Confronting Edward Abbey on the 50th Anniversary of 'Desert Solitaire'

Amy Irvine, the author of Desert Cabal, discusses what it means to write about public lands in the shadow of Abbey's classic.
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Publish date:
The Double O Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, on April 22nd, 2018.

The Double O Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, on April 22nd, 2018.

Edward Abbey looms large in the red rock desert of Southern Utah. Desert Solitaire, a series of musings based on Abbey's time as a park ranger in what is now Arches National Park, has been a kind of desert-rat bible across multiple generations.

Abbey looms so large, in fact, that writing about canyon country—which he himself called "Abbey's country"—often feels like a kind of conversation with him. And for Desert Solitaire's 50th anniversary this year, writer and public lands activist Amy Irvine made that project explicit.

What began as a 3,000-word essay assignment unspooled into a book-length response: Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, a slim volume reminiscent of the mass-market paperback copies of Desert Solitaire that so many of us have stuffed into a dusty backpack or stowed in the glove compartment on national park road trips.

In her book, which is directly addressed to Abbey, Irvine attempts to catch him up on what he's missed since he passed away in 1989. She tells him about how the once quietly revered lands surrounding Moab, Utah, have transformed into a playground that "emits an ever-present belch of engines, shines lycra, and sweats caffeine." She tells him about the shrinking of two Utah national monuments and the other threats that public lands face under the administration of President Donald Trump. She tells him about climate change, fossil fuel dependence, and the environmental pickle in which we've found ourselves.

I reached Irvine by phone to discuss Abbey, Desert Cabal, and why we need to make more space for environmental writing from women and other underrepresented groups.

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The book is constructed as a letter to Abbey. Did you have another audience in mind too?

Not really. I just felt the need to really talk to him about what things are like now and to imagine where he would stand on things, and all the questions I wish I could ask him and all the points of contention. I worry: Would he have supported [President Donald] Trump's wall? Would he have pooh-poohed #MeToo?

Nothing has been more accidental than this project. But it had this urgency, and it meant taking on the question: As a white woman of privilege who occupies a particular space in the environmental movement, on public lands, how do I make space for other voices to come through?

Desert Cabal was co-published by Torrey House Press and Back of Beyond Books, a store in Moab. The bookstore takes its name from one of Abbey's books, and because the store is down the road from Arches, Desert Solitaire has been its bestselling book forever. Why do you think Andy Nettell, the store's owner, was interested in this project that, in some ways, offers a challenge to Desert Solitaire?

Andy very much understood that there was this [need for a] female voice, and that there was this social injustice that needed to be addressed. He was like, "Yep, this is the conversation we have to have now."

He said, "I really am hoping for something that doesn't just take him out at the knees, but is also a tribute."

Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness.

Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness.

People have described Desert Cabal in a range of ways: a tribute, a rant. In Pam Houston's blurb for the book, she made a list of all the things it is: "a wail, a keening, a rant, a scolding, a tumult, a prayer, an aria, and a call to action." It's a gorgeous description, but what stands out to me is that "wail" and "keening" are such emotionally charged words and also, as we're talking about what it means to be a woman taking on Abbey, I can't imagine anyone describing a book by a man that way. 

It's interesting to me that so many people went to the word "rant" as well because I think it's sort of like the "scorned woman," or Trump's "nasty woman." Desert Solitaire was so much more of a rant than what I wrote. But Abbey's been idolized for having that feisty, take-no-prisoners kind of effect.

For me, Desert Cabal is not a rant, it's a fucking love letter!

Love is fierce and passionate and challenging—and lovers have to work out differences. Marriage therapy 101 says you have to own your shit before you take on the other person. And I really felt in this piece that I was making myself totally complicit in what's happening to the land by participating in this very privileged land ethic that most people don't have the time or energy or resources for.

In the Publishers Weekly review of your book, there's a line about how Abbey's work "brought crowds to state parks." Clearly the writer meant national parks! But the error reminded me that this language of public lands, in which you and I are fluent—a lot of Americans are not. To what extent do you feel it's your duty, as a writer on these subjects and public lands activist, to inform the public?

I think it's very important. We have a fucking planet to save. It's not just the wilderness for an aesthetic, or for recreation, or even for spiritual renewal. At this point, we're talking about physical survival.

Wilderness was never about solitude. It was always about solidarity and interconnectivity and interdependence. [I wanted] to create my own desert dialect that allowed for other people to also create theirs, so that we don't just have this old narrative.

That idea of interconnectivity makes me think of another term that people frequently use to describe your work: "nature writing." It seems like a limited way to describe writing that is also about connection, and what it's like to be a person in these places, and how we're responsible.

With public lands, landscape, and nature writing in general, we have failed terribly at acknowledging the places that environmental issues intersect with social issues. We saw it with Standing Rock, we've seen it now with the Bears Ears [National Monument].

To his credit, Abbey was one of the very few environmentalists who was willing to talk about, say, population growth, and the human impacts on natural resources. It earned him some enemies—you can't touch that stuff. And I get it. We don't want to talk about poverty and injustice and immigration and population control, because then you've kicked a whole hornet's nest of other issues. But we can't speak about the land anymore in a vacuum.

Another issue Abbey was adamant about is the idea that industrialized tourism has its own problems. It's not the same as energy extraction, but it can be toxic.

Right. You think about the carbon footprint of our driving to public lands every weekend or whatever. Everybody's trying to escape. The land's not the thing, it's the buzz. Things are not sustainable for us financially, culturally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. So what does [something more sustainable] look like? I think that's the most radical question we can be asking ourselves.

Desert Cabal is self-interrogation as much as anything else.

It is. And it's another way that I think I lack privileges on the page, that, say Abbey had.  There are a few women who get to have [those privileges]. What I want is for the door to open so all the other voices out there are heard and gathered and represented. We have to take into consideration other people's relationships to wildness.

Somebody asked me the other day if I thought Desert Solitaire would be published today. Certainly not in its existing form—I think there's enough racism and sexism and just exclusivity, which I referred to as the "ivory cabin" syndrome. There's a group of privileged white people that sit at that table with the door shut, and there are all these other voices out there howling in the wilderness.

I don't really have a desire to be at the table. I'd much prefer to be out in the wilderness howling with all these other voices.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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