“Where all think alike, there is little danger of innovation,” Edward Abbey wrote in his classic, Desert Solitaire, which this year marks its 50th anniversary. The iconoclastic work written from Abbey’s trailer in Arches National Park during his tenure as a ranger there has become sacred word for generations of Monkey Wrenchers, explorers and rebels. Yet contemporary admirers and critics are perhaps often too kind to the specter of Edward Abbey, forgiving too much racism, sexism and narrowness. It’s doubtful that Abbey would admire or appreciate such timidity. Lucky for us Amy Irvine is nothing of the sort.
Asked to write a 3,000 word introduction to a new print edition of Abbey’s original manuscript, Irvine sat down and wrote 18,000, taking Abbey to task for his obvious blind spots, while still honoring his undeniable influence; the sharp, romantic quality of his writing. Irvine’s book is a revision of the desert classic that feels relevant to everyone who Abbey seemed to write out—women and people of color. What’s more, the book, Desert Cabal, is rooted not in isolation, but in the mutuality of life everywhere on the planet, all around us.
“One of the things I looked at was, why solitude?,” she said over the phone from her home in Colorado, near the Utah border where she has spent most of her life, and so has five generations of her family before her. “Why was solitude a thing he capitalized on here, when in the original manuscript, he had written about having a wife and children? He crossed it out with a line, his own edits,” she said and then, like in much of the book, she addressed Abbey himself: “Why did you write about scorpions and tarantulas and ravens and not the people you loved?” It’s a choice that has influenced the whole canon of nature writing.
With humor, wisdom and a sense of urgency, Irvine uses Desert Solitaire as a jumping off point to assess the current state of the world, to expose the very human error of the literary heroes on dusty pedestals, and to reinsert many of us back into the narrative—it was always ours, but as ever, the dominant paradigms tend to suppress other voices, other perspectives. Irvine powerfully complicates the tropes.
While Abbey glories in solitude, Irvine says poignantly, “In the United States, a woman is raped every 2 minutes and 81 percent of us have been sexually harassed—meaning the vast majority of us have feared for our jobs or our lives. … Solitude, for women, is a different animal entirely.” “The book is born in this spirit—,” she continued over the line, “Mr. Abbey, you gave us this amazing lens on landscape and it served us well, but at the same time, there are a lot of ways in which now it is extremely outdated and even dangerous in its racism, sexism and the sort of misanthropic impulse to go it alone in a time when we need to band together—like how many #MeToo voices did it take to convince the public that even one person is a sexual predator?”
Just the night before our conversation, Desert Cabal had launched at the legendary Back of Beyond Books in Moab. While largely embraced, even by those who could recite lines from Abbey’s catalog all night, there’s been some push back. “It’s from people who I like to say are in the ‘ivory cabin’,” she laughed. “There’s this exclusive wilderness community, and it’s hard to get that door open and sit at the table with these great leaders and writers, but there are so many voices out here howling in the wilderness that have something to say that should be included in the conversation.”
As dismal as the landscape is—the erosion of public lands and the total destruction of any sense of justice—Irvine has observed that in this time, she has found her voice, and observes others finding theirs, too. “I couldn’t write that introductory essay because I felt like Vanna White to Desert Solitaire, and that didn’t seem right,” she explained, “It felt like another way of being in service to this paradigm that doesn’t actually support who I am or give me voice.” Instead, she was able to write what she knows, feels and had been carrying with her for years, though the bulk of the book was completed in a 10-day “fever dream.”
No matter your feelings about Edward Abbey or your relationship with Desert Solitaire, Irvine’s Desert Cabal adds necessary depth to the dialogue. Many of us have been waiting years for that. “These stories—when you include others in them, it complicates the narrative, doesn’t it?,” she writes. “I’m beginning to get why you wrote about solitude. Why the characters in your books were casual acquaintances, not intimates. And still, I don’t know that I can tell the story—about my time in Arches, or anywhere else—that simply.”
According to Irvine, ecological and social justice can’t be parsed out and put into different categories. Like everything in nature, they are connected. Just so, as a species we rely on one another to survive and to grow. “We can’t afford to be solitary anymore,” she said. “It requires a multitude of narratives and voices to come together now to halt the runaway train we are on. Being the rugged individual alone in the wilderness doesn’t serve us.”
Catch Irvine in conversation with fellow writer and thinker Mark Sundeen at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW) on Friday, Oct. 19 at 6pm, where they will discuss Desert Cabal, Desert Solitaire and all the many ideas that underpin both.