Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness

Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness

by Amy Irvine


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As Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness turns fifty, its iconic author, who has inspired generations of rebel–rousing advocacy on behalf of the American West, is due for a tribute as well as a talking to. In Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness , Amy Irvine admires the man who influenced her life and work while challenging all that is dated—offensive, even—between the covers of Abbey’s environmental classic. Irvine names and questions the “lone male” narrative—white and privileged as it is—that still has its boots planted firmly at the center of today’s wilderness movement, even as she celebrates the lens through which Abbey taught so many to love the wild remains of the nation. From Abbey’s quiet notion of solitude to Irvine’s roaring cabal, the desert just got hotter, and its defenders more nuanced and numerous.

"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… Irvine tells Abbey about climate change, fossil fuel dependence, and the environmental pickle in which we've found ourselves."


"Abbey’s self–claimed country, Irvine says, is at risk for exactly the reasons he said it would be: greed, gasoline, and a gaping well of apathy. Preserving wilderness is even more important now than it was half a century ago, but the stakes aren’t as simple as he set them out to be. Desert Cabal has riled up some Abbey fans, but that’s exactly what makes it an important read."


"A lyrical and raw conversation between Irvine and Abbey that is part tribute, part memoir, and part polemic. It'll get you thinking about the state of the desert, the fate of the wilderness movement and the actions we all need to take to save the places we love (including leaving them alone)."


“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… No matter your feelings about Edward Abbey, Irvine's Desert Cabal adds necessary depth to the dialogue. Many of us have been waiting years for that.”


"While Irvine shares the love Abbey, who died in 1989, had for Utah's public lands, she contends some views and sentiments from his time need to be challenged. She points out privileges Abbey enjoyed as a white male; she questions his use of 'Abbey’s country.' From Abbey's first morning in the desert to his tale of a snake that guarded his campsite, Irvine questions and compares their experiences, including their failed marriages."


"The Abbey whom Irvine is talking to is neither the author himself nor a corpse; he's a literary ghost, one that has been living inside herself ever since she fell for his writing."


"Fierce and clear—Irvine’s book effectively confronts the ritual of veneration and brings the reader closer to appreciating Abbey's work in a more constructive, relevant and productive frame than what has been allowed in the last five decades."


"This iconoclastic inner discussion with her predecessor, Abbey, is fascinating—wherein Irvine challenges Abbey to consider his myopic, privileged perspective without failing in her deference for his attempt to raise consciousness of an entire generation prior."


"At once intimate and expansive…a reminder that individuals, even titans like Abbey, can only do so much to save the 'best places.' It really does take a village (or cabal)."


“A lyrical, raw and vulnerable conversation.”


"The news Irvine breaks graveside is that the world, and specifically 'Abbey's country,' has changed… and there's no telling where [Abbey's] sentiments would place him in a landscape that now includes Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, a generation of female activists and the #MeToo movement."


"Irvine gradually builds to a ringing conclusion, stating simply and clearly that wilderness lovers 'need intimacy with people every bit as much as with place' and that 'going it alone is a failure of contribution and compassion.'"


"While an admirer of Abbey, Irvine illuminates his dated attitudes as she writes a love letter to the Utah desert. This brief series of essays will be enjoyed by those who treasure the desert, environmental activists, and fans of Desert Solitaire.”


“A grief–stricken, heart–hopeful, soul song to the American Desert, a wail, a keening, a rant, a scolding, a tumult, a prayer, an aria, and a call to action. Amy Irvine implores us to trade in our solitude for solidarity, to recognize ourselves in each other and in the places we love, so that we might come together to save them. In this time of all out war being waged on America’s Public Lands, I'm glad she's on my side.”

PAM HOUSTON, author of Contents May Have Shifted

“Amy Irvine is Ed Abbey's underworld, her roots reaching into the dark, hidden water. In a powerful, dreamlike series of essays, she lays Desert Solitaire bare, looking back at the man who wrote the book and the desert left behind. This stream of consciousness, this conversation, this broadside is an alternate version of Abbey's country. It is another voice in the wilderness.”

CRAIG CHILDS, author of Atlas of a Lost World and Apocalyptic Planet

"Ed Abbey's rise to sainthood has been a bit awkward: here is an earth hero who guzzles gas in search of his personal Eden, a champion of the underdog who snubs Mexican and Native people, an anarchist rabble–rouser who utters not a peep about his perch atop the patriarchy. Finally someone—and it could be no better iconoclast than Amy Irvine—wrassles him off the pedestal back down to the red dirt where he belongs. Half riot, half tribute, this is a roadmap through a crisis that neither Abbey nor any of us imagined."

MARK SUNDEEN, author of The Man Who Quit Money and The Unsettlers

"If you’ve ever talked back to the canonical tomes of the environmental movement, this is a book for you. Here are the women, the people, the children, and the intimate dangers those old books so frequently erased. Here is a new and necessary ethic that might help us more openly love the land and the many living beings who share it. I found myself nodding— Yes! Yes! Thank you! —on nearly every page of Desert Cabal."

CAMILLE T. DUNGY, author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History and editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781937226978
Publisher: Torrey House Press
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Pages: 98
Sales rank: 270,805
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 4.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Amy Irvine is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her work has been published in Orion, Pacific Standard, High Desert Journal, Climbing, Triquarterly, and other publications. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and Colorado Book Award. Her essay ”Spectral Light,” which appeared in Orion and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, was a finalist for the Pen Award in Journalism, and her recent essay, “Conflagrations: Motherhood, Madness and a Planet on Fire” appeared among the 2017 Best American Essays’ list of Notables. Irvine teaches in the Mountainview Low–Residency MFA Program of Southern New Hampshire University—in the White Mountains of New England. She lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

Read an Excerpt


Hey, Mr. Abbey, can you hear me down there? This yolk of sun has broken on a horizon sawed in two by saguaros and I've hopscotched my way through crypto and cacti, sidestepped a sidewinder, and given two middle fingers to an Air Force jet that buzzed me while I had my pants down to pee on the playa. And now I'm here, squatting graveside in this desert that is your resting place—a desert that has, thank the horned gods, not succumbed to the Mad Max lunacy that's possessed Moab.

And that's what I want to talk about: Utah's redrock. Desert Solitaire was published fifty years ago this year, and as timeless as that book is, things are changing in ways even your prescient, nimble mind could not have imagined.

First I'm just going to sit here a minute and take in the surroundings. This is a desert more soft and yielding than southeastern Utah's, one less feverish in color, less tortuous in form. It's a bit easier to breathe here, isn't it? This place doesn't excite—not the way canyon country does—the extremes in our nature. And it holds the whole of the borderlands. More than any other American landscape, the Sonoran desert denies our tendency toward sharp stark divisions, and dumbed–down dualities. So it's interesting, Mr. Abbey, that you chose here, to lie in situ. Then again, maybe you wanted to return to Arches for a perennial season—but the park's tumescent popularity would have dissuaded. After all, you predicted rightly that the solitude you found there once upon a time was a much–diminished resource; if it was going, going, it's now nearly gone. There, your bones could not possibly turn to dust in silence.

And that's why I am here today, Mr. Abbey. To talk to you about solitude. Both the lack of it and the need. You see, it's getting pretty crowded, even in Utah, where public lands once felt infinite. I wonder if we know anymore what your definition of the word even means—the feeling that is not loneliness but "loveliness and a quiet exaltation."

So I hope you'll come up and sit with me, so we can chew on this notion of what solitude was, and now is. I'd suggest a walk—knowing we'd both love to roam under this honeycomb of sky as it drips early morning gold onto the spindly arms of ocotillo, through the pale pink translucence of jackrabbit ears. But I'm guessing that's a lot to ask at this point, given your twenty–nine–year repose. So let's just sit, dig our heels into this still–cool sand. I promise to seek some semblance of restraint. It won't be easy. The questions, the concerns—they threaten to rush from my body like a river freed from a blown–up dam. Which is to say there's a caveat: Much as I need your words right now—their vision, their inspiration—there are also a few things to take issue with.

Tell you what. Let's start with what is panoramic, and political. How about I rant for a bit, before working down to what is personal. And then we keep going. By nightfall, let's hope we hit bedrock, that naked, common ground.

By the way, I covered my tracks. Were word to get out, the GPS plot points would be posted on the Internet (long story, that) and you'd never know another moment of posthumous peace. So I got here by stealth, and now I'm sweaty, squatted and waiting, on the parched, prickly kind of land we both love. The shadows of vultures cut across my skin. They think I'm dead but never have I been so alive! Because despite what seems like increasingly dark times for the planet, these wild places persist. Places that exfoliate our neuroses. That refuse to coddle our compulsions. That remind us, in these times of profound greed, what we really need.

About Moab: You can probably imagine the jacked–up monster trucks, maybe even the Razors—these golf carts on steroids, the least sexy form of transportation known to man. But I bet you can't fathom the BASE jumpers—that’s right, people now don shiny, baggy disco suits and leap off the tallest red cliffs like flying squirrels. There are also beefed–up all–terrain bikes that can circle the White Rim in a day, if you've got the quads for the job. And those delicious, hidden swimming holes in Millcreek Canyon? The BLM has to close off access some days—because several hundred people are already writhing in them amid a thick scrim of sunscreen, Jaeger, and Red Bull. The entire city, the surrounding valley, Behind the Rocks and beyond has an ever–present snarl and fart of engines, lots of Lycra and caffeine. As for Arches—no matter where you stand in the park, you can hear the steady roar of it all. No matter where you look there are these hyped–up, tricked–out, uber–fit, machine–like humans that pump, grind, climb, soar, and scramble through the desert so fast they're just a muscled blur. The land's not the thing, it's the buzz.

So there's work to be done. Our public lands—the West's de facto wilderness, its national parks and monuments—they are endangered in ways we never conceived of. Utah is in the worst shape—so many of its incomparable wildlands were protected within two of the nation's newest national monuments but our so–called Commander–in–Chief has filleted each one, leaving only the stark bones in custody. This dismemberment of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, two places you knew and loved, represents the largest maiming of public lands' protection in the nation's history.

This means the green light is brighter than ever for the usual suspects of industry and motorized yahoo–ism, but the land is threatened by our ilk, the muscle–powered outdoor wanderers, too. Which is to say you, Mr. Abbey, may have developed whole fleets—generations’ worth—of desert defenders, but now they're out there en masse, bumping into one another on the very ground on which you taught them to go lightly and alone. They are as much the problem as they are the solution, and it's hard to know how we don't divvy that down the middle, into us and them, right and wrong.

Your headstone says "No Comment," but I'm hoping to discuss what we do next. Don't worry. I'm admiring, but not star–struck. You got some things right, but you got other things wrong. Like calling the desert "Abbey’s country." Ha! Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it "Amy’s country"? I could have justified it; my family has been here for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn’t get to call it ours—because it's all stolen property: Whatever the forefathers didn't snatch from the region's Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another. But that's what the white man does. He comes in after the fact and lifts his leg on someone else's turf. You, sir, were no different.

There'll be no chumminess today. I won't be calling you Ed, or Cactus Ed—although your fans have no problem speaking in such familiars. I get why they do this: When Desert Solitaire was published in 1968, you crowbarred open the American consciousness and the red raw desert strode right in. Like a cocklebur caught in a coyote's tail, you went with it—indistinguishable from all the convoluted canyons, scoured out washes, mesas tiered like wedding cakes, mercurial creeks, rasping whiskers of bunchgrass, and the obsidian objections of ravens. There were also those geologic, gymnastic backbends—your beloved arches.

The New Yorker called your book an "American masterpiece." And sure enough, by the time the silt, dust, and scree of those essays settled, all of what you had to say took up some serious psychic real estate. You, Mr. Abbey, still lurk there. Like Hitchcock shuffling through his own film, one might not even notice you. But you're present all right, even as you bask in the director's chair. Desert Solitaire framed the American West through your lens, and so we see through a glass brightly: The redrock country, a scarlet, inflammatory riot of stone, is not just a place to explore, not just a resource to exploit. It is a body—both politic and erotic. It is a being, capable of gestures, poses—both beautiful and brutal.

Your claiming of Utah's desert outback taught an entire nation what it means to be in collective possession of a place. At the same time you taught us that one's interest in national lands is not a given—although the idea of it certainly is. It is only truly ours after we have gotten out of the car and wandered far enough off the trail to get lost and use up our last drop of water. Only after we've been out enough times—to draw blood, fry skin, write eulogies, pull stakes, see ghosts, and duct tape a flapping sole—should we feel in possession of them. But those of us who have done our time out there know this is the mirage, the trick of light on water that is actually scoured sand. It's the rough country, after all, that's in possession of us and not the other way around.

Look, it's early. But I've primed the old Coleman and the coffee is on.


I'm caffeinated now, and pacing around the ball–bearing mound of soil heaped over what's left of you. The sky is now a primrose, blooming far beyond the margins of this place, this state, this nation. A sky that shows us how not to hover too tightly over what we claim as ours. That reminds us how to reach for, and touch, what is Other.

Circling back to the notion of informalities: I just can't. Hence the Mister. I'd like to keep some boundaries between us and a bit of decorum is good for just that. Precautions must be taken because, as I packed for this journey, our mutual friend and iconic bookstore owner Ken Sanders reminded me that it wasn't just that women hurled themselves at you—you did plenty of your own hurling, too. Sure enough, a few months before you passed away, my mother drove to Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore in downtown Salt Lake City, where she stood in line for you to sign a copy of The Fool's Progress, which she gave to me for Christmas that year. You were nearly dead, but you hit on her. This was despite the fact that she'd read nothing you'd written. Nor was she one to wander through the desert. Apparently, you knew how to travel between topographies.

Another mutual friend, Charles Bowden—god rest his seared, singular soul—was a known "womanizer" too, and for both of you much has been made of this, and perhaps unfairly. Meaning you weren't exceptional—in this way, anyway. Men having multiple women is a common and longstanding tradition in the West, if not the world. My ancestors were all polygamists, as was John Singer, the man who fixed our television before dying in a shoot–out over homeschooling his kids. And a girl from a similar arrangement beat the ever–loving shit out of me on the playground the year before she was taken out of school to be married. We were in sixth grade at the time.

So it's normal in Utah, men having their way with multiple women and even—ugh—girls. And given my lifelong knack for shacking up with men who get F's in monogamy, I'm glad to see it go. You see, while you've been underground, rubbing elbows with grubs and worms, a new narrative has been in the works. For instance, there's now this thing called #metoo. (If there's time I'll circle back and explain about tweets; for now, suffice it to say they come not from birds.) The rules of engagement between men and women—even when consent is mutual—have been seriously upset. No one is sure of how we are to deal with each other now, but however it shakes out, I'm pretty sure you won’t like it. You don't get to gawk at co–eds anymore—not without consequence. And it's no longer charming to describe us as rosy–cheeked skinny dippers—even if Katie Lee considered it a compliment.

This is not to say that I’m some shrill, ball–biting feminist with a bone to pick out of your saltbush beard. Nor am I implying we neuter or tie a tourniquet around our time together today. That would be like smothering this desert with black top, concrete, and a strip mall. Things are bad enough as is. Come to think of it, things here, around your grave, aren't as peaceful as this still morning would have me believe. Did you know that in the last few years at least 10,000 miles of renegade roads have been gouged into the surrounding wilderness? Not by recreational motorheads, like those in Moab. But by the United States Border Patrol. Yeah, its agents know no limits, when it comes to sniffing out tens of thousands of desperate Mexican migrants—only to turn them back toward the desperation. They even seek and destroy the food and water caches left for the border–crossers by bleeding–heart types. This cruel act ensures that many will perish out here, halfway between two worlds—worlds even this desierto cannot fuse.

This place where you asked to be buried on the sly: it's fair to say that its solitude is an illusion. Come to think of it, you were rarely solitary in Arches! There were cattle round–ups with caballeros, there was barroom banter with yellowcake miners, and there were rivers run with friends. And when you were working in that trailer, scribbling away in those notebooks the desert's details that would become a bible for the desert brethren—there was a wife. There were children. And there were other women. I know it's a device, writing as though one were alone when in fact one is not. And it worked. Everyone who read that book took to the desert solo. Self included. When I first read Desert Solitaire, I was single and free. It was easy to follow suit. But now that I have been a working mother wrangling a special–needs child in an increasingly complicated and congested world—my definition of solitude has changed.

Which reminds me, I've been wondering about a line from that book of yours: "If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men."

I get the part about space and time. Every cell in my body would trade the latter for the former. But the phrase that you chose to italicize…what did you mean, "to live like men"? I get you meant we'd quit racing like lab rats toward sugar, to fill every moment with tributes to all things temporal. And of course you meant let's not fill every acre with reminders of our species. But were you also contemplating our obsession with filling the other half of a bed or the unclaimed stool in a bar?

I'm with you, on forsaking time. On embracing space. But while we're at it, let's find out, too, why we cling to the contrary.

And for parity's sake, let's find out what it means to live like women. Or perhaps we should say let's find how women like to live. I don't think we've ever been asked that question. The results could be revolutionary. Evolutionary. We might become a new species entirely.

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