by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
In Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, released this month by University of New Mexico Press, author Sean Prentiss shares his midlife odyssey, seeking purpose, meaning, and place. From his claustrophobic landscape in the suburban Midwest, he embarks on an audacious road trip to visit many places important in the life of environmental writer Edward Abbey. The book is part biography: Prentiss introduces us to Abbey through the eyes of his close friends, Abbey’s writing, and Prentiss’s musings; and it is part detective story as Prentiss gathers clues to the location of Abbey’s grave. But Finding Abbey fits mainly in the genre of memoir. We get to know Prentiss as he engages in self-analysis of his at-first-unknown reasons for seeking another man’s grave.
Finding Abbey starts out strong with a crisis point: the personal necessity Prentiss feels to escape the city, to head out west, to follow his crazy dream of finding Edward Abbey’s desert grave in a place guarded by close friends and desert solitude (or Desert Solitaire, if you will). The book veers east instead, to Home, Pennsylvania, where Abbey grew up, and here the pace of the book slows down a bit as we delve into both Abbey’s and Prentiss’s backgrounds. The reader feels the holding pattern circling through Prentiss’s life, and his longing for wide open spaces is infectious. The payoff for this slower section is worth it as Prentiss takes the reader through explorations of the ambivalent—and possibly negative—qualities of Abbey, interviews with those closest to Abbey, questions of metaphysical connections between landscape and the life of the individual, and expansive questions of mystery, unknowing, and belonging. Prentiss questions his own actions, and his sense of complicity with the mass of humanity that visits Abbey’s sacred ground, Arches National Park. With Prentiss, we question our own right to visit, in Ansel Adams’s words, these almost sacred natural spaces with “primeval spiritual potential.”
Prentiss connected with Edward Abbey on the page and learned about the environmental movement through him. Of Abbey, Prentiss writes, “Abbey’s been a sort of mentor, a man I’ve never met but still accidentally followed to places he lived and worked and played.”
Prentiss wanders, following Abbey, but desires a place to call home. He wants to learn from his mentor, including learning what not to do. He wants to be grounded in a place and a community—something that he found, inexplicably, to be an integral part of Abbey’s nomadic life through his circle of close friends and his sense of home in the Desert Southwest. We come to respect the depth of relationship Abbey created with these friends, and watch as Prentiss learns to more deeply know and be known by his best friend, Haus, throughout the journey.
Finding Abbey moves across landscapes urban and rural, lonely and intimate, lush and dry, some filled with a depth of meaning and others with a hollow ache. Prentiss uses the landscapes to explore his own interior landscape: the line between mystery and revelation, epistemic questions of what is knowable and what he wants to know, and why it is so important for him to go on this quest to find Abbey’s grave.
I had a great conversation with Sean Prentiss recently, now settled in his Vermont home. We discussed this book, his connection with Edward Abbey, and the process of writing the text. We went a little deeper, exploring the meaning behind the words, the almost spiritual quality of his quest, and the mystery of belonging to a place called home.
Whole Terrain: What in your childhood prepared you to be interested in environmental awareness in general, and Edward Abbey in particular?
Sean Prentiss: I grew up on Long Island, but I don’t like to tell people that (as I tell you, to post online). I never hated suburbia, but I always found myself drawn to the edges of the landscape. Luckily, every summer my family would go to Pennsylvania from New York through the Delaware Water Gap. I learned to love the outdoors.
We moved permanently to the Delaware River when I was in eighth grade. We had long, deep ties to that area from our family history on my mom’s side. With a river running by the front yard and a mountain in the back, I spent more time outside than inside. It created that ethic or desire to care for the natural spaces around me.
My mom loves the outdoors, and she taught me to love it. She did environmental volunteering with RiverKeepers, caring for the river. Her license plate reads, “My River.” She sees the river as a part of her, and I learned from her example.
In college I moved out west, and I spent as many days or weeks as I could backpacking, canoeing, skiing, climbing, and doing any outdoor activity I could get involved with. I loved being outside as much as possible.
SP: In college my best friend, Haus, read Desert Solitaire for a class, and he brought me the book. He didn’t bring me a lot of books, and our friendship wasn’t based on reading books, so for him to recommend it to me wasn’t really usual. I took this book and started reading it on a spring day in my backyard in Gunnison, Colorado. What I realized was that he was showing me a way to view the environment that I had never noticed. I was a business major, so I wasn’t reading a lot of environmental literature. Abbey didn’t sound like what I assumed a writer should sound like. I thought they should be kind of obnoxious and pretentious with an artistic lifestyle. Abbey was one of the first writers I could relate to. I loved the outdoors, and so did he. He spoke in a language I could understand. He was the first person speaking that language that I encountered when I was backpacking. Abbey had this loud voice and talked about how to protect the land, with beautiful descriptions of what the land looks like. There are so many adventure writers that show us how to tromp through the wilderness, but Abbey makes it alive and relevant. Abbey was my gateway drug into environmental literature. Later I found Terry Tempest Williams, Charles Bowden, David Peterson, Doug Peacock, Rick Bass, and many others, but his was that first voice I encountered, so he became a really seminal person and writer in my life. He helped inspire me to tell my own stories.
WT: It sounds like Abbey was important to you in the “coming of age” segment of your life. How was it different encountering him in this “midlife crisis” stage?
SP: For a 20-year-old, Abbey is perfect, because he’s loud, he’s belligerent, he really takes a stand and is willing to do some radical things. Now that I’ve gone through grad school and teach my students the art of critique, I see him as a more complicated human being. I definitely don’t agree with everything he espouses, but I admire that he was willing to take a stance and hold true to that stance. As a college student I was excited to try to live like Abbey, whereas now I would rather learn from him, study him, and see how I can grow by experiencing him, rather than just trying to emulate him. He said some complicated stuff, but I think this is true of most people who are willing to say something important. These are complicated ideas.
I was living in a city and I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I was not coming up with good answers. I was hoping to learn from Abbey what to do with my life. Looking at Abbey, I recognized I didn’t want to get married five times. I didn’t want to learn that from Abbey. I didn’t want to learn ideas that were potentially misogynistic or racist. But I did want to figure out why he traveled, why he lived on the land, why he would move away from the desert landscape to Hoboken. I see Abbey as a mentor, someone I could learn from but don’t want to copy exactly.
WT: There are religious overtones in this book, from the coincidence of Abbey’s name being the same as the word for a cloister, to overt mentions of this as a quest for meaning and spirituality, to allusions to Abbey that sound almost like you’re searching for his grave as one might search for a relic from a venerated saint. Was this intentional on your part? Did you think of yourself as on a spiritual quest?
SP: For some reason, religion doesn’t stick with me, but what sticks with me is the natural world. I’m always amazed because I live on a lake, and I can see it from my window. There’s a heron over there right now, and I could see its pinion feathers tap the water as it flew in overhead. It leaves behind perfect circles in the lake.
I’m always staggered by the beauty of the natural world. I don’t care where that beauty comes from. I’m okay with it being a mystery. Or being beautiful silence.
The trees here are just about to bloom. How could that not affect the soul? How could these moments of watching the natural world not move me? I wouldn’t say it’s a religious experience. It’s something akin to falling in love, that first glimpse of beauty. I could see it a thousand times, but each time it teaches me something new about myself. Maybe experiencing nature is a spiritual practice that helps me see the world new each day. There’s a lack of religion in my life but that doesn’t mean that religion isn’t part of my life.
That said, I did grow up Catholic, so there are probably shadows of that in the book as well. There were so many things that were worrisome about Abbey, so I wouldn’t want to consider him a Christ figure or a saint. I love that he has flaws, because that makes him someone I can learn from — and strive to be different so I can show I’ve learned.
WT: You could have gone on this quest to find Abbey’s grave just for the pure experience of it. What was added to the process by writing about it?
SP: “To attempt” or “to try”: that’s what the word essay means. And that’s what the entire book is about, the process of attempting to figure out what to do with my life. I don’t know if just experiencing this journey would have had the same value as writing about it. In order to learn, I need time to slowly unwrap the metaphor of my life and figure out the things that I’m missing. Experiencing this journey changed me in many wonderful ways. Writing the book helped me take all these experiences, unpack them, and figure out which ones to follow, and in the end I had to make a decision to leave a school and community that I loved and appreciated. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. That all came not just from the experiences, but from reflecting on the experiences. I grew up in towns that are about adventure: about climbing the next peak, or skiing the next steep face. But I don’t know that adventure teaches you a lot by itself. There has to be more than adventure. And that comes from reflection.
WT: What do you hope the reader experiences as a result of reading this book?
SP: The other day, my mom was talking about this, and my mom (being my mother, who can say these kind of grand, sweeping things about her son’s book) said, “Every kid should read this book, because it shows them that they don’t have to have a plan and they can do all these crazy things—not dangerous or anything—but they don’t have to have a plan right away.” I want readers to realize they can really experience life. Not a lot of people went to school or college where I was from. They were encouraged to marry young, settle down, start a family. I want to encourage people to reflect on their lives, to make their own choices about what they want.
Another important piece is that, along with Abbey, the famous environmentalist, I want readers to recognize that we live in a time of environmental crisis. I would want them to think about the small decisions we all make and how we affect the planet we live on. We’re living in a time where all our small and big decisions are beginning to accumulate: drought out west, population increasing exponentially, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and so many other environmental problems. I hope this book helps people think about how to live our lives in order to steward the earth better and better. And I hope they just have fun.
WT: Now that you have gone through the journey of searching for Abbey’s grave and seeing this book to completion, what are some of the main ways you learned and grew in the process?
SP: The original subtitle for the book was, “The Search for Edward Abbey, His Hidden Desert Grave, and a Place Called Home.” Although the length of that subtitle was clearly not going to work, in retrospect I realize I was cutting out about a third of what this book is about. By going on this journey, by wandering around, I somehow found my place and my wife. At the end of this soul-searching journey, I met Sarah. We decided to move to the mountains together. As opposed to living in Grand Rapids, where I felt rootless, now I have a marsh and a lake, a mountain I can walk to in a minute, and I’m sitting here watching loons fish. Now, instead of feeling placeless, I’m terrified of leaving this place, because now I’ve found home and I don’t ever want to leave it.
If I could, I would add that subtitle back, because this journey was not about a grave or an adventure, but about finding home. I hope people like the book, but even if no one reads the book, I’m so glad to be excited to go home every single time.
Did Prentiss ever find Abbey’s grave? To learn that, you’ll have to read the book, but he did recognize Abbey’s spirit in the landscape of the Southwest: “Abbey’s ghost, his spirit, his presence is everywhere in the West. I felt Abbey’s ghostly presence in Arches National Park….I felt it when I gazed upon the American-Mexican border…I felt Abbey’s presence in the lost canyons of the Needles. I felt it even in the cities he called home. It’s as if his words and his ideas steeled down upon all the lands of the American West.” In the end, was this enough? Or did Prentiss need to find the physical, last resting place of Edward Abbey for his quest to be fulfilled?
If you’re interested in learning more about Edward Abbey, or if you are experiencing your own crisis of meaning or feeling lost in the city, pick up Sean Prentiss’s book Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave (and a Place Called Home). Along the way, you’ll experience wide open spaces, sublime mountainscapes, grounding deserts, lonely cities, mystery and unknowing, truth, and soul-searching ambiguity. Thanks again to Sean Prentiss, who opened his journey to us through his book, and shared more of his heart and life with us through this interview.