gang is born. Doc describes the problem in concise medical terms:

“The wilderness once offered men a plausible way of life…now it functions as a psychiatric refuge. Soon there will be no wilderness.” He sipped his bourbon and ice. “Soon there will be no place to go. Then the madness becomes universal.” (63)

If that is true, then Devon has long since gone mad. Looking round at the tractor graveyard, I think of invisible pollution, anthropogenic climate change, natural system failure. The American ideal of the wilderness has a kind of hopelessness to it, the idea that a place is only natural if there is no trace of human intervention can lead you to only one possible conclusion. ‘Our only hope is catastrophe’ (42). But this kind of thinking is a million miles away from the Monkey Wrench Gang’s philosophy. As Hayduke puts it, much later in the book, ‘my job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving. That’s simple, right?’ (230). They won’t let themselves get bogged down in the ethical or philosophical quagmire that so often plagues the environmental movement. Is it sustainable to use a petrol-driven chainsaw to vandalise a billboard?

With this handy tool they were able to accomplish much more work in limited time although it did raise the ecological question, whatever that meant, of noise and air pollution, the excessive consumption of metal and energy. Endless ramifications…

“No,” the doctor said. “Forget all that. Our duty is to destroy billboards.” (44)

And later, answering the question ‘do we know what we’re doing and why?’, Doc sidesteps it all neatly. ‘We’ll work it out as we go along. Let our practice form our doctrine, thus assuring precise theoretical coherence’ (69), although admittedly he was blind drunk at the time.

There’s something hugely liberating about this kind of thinking. I felt a kind of fin de siecle  excitement, a longing for some creative destruction, the same as I get when I watch V for Vendetta  or Fight Club. But it doesn’t quite overcome the growing sense of guilt that I feel for being in the wrong place, trespassing, interfering with private property. The absurd stress of being where I shouldn’t be got too much, stopped me from being able to read, and I left to head for a spot I know well, where you can get wide views across the North Devon countryside.

Sat on a stump, looking out over the rolling countryside, I continued. In the distance I could hear a chainsaw buzz and splutter. Post-war planning laws prevented British roads being lined with billboards in the way American roads are, so I guess the chainsaw is just chopping down a tree. Despite the whole view being in some way a human production, from the fields and hedges to the forestry plantations and roads, there doesn’t look like there’s much development going on. Hidden in the folds of the valleys somewhere lies the North Devon Link Road, that connects Barnstaple to the M5, and around the corner, just out of sight, is the new wind farm at Fullabrook. I wonder what Hayduke would have made of that?

‘The engineer’s dream is a model of perfect sphericity, the planet Earth with all irregularities removed, highways merely pained on a surface smooth as glass’ (80). I think of the wide expanses of tarmac that cover the approaches to motorway toll booths, and airport runways. But then I remember the tractor graveyard, and all the ‘controlled and directed superhuman force’ (79) behind a new road pales in comparison to the disorganised, endlessly patient decay and regeneration of fungi, bacteria, algae and brambles. It’s a reassuring thought.

I’m visiting my girlfriend next week, and have a train to catch, so I pack up my things and get going.

I’m writing from a seat on the 1447 from Exeter to Pewsey. I almost ended up in one of those carriages with mini TVs behind every seat. Disaster averted. I read the section about destroying the railroad, and think about the government’s proposals for the new High Speed rail link between London and Birmingham. This train line, in the undeveloped westcountry, is not even electrified. I know a farmer who lives along the new HS2 line and who campaigned heartily against it. It will destroy and ancient woodland on his farm where every spring he takes a group from the local church to admire the bluebells. I think of Hayduke, 50lbs of TNT, and a chainsaw. Of course, I’m on a train too, and without it I wouldn’t be able to visit my girlfriend. But that’s exactly the sort of thinking the monkey wrenchers don’t let get to them.

As I get towards the end of the book, I notice that there’s a microchip and radio receiver stuck into the back of it. It’s a library copy, and of course it’s just for the library to keep tabs on which books are checked in and out. But it reminds me of a similar chip in my passport, and after reading about helicopter pursuits, Mark Kennedy infiltrating environmental groups, Hayduke’s Vietnam paranoia, I worry. I’ve committed a plethora of thought crimes since I began reading this. I remember how guilty I felt just sitting in the JCB in the tractor graveyard. I wonder how much I would actually have to change to be able to get up and do some monkeywrenching myself. Perhaps anarchist literature, violence in films, wargames and 24h rolling news coverage actually makes real life action seem less likely, less possible. Anarchism is something that happens in books, in Fight Club, in Frank Miller films. I’m someone who reads books on trains. If Hayduke found catharsis by blowing up a bridge, I find it in a much more contained, approved, micro-chipped and radio controlled way. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a Penguin Modern Classic, and rainforest destruction goes on as fast as ever. Even environmental ‘direct action’ now tends to mean headline-grabbing stunts on front pages. The last thing in the world George Hayduke would do would be to read Monkey Wrench Gang.

I was reading The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, first published in1975, but now most commonly available as a Penguin Modern Classic, extortionately priced at £12.99. To avoid this hefty pricetag, do what I did and borrow it from your local library.


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