A strand of wild ricegrass dangles from his pincer-like beak. His small wise droll redrimmed eyes look from side to side, bright and wary and shrewd. He walks on long leathery legs, fully extended from the walnut-colored hump of shell, the ventral skid-plate clear of the sand. He is years old — middleaged. He has fathered many children and will beget more. A desert tortoise.
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What shall we call this creature, dimly seen within its veil of dust and smoke? Abbey was more than a popular novelist, essayist, and magazine journalist; a sought-after speaker on the university lecture circuit; a thorn in the collective side of despoilers of wildlands, wildlife, and human freedom and dignity.
He was a visionary, a pathfinder, a master of descriptive prose who wrote with symphonic eloquence of his beloved West and its denizens. The real Edward Abbey, the man I was privileged to call a friend, was not the rowdy, boisterous character he projected in print, but quiet, modest, thoughtful: a true gentleman who would rather listen—his heavy brow furrowed in concentration—than talk.
Still, he was undeniably a character. The acknowledged wild card of western literature. A "gadfly with a stinger like a scorpion" Wallace Stegner. As often as his writing was sensitive and eloquent, it was raw, bawdy, and gloriously unholy. But not his last. Almost immediately after completion of Fool, perhaps aware that time was running out, Ed set to work on yet another novel, his eighth.
This one he called Hayduke Lives! But I wrote Hayduke Lives! I wrote it for fun and, as always, to entertain my friends and aggravate our collective enemies. A strand of wild ricegrass dangles from his pincer-like beak.
His small wise droll red-rimmed eyes look from side to side, bright and wary and shrewd. He walks on long leathery legs, fully extended from the walnut-colored hump of shell, the ventral skid-plate clear of the sand. He is years old—middle-aged. He has fathered many children and will beget more.
A desert tortoise. There is none. The ancient Greeks thought the tortoise a kind of demon. So much for the Greeks. An ignorant people. Like all desert turtles, he knows his home, loves it, stays there, guards it.
Above his head grow shrubs of silver-gray sagebrush, taller than trees to him. Above the sage, aligned with the course of a ravine where clear water flows over ledges of rosy sandstone, stand huge fat free-form cottonwoods. Their bright green leaves tremble in the faintest breeze. To the turtle the treetops seem as remote as the clouds. Where a buzzard sails, tipping sideways. Where a small airplane drones through the air on its linear, tedious, single-minded course.
The world tips eastward, a molten sun bulges above the eastern canyon wall. Appearance is reality, said a wise man, Epicurus. It is the season of Spring in the mile-high tablelands of the canyon country. In America the still Beautiful. Old man turtle keeps to the shade. By the time the sun has flooded the canyon floor with light and heat he will have returned to his cool dark den deep in the ground. He pauses to clip a stem of grass from its base, folds the green blade into his toothless jaws.
Grass getting harder to find these days; his desert infested with a novel enemy, the domestic beef cow. He ambles on. He stops again to sniff at a nut-brown dropping, the size and shape of a chocolate-covered almond, resting on the sand. Pack rat? River toad? None of those—but rather the dung of another turtle, a stranger and a female. Old man turtle lifts his head and peers about, wise ancient humorous eyes now a shade brighter than before, alert, their twinkling beads of carmine light set in a mass of leather wrinkles.
Where is she? Head aloft, he sniffs the air. But the air currents come from his rear, bearing not the sweet fragrance of female turtle in estrus but an odor of something rank, vile, poisonous, of a thing hot and burning, an entity not alive but nevertheless in motion, approaching him from a vast but not incomprehensible distance.
The smell is totally new in the nostrils and nerves of old man turtle, totally different from anything known in his fourteen and a half decades of experience. Rigid with attention, beak up and neck extended to its full three inches, the old turtle searches memory and the collective unconscious of the tortoise race.
No clue. The wind changes direction by a few degrees, the dark smell abates, fades off. At once he forgets it. The turtle lowers his head, steps forward nose to the ground, tracing the spoor of a lovely stranger. A pink plastic ribbon flutters from the head of a stake in the ground, catching his eye. Again the old man stops. He feels a dim vibration in the crust of the earth.
The ground trembles. Again the wind veers, again he smells the harsh violent odor of something unknown and alien to his world. Old turtle cranes his neck to look backward but sees only the familiar sprigs of sagebrush with their miniature purple bloom, the red sand, the dried-out cow-burnt clumps of bunch grass, the invading thickets of cheatweed.
Above the sage, beyond the cloudy trees, he sees what might be a veil of dust rising slowly toward the blue. Running cattle? The desert turtle consults his memory file. Perhaps it is cattle. But the stench of cattle, though foul indeed, is nothing like what he smells now.
The alien. An alien monster, unimaginable, unforeseeable, coming closer, moment by moment. The turtle lowers his head and hurries forward, feeling pursued. Feeling fear. Aware finally of a new and definite mortal danger. Perhaps he should turn aside, hunt for shelter under the ledges of the creek or among the junipers on the talus slope, but such a plan does not occur to the elementary brain of old turtle.
From custom and obeying the homeward instinct, he sticks to the familiar path, bound for his deep and sheltering burrow in the ground. Too late. Something huge and yellow, blunt-nosed glass-eyed grill-faced, with a mandible of shining steel, belching black jolts of smoke from a single nostril of seared metal, looms suddenly gigantically behind the old desert turtle.
The monster bellows in his rear, gaining fast, rambling forward on an endless track of linked and clanging iron feet, shoving before it as it comes a rolling wave of sand, earth, rocks, small trees and mangled sagebrush. Old turtle looks back again as he trots forward on his little clawed feet, sees the unknown unknowable thing closing upon him yard by yard, hears the grunt and moan then scream of triumph as it uproots a tree, pushing the tree aside to die from its wounds, scraping the ground bare of every living thing, piling a great furrow of ruin into the flowing stream.
Ten feet behind the turtle, the monster roars in fury, jetting oily smoke into the air, and clatters forward. Too late the turtle turns aside from the ancient path. Too late he searches for the sanctuary of overhanging ledge. Glancing back over his shell one last time, the old turtle sees the billow of advancing earth, the flat blunt snout of yellow steel blotting off half the sky.
Too late— Turtle drops flat to the sand. Quickly he pulls in head, tail and all four legs as the wave of matter towers above then thunders down upon his brittle shell. His world goes black, all light extinguished. Buried, he feels like Atlas the weight of earth upon his back. It is a terrible weight, an overwhelming weight, followed at once by a vibrating mass of advancing pressure one thousand times greater.
The shining bulldozer blade pushes another mound of dirt to this side, to that side, over the grass, into the streambed and the clear water. The blade rises, the tractor backs and turns a few degrees, rumbles forward again.
A dim anthropomorph, helmeted, masked and goggled, fixed in place under a canopy of steel, attached by gloved forelimbs to a pair of levers, moves jerkily half-blindly inside the fog of dust, one small component of a great machine. Trailed by its dust and its ten-foot-wide track of barren ground, the yellow machine dwindles with distance, its howl of engine fading off, the tin-can clacking of its plates and sprocket wheels becoming faint, fainter, dying away to a petty irritation on the air.
Old man turtle is gone. Buried alive. Packed beneath compacted soil, his monument the broad straight imprinted treadmarks of the forty-ton machine, the old desert tortoise dwells now in darkness, silence, a firm and perfect stasis.
Not a drop of blood or splinter of bone, not even the shadow of his footprints, remains to trace his ephemeral passage upon and through the little world of sunlight and sand, gopher hole and gopher snake, ant lion, sidewinder, solpugid and vinegaroon, green ephedra and Indian paintbrush and prickly pear and Gambel oak and dagger-bladed flowering yucca.
They too are gone, down under, overturned and smothered under dirt. The silence might seem complete, the destruction sufficient. Not so. Its engine housing is feet wide, seven stories tall. The top of its main boom is twenty-two stories high, overreaching the canyon walls, longer than a football field. The excavating bucket that hangs from the point of the boom has a capacity of cubic yards—big enough to hold two railroad cars, eight bulldozers, twelve automobiles or a battalion of soldiers stacked three deep in firm military formation.
The complete machine with empty bucket weighs 27 million pounds, or 13, tons.
Edward Abbey’s Last Book: A Sneak Preview