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Daniel J. Philippon. Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement.

Daniel J. Philippon. Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005. xv + 373 pp. $22.95

Conserving Words is hardly a traditional utopian study. This work is not a focused study on a particular colony, individual, or movement, but rather incorporates into a series of essays the impact that several well-known nature writers and activists have had on the complex world of conservation. Daniel Philippon, an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, explores connections between Theodore Roosevelt, Mabel Osgood Wright, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, and individual, mostly mainstream, conservation organizations. Philippon traces the specific influences that Roosevelt's Hunting Trips of a Ranchman had on the founding of the Boone and Crockett Club; Wright's The Friendship of Nature on the National Audubon Society; Muir's The Mountains of California on the Sierra Club; Leopold's A Sand County Almanac on the Wilderness Society; and Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang on Earth First!

Although elements of utopian thought can be found in the writings and world views of Roosevelt, Wright, Muir, and Leopold, the best representation is seen in the book and article publications of Abbey, a less well-known social critic of recent environmental policies. Philippon contends that The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel that appeared in 1975, and an earlier piece of fiction, Desert Solitaire, contain a utopian narrative that had a profound impact on Earth First!, the small, radical, environmental group launched in 1980.

At the heart of Abbey's Weltanschauung is the belief that the American West, especially the vast, rugged desert sections, is a special place. This almost sacred region demanded protection. Through an anarchist network of self-supporting and mostly autonomous units, Abbey believed, this earthy paradise could be fully appreciated and preserved. Yet Abbey did not labor specifically to defend a particular place or community, differing from what a handful of dreamy anarchists had done at Home, Washington, between 1898 and 1909. Abbey did, however, resemble the vast majority of secular utopians in expressing little confidence in the status quo. Even efforts made by mainstream environmentalists displeased him. These alleged forces for good, Abbey and members of Earth First! concluded, showed too much of a willnessness to compromise with governmental and anti-conservationist bodies and individuals. Neither the U.S. Forest Service nor the Wilderness Society was truly a friend. Still, characteristic of utopian thinking, Abbey held out hope for a better tomorrow: "I'm an idealist. I still think it's possible to find some better ways to live, both as an individual and as a society" (234).

As with virtually every historical monograph, Conserving Words is less than perfect. Yet there are only a few weaknesses. At times the narrative is overly repetitive, suggesting that the manuscript could have been reduced in size. There is also the occasional annoying error. The most egregious is Philippon's reference to the "International Workers of the World" (223). Of course, he meant the "Industrial Workers of the World," the "Wobblies" or the "I Won't Work" people that early in the twentieth century made up this famed and aggressive syndicalist organization.

Philippon, nevertheless, has produced a useful and intellectually-stimulating study. In the case of Edward Abbey, he argues cogently that the sizeable body of writings by this late twentieth-century thinker and activist contains a pronounced utopian dimension. Indeed, no one can fully understand or appreciate Abbey's works without considering their strong utopian elements. The research is excellent, both thorough and imaginative. Everyone who has an interest in recent utopian thought will wish to read Conserving Words.

H. Roger Grant

Clemson University
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Author:Grant, H. Roger
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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