Canyonlands: Edward Abbey and The Great American Desert | Roderick Coover

Born and raised in the Appalachian hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Edward Abbey (1927-1989) served in the military in post-WWII Europe and attended universities in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Scotland. After the publication of his second novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956), which was later made into the film Lonely Are The Brave (1962), Abbey returned to the West and worked as a seasonal park ranger and fire look-out. His first job was at Arches National Park near Moab, Utah and in subsequent years, he worked at numerous western parks and forest-lands including Sunset Crater, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lee’s Ferry, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Forest, Grand Canyon North Rim, and Glacier National Park. Abbey warned about the perils of industrial tourism, road-building and dam construction in the American West – most notably speaking out against the building of Glen Canyon Dam, which plugged the Colorado River at one of its most stunning locations.

The late 1950s was a period of rapid change for the arid American West propelled by the availability of air-conditioning and refrigeration, the accessibility of abundant water and electricity provided by successive dam projects and the development of a national infrastructure of roadways and media. These changes also threatened the delicate ecological balance of the deserts. Abbey gave witness to these changes through letters, essays and novels, and his works call on individuals to be responsible for what they see taking place – to make choices and take action. His writings provoked new ways of thinking about nature and inspired the formation of environmental groups such as Earth First!

Canyonlands explores landscapes through Abbey’s writings – landscapes shaped by the forces both of nature and of human intervention. The project features original recordings and archival montages along with interviews with legendary figures of Abbey’s generation including Jack Loeffler, Jim Stiles, Ken Sleight, Katie Lee, and Kim Crumbo. It is one section of the Unknown Territories project which also features an interactive project about John Wesley Powell’s exploration and representation of the Colorado River (1869-1873), original photographs and other items.

Canyonlands was co-produced by researcher-artist Roderick Coover and by literary scholar and river guide, Lance Newman, and it grew out of conversations had between the two producers while boating on the Green and Colorado Rivers. This conversational origin shapes theories behind the interactive structure of the work, and it explores analogies with walking in deserts (for more, see A Dialogue about the Desert, Electronic Book Review, 2010.

Form and Structure

In its interactive form, Canyonlands offers a new kind of documentary film—a cinemascape in which users navigate through a landscape of videos and supporting materials. A primary path offers visitors one possible route through the materials—approximately a 60 minute documentary. Followed sequentially, users advance more or less chronologically from Abbey’s arrival at Arches National Park in the late 1950’s until his death in 1989. But users may also make their own paths. The cinemascape can be explored in any order or direction at once or over many visits. By letting users select a particular set of clips and supporting materials, the spatial structure of this and other cinemascapes offers users the opportunity to follow how arguments are built out of experiences and may be constructed with poetry and visual imagery as well as through exposition. The structure is designed to engage users in creative conditions of exploring and ethical positions of choice-making.

Canyonlands is built around three themes 1) the idea of wilderness, 2) the battle over Glen Canyon Dam, and 3) writing as a monkey wrench. The first section connects Abbey’s texts about life as a ranger at Arches National Park with interviews with Jim Stiles and Jack Loeffler, who discuss changes in the American West that were exacerbated in the 1950s and 1960s by the spread of air-conditioning, industrial tourism and car culture. The second section concerns the damming of Glen Canyon, which became a rallying point for change; this section includes interviews with Ken Sleight, Katie Lee and Kim Crumbo. The third and concluding section considers Abbey’s book, “The Monkey Wrench Gang” as a provocation; while Abbey’s books imagined sabotage and civil disobedience as forms of protest, it is the writing itself that was his true monkey wrench.

Canyonlands is part of the larger Unknown Territories Web-based project: www.unknownterritories.org.

Video/image: © 2012 Roderick Coover.


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Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2012, Practices

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