SUBSCRIBE | NEWSLETTERS | MAPS | VIDEOS | BLOGS | MARKETPLACE | CONTESTS
TRY BACKPACKER FREE!
SUBSCRIBE NOW and get
2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on Backpacker.com


Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – Edward Abbey

The Death of Empires, The Triumph of Trees

Read this classic from August/September 1981 issue of BACKPACKER.

by: Edward Abbey

    Tags:



My partner and I and my 12-year-old daughter live (for the moment) in a little house near the brighter, domed city of Tucson, Arizona. We like it here. Most of the time. Our backyard includes a portion of the Sonoran Desert, extending from here to the California border and down into Mexico. Mesquite trees grow nearby, enough to supply kindling for the Franklin stove when the nights are cold, enough to cook the occasional pork chop, or toast the tortillas, on the grill under the decaying Chinese elm.

Out back is the dry creekbed, full of sand, called a "wash" in this country, which winds through the brush and cactus toward the Tucson Mountains five miles away. We'll climb those hills yet, maybe. Rattlesnakes live in the rocky grottoes along the wash. Sometimes they come to he house for a social call. We found one coiled on the "Welcome" mat by the front door Sunday evening. Our cat has disappeared. There are still a few bands of javelina--wild pigs--out there. They come by at night, driving the dogs into hysterics of futile outrage. Coyotes howl at us when they feel like it, usually in the morning and again around sundown, when I rile them some with my flute--they seem partial to "Greensleeves," played on the upper register. We have an elf owl living in a hole in the big saguaro cactus by the driveway. There are some pack rats in the woodpile and scorpions under the bark of the logs; I usually find one when I split a log.

So it's pretty nice here. We'd like to stay for a while, a lifetime or two, before trying something else. But we probably won't. We came down here from Utah three years ago, for practical reasons, now satisfied. We are free, then, to leave, and we probably will.

The city remains at a comfortable distance. We can hear the murmur of it by day, when the wind is from the east, and see its campfires glow by night, those dying embers. The police helicopters and the other aircraft hover above Tucson, Arizona, all night long, maintaining order. The homicide rate hangs at a steady 3.2 per 10,000, including lowriders. All is well. Eighteen Titan missiles ring the city, guarding us from The Enemy. The life expectancy of the Tucsonan is 15 minutes--or whatever time it takes now for an ICBM to shuttle from there to here. All is well. We sleep good.

But the city creeps closer, day by day. And the great Empires are dying--one in Afghanistan and Poland, the other in El Salvador and New York and Guatemala. And though I welcome their demise, defeat makes them more dangerous than ever. Like mortally wounded tyrannosaurs, they thrash about in frenzy, seeking enemies, destroying thousands of innocent lives with every blind spasm of reaction. And the city creeps closer. I find a correlation in these movements. I foresee the day when we shall be obliged to strike camp, once again.

Where to this time? Home to Utah? Back to Appalachia? Down the river to the ultimate sea? It doesn't matter. There is no final escape, merely a series of tactical retreats until we find the wall at our backs, bedrock beneath our feet.

Enough of this skulking rhetoric. Before we go, we will plant a tree. I cleared out some cactus yesterday, dug a thigh-deep hole this morning, and planted a young budding cottonwood this afternoon. We soaked the hole with well water, mixed in the peak moss and carefully set-aside topsoil, and lowered the root ball of the sapling into its new home. The tree shivered as I packed the earth around its base. A shiver of pleasure. A good omen. A few weeks of warm weather, and the little green leaves will be trembling in the sunlight. A few good years, and the tree will be shading the front porch and then the roof of the house. If the house is still here. If someone, or something, as I hope, is still enjoying this house, this place, this garden of rock and sand and thorn and light.

We ourselves may never see this cottonwood reach maturity, will probably never take pleasure in its shade or birds or witness the pale gold of its autumn leaves. But somebody will. Tucson will have shrunk back to what it once was, a town of adobe huts by the trickling Santa Cruz, a happier place than it is now, and our tree will be here, with or without us. In that anticipation I find satisfaction enough.


Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip:
Email (req):

Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Don Miller
Nov 01, 2010

I know this story well. I lived it too. Moved to Tucson in 1945 and grew up next to the San Xavier Indian Reservation. The same thoughts crossed my mind while I was living there. Left in 1962, and heading back for a class reunion in 3 days. I will live it all over again in my mind.

moondoggy
Oct 09, 2010

another fine, thought-provoking meditation on the here and now by the old grouch himself. Keep it alive and share it openly.

Anonymous
Oct 02, 2010

This is so poorly edited, it is nearly unreadable.

Jason
Oct 01, 2010

Prologue: According to Wikipedia, Abbey never did move. Died in Tuscon about eight years after planting that tree.

Edith
Oct 01, 2010

"The best time to plant a 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Great series of stories. Thank you for this one in particular. I too had no idea that Abbey was published in Backpacker, or that the magazine has such a long history.

I agree with other comments -- make multi-page viewing more obvious and do some proofreading prior to posting.

mSamuelle
Oct 01, 2010

I'm lovin this story! If only I be Paul Bunyan or a Biant. I will scare the perpetrators, away. I truly love E. Abbey's work; I feel so belonging, here and so comfy! Thanks a million, Abbey!

groundie
Oct 01, 2010

i realize you are going for page views but
this should have been all in one page.
at the least, provide a way to view it
on one page.
on ny times, 'print' does the trick.

groundie
Oct 01, 2010

i realize you are going for page views but
this should have been all in one page.
at the least, provide a way to view it
on one page.
on ny times, 'print' does the trick.

Carlito
Oct 01, 2010

Wow, I never new EA wrote for Backpacker. That was the year I was born! LoL Great essay.

On a side note, you folks need to take a few extra minutes to correct typos before posting!

ADD A COMMENT

Your rating:
Your Name:

Comment:

My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Trailhead Register
Falling in the backcountry
Posted On: Aug 20, 2014
Submitted By: Grizzly James
The Political Arena
How ISIS got rich
Posted On: Aug 20, 2014
Submitted By: Ben2World
Go
View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site MyRockyMountainPark.com.

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
City:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
State:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions