Questions I Dare Ask: An Interview with Amy Irvine
By Andrea Ross
Writer and teacher Amy Irvine is the author of three books of nonfiction. Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land (North Point Press, 2008) is a memoir about marriage, new motherhood, landscape, and wildlands conservation, and was selected for the 2009 Orion Book Award and the Colorado Book Award. In 2009 she was also awarded the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award. Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness (Torrey House Press, 2018) is a posthumous conversation with Edward Abbey about environmental, cultural, and social issues. Her writing also appears in Pacific Standard, Orion,High Desert Journal, TriQuarterly, and others. She is a sixth-generation Utahn, a longtime public lands activist, and an adjunct faculty member of the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program of Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in Colorado.
I first encountered Irvine’s work in 2009, after Trespass was published. I admired its gorgeous prose and identified with the writer’s struggles to reconcile the dissonance between life as a 20th century backcountry woman with life as a 21st century mom, between working to protect wildlands while feeling complicit in their overuse, and between battling illness and wanting to be strong.
I interviewed her on January 26, 2019, just two months after Desert Cabal hit the shelves and, as Irvine herself put it, “took on a life of its own.” She likens the book to “an unintended pregnancy that resulted in octuplets” because although she sat down to write a 3,000-word introduction to a 50th anniversary limited edition of Edward Abbey’s iconic Desert Solitaire, when she looked up from her desk, she had penned 18,000 words—the book. Irvine and I discussed the body of her work, how it ties into her activism and politics, and some possible solutions to the current cultural trend toward tribalism.
Andrea Ross: In 2008 when Trespass was published, Judith Lewis, in a Los Angeles Times book review, opined that it “might well be Desert Solitaire’s literary heir.” Did a spark ignite in your mind at that time about an essay or book that would respond to Ed Abbey’s work?
Amy Irvine: I had never even thought about writing about Abbey. I was so surprised by the thing about Trespass as Desert Solitaire’s literary heir because I don’t envision myself as having anything in common with Abbey—except that we both love red rock country and we’ve both come from a place of white privilege. It’s hard to admit this, but I think if I had been asked to write Desert Cabal before Trump happened and Kavanaugh happened and #MeToo happened, I don’t know that I would have written it quite so frankly. Before, there was something I hadn’t made contact with in myself, some part of my own blindness to Abbey’s views on women and our views of land use as environmentalists. The opportunity to write Desert Cabal gave me a chance to explore how my perspective is evolving.
I was surprised at how much I needed to say, how many questions I had, how much I needed to push back against the things that some of us find problematic about Abbey’s writing: the racism, the sexism. In the past decade, there’s a lot that I’ve been trying to say, but it’s been rejected as too fierce or too feminist. Or because it didn’t offer a soft, romantic view of nature, or frankly, because it was too complicated. But all of a sudden, we’re in this Trump era, and now my writing has a place. People are ready to hear that voice.
Andrea Ross: I view Trump’s rollbacks of federal lands in the Desert Southwest, of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, as a “manhandling” of the wilderness and a result of patriarchal male thinking, of which Abbey was also guilty. You talk to Abbey about it in Desert Cabal:
Desert Solitaire framed the American West through your lens . . . the Utah desert is not just a place to explore, not just a resource to exploit. It is a body—both politic and erotic. In every way, it’s scandalous. Your claiming of Utah’s desert outback taught an entire nation what it means to be in collective possession of a place . . . but those of us who have done our time out there know that . . . it’s the rough country, after all, that is in possession of us and not the other way around. [italics mine]
Abbey’s notion of “possessing” wilderness has always bothered me, so I was happy to see these concerns mirrored in your words. What do you think is the best way to grapple with the all-too-ingrained notion in our culture of man as conqueror and possessor, and consequently, landscape as inherently female and, therefore, vulnerable?
Amy Irvine: We all objectify landscape—because we have this idea that it’s our church, our refuge, our aesthetic. We feel entitled to use it as a surface for recreation, or entertainment.
Our impacts on public lands is something that I don’t think the environmental community has not been very honest about. I want to take this moment to ask: What do we do now? We have to admit that we are loving the land to death. For example, the numbers of people flocking to the Bears Ears: it has no management plan in place. And the government’s been furloughed, so even if they could staff it, that’s not happening; nothing is in place to protect it. On such vast and vulnerable landscapes, we must better police ourselves.
Making Bears Ears a national monument was a good faith effort because we thought Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election, and the five Native American tribes who have heritage there would be involved in its management in a meaningful way. That didn’t happen. Now we have our work cut out for us, and we start by looking at our own behavior, our consumption and objectification of these places. Desert Cabal is very much about making myself complicit and acknowledging where I have also objectified the land as an object of my desires—something to sate my need for refuge, spiritual sustenance, physical adventure.
Andrea Ross: In Desert Cabal, you argue that wilderness lovers “need intimacy with people every bit as much as with place,” that “going it alone is a failure of contribution and compassion.” Subsequently, you introduce the cabal as a method for tackling social and environmental crises.
I agree that banding together is important, especially in this time of political turmoil and uncertainty, but in banding together, how do we avoid the tribalism that threatens to undo politicians’ ability to reach across the aisle, threatens citizens’ ability to reach out to non-like-minded neighbors? In other words, how do we band together and make an end-run around the binary wiring of the human psyche: self/other; good/bad; right/wrong?
Amy Irvine: The Left has been good at “eating its own,” as Rebecca Solnit says. But the Right is pretty unified around President Trump. No matter what he says or does, there’s still a contingency that drives a bigger, anti-environmental agenda. We on the Left are terrible about keeping our eye on the prize—in this case, the land. Instead I get told I’m not a real feminist because I’m wearing a wedding ring, or I’m not a real environmentalist because I still eat meat (albeit far less than I used to). At this point, we need to stop splitting hairs. We have a planet to save!
Andrea Ross: Right, we can’t just speak in absolutes. If environmentalists are saying you can’t really be an environmentalist if you’re eating meat, then we’re never going to get anywhere with that kind of thinking.
Amy Irvine: More to the point, the Left has been profoundly complicit in the destruction of public lands: camping, climbing, hiking, we think of them as low-impact activities, but the carbon footprint of those lifestyles is sky-high, and that’s a problem. My rural ranching neighbors and family have an arguably lower carbon footprint than my liberal friends do. They don’t travel far, they grow/raise/hunt all their own food, and they reuse every piece of baling twine.
Andrea Ross: That’s a way of pulling back the curtain to reveal the real cost of wilderness use: there’s a huge carbon footprint made by privileged people getting to the wilderness in the first place.
Amy Irvine: Yes. And at the same time, there are native people who need these lands for economic, physical, and spiritual sustenance. In many ways, we’re not saving it for them—and that is profoundly selfish. The majority of the people who belong to groups like Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Wilderness Society really have a consumptive relationship with the land. At every reading I do, I ask people, “How many of you oppose grazing on public lands in Utah?” Every hand goes up. Then I say, “And how many of you are on the Paleo diet?” Again, many start to put up their hands before realizing the hypocrisy. I don’t mean to shame them, but it’s like, do you see the problem? We are buying their beef!
If we really love the land that much, we have two questions to ask: First, what is so unsustainable in my own life that I need to escape every weekend to have adventures on public lands? And second, can I care enough to leave it alone? Can I reduce my carbon footprint by not driving to the far reaches of the state to experience the Bears Ears, just because it is all the rage? Can we maybe go once a month instead of every weekend, or can we go a couple of times a year instead of every month? These are questions I dare ask only now—because that’s what it will take to save the planet.
Andrea Ross: In your essay, “Conflagrations,” which was published before the 2017 and 2018 fires in Northern California, you write,
What was once a five-month fire season now lasts for seven . . . and in just over three decades, the average number of thousand-acre-plus wildfires has nearly doubled. Western landscapes, already parched by years of sustained drought and hotter temperatures—places already deemed monumental tinderboxes due to years of fire suppression on millions of acres of public lands—may all go down in flames.
Given that the recent Northern California fires attracted so much national press, do you think the American public may have finally hit a pivotal point in its thinking about climate change? And if not, what can environmental writers do to effect change? What do you think women writers offer in this arena that male writers do not?
Amy Irvine: Has there been a change in our reality? Yes. This summer, at the apex of the fires, there was a moment where I said, “Oh my God, it’s here.” I live off-the-grid in the American Southwest—meaning every day we were scanning every near horizon for smoke. We have a fire plan and the phone stays charged next to the bed at night, in case the county alerts us that a fire is headed our way.
Many folks’ wells ran dry, so after we washed our dishes, we carried the dish pan outside and poured the water on a bush. And this wasn’t just the treehugger thing to do. Everyone was conserving every drop of water and living very carefully. That’s a reality that our more urban friends and family haven’t gotten their heads around, but they’re getting there.
Andrea Ross: Yes, because it’s coming into the more urban areas—Santa Rosa is in the San Francisco Bay Area! And last fall when the Camp Fire happened in Paradise, 90 miles north of where I live, friends from across the country were checking in with me asking if I was in the fire. There was so much national press about what was going on, probably because the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa was the year before. I think there’s a head of steam building, more consciousness about the effects of climate disruption. I think people are starting to realize—this could happen to them.
Amy Irvine: Yes. Very quickly we could become refugees in our own country.
Andrea Ross: Right, whether from flooding, or fire, or drought . . .
Amy Irvine: Or if food distribution were halted—even temporarily. We are so dependent on imports, and what we do grow on U.S. soil is no longer sustainable. It would be mayhem for a lot of communities. All of us will have to do with a lot less so that other communities, other species, can survive. What will we become if we don’t care for one another? Then what’s the point? I always think about that when I watch The Walking Dead. In that series, there’s a group that decides they can’t afford to lose their humanity, that otherwise they’ll be just like the zombies, and that the most heartbreaking and ugly thing, the most monstrous thing, is the other bands of humans who become feral and ruthless, hating and killing indiscriminately. You end up cheering for these people who are trying really hard to retain their humanity in the middle of the apocalypse. Well, we’re nearing a real apocalypse, and we’re kind of acting like zombies about it. Recycling, toting our own shopping bags, and driving a Prius are not going to save us.
Andrea Ross: In your books, you grapple with issues of religion versus spirituality. In Desert Cabal, you write, “[T]he divine thing we’ve been given is nature itself—both ours and the land’s. Our most precious resource now is wonder.” And you argue that wonder paves the way for hope. Can you talk more about human nature and the land’s nature as divine and what you are hoping for right now?
Amy Irvine: What’s divine in us is our capacity to wonder and engage in a way that creates empathy, which is our greatest resource: it’s renewable and sustainable, and it’s where miracles happen. And I don’t mean miracles like the parting the Red Sea. It’s where we learn to care for one another, and it’s where we learn ways to sacrifice for things we care about. We’re very good at sacrificing for our kids, so why not for the land? What does that look like? Those sacrifices have to come from a place of love because if they come from a place of fear or deprivation, we’ll go feral and things will get pretty scary, pretty fast—and that’s not sustainable. The only way we win is if we do it from a place of love and joy and humor instead of pointing a finger and saying, “Look at those horrible people and what they’re doing.” We need to say, “What am I doing?”
Andrea Ross: We’re accustomed to thinking in a binary way, but we need to learn to accept that there are places in between “us and them,” between “good and bad.”
Amy Irvine: We need to find people who aren’t on the same side of the equation and figure out how we can build relationships with them. How can we be curious about why they do what they do and think what they think? For example, most of the ranchers I know are really good people who are really quite conservative with natural resources.
Andrea Ross: And unless we are able to see others as part of our own tribe, we won’t see their humanity. We need to understand the logic behind others’ ideas and empathize with each other’s point of view. It has to happen.
Amy Irvine: They just think we’re a completely different species, and in some ways we are, because generally speaking, conservative and progressive brains are wired differently. But both sides get so ensconced in the dogma of “being right.” Consider Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Hispanic and Native communities outnumber white ones. That city’s citizens must allow multiple truths to exist at the same time. And you’re asking about how we break the duality? I think it’s through personal relationships, literally just hanging out with people who have different experiences and world views than yours. That’s where the curiosity and the wonder come in. The result is a sort of friendship that allows a wider lens on things. Then it’s much harder to hate.
In Desert Cabal I write about a very, very privileged group of people that sit at a table in what I call the “Ivory Cabin” and write about wild places and our relationship to them in a very particular way. And there’s not really any room at the table for other voices. So, I sent the manuscript to people like Camille Dungy, an African American poet who writes about nature—she’s the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry—she said, “I waited my whole life for this. Thank you so much.” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former councilwoman for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and one of the founders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, wrote the afterword for Desert Cabal. She told me, “You have no idea how glad I am to be a part of this because I have had to battle white privilege and sexism since I first stepped in to advocate for the Bears Ears.” Regina joined me for much of the book tour, and it’s been wonderful to learn about an indigenous female’s perspective. We need to open the door to the Ivory Cabin and let all these constituencies in, because it’s going to take all of them to solve the environmental crisis.
Another way of thinking about including other voices came up in a recent news story: The remains of a high-ranking Viking, an admiral of sorts who had been buried with maps and significant military regalia, was long assumed to be male. But more recent developments in osteology confirmed that the skeleton was female. This is not an isolated incident—meaning across the globe many skeletons once presumed male are turning out to be female. We are entering a new age, which is, in fact, an old age—the age of warrior women.
Andrea Ross: That’s great—the age of warrior women. Let’s hope so, and not just in the Viking era.
Amy Irvine: And that doesn’t mean we’re against men. It doesn’t mean we’re Amazons that killed our sons and ate men for breakfast. It would be very shallow, and silly, to confuse what I’m saying with that.
Andrea Ross: It’s another instance of holding both truths at the same time, another piece of evidence that there can be both: male warriors and female warriors.
Amy Irvine: And how lovely that we are fluid enough to move in and out of those realms with one another. To me that is a better kind of relationship with one another and with the land.
Andrea Ross: It opens up a lot of possibilities.
Amy Irvine: Yes, it does. We end the dualities by learning to be fluid. And the most important thing for me is to acknowledge my position of privilege and to use that position to move over, so other voices and experiences are heard. We need the multitudes now, to speak and act on behalf of public lands. Indeed, for the whole planet.
Andrea Ross is a trained wilderness guide and a former National Park Service ranger. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Mountain Gazette, The Café Review, The Dirtbag Diaries Podcast, Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon, Raising Mothers, Portrait of an Adoption, Permanent Vacation, and other print and online publications. She is a lecturer in the University Writing Program at UC Davis. Find her online at andrearosswriter.com.
Header photo by Bears Ears National Monument’s Valley of the Gods by THoffman, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Andrea Ross by Andrew Majeske.