Since publishing his iconic desert paean Desert Solitaire in 1968, Edward Abbey has been lionized in the wilderness community as a champion of wild places, eloquent curmudgeon, and pioneering monkey-wrencher. His potent influence continues to course through the modern conservation movement, inspiring activists with its signature surliness. And rightly so. But 50 years after that influential book hit the stands, things have changed in Abbey’s Country. The writer’s beloved desert has become crowded, and the hordes of people jostling for and abusing it (a thing he would loathe to witness) include outdoor enthusiasts inspired by his very words. Many of his stances seem outdated in today’s inclusive society. Even calling the desert “Abbey’s Country” rankles some.
In writer Amy Irvine’s new book, Desert Cabal, (publishing next week – order here) Irvine marks the anniversary of Desert Solitaire by both celebrating the legacy of Cactus Ed, and challenging it. The slim volume is 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). Irvine sat down with Adventure Journal to talk about the book, which is out in November.
AJ: This book has an interesting origin story. Tell us how it came about.
Amy Irvine: It began as a commissioned essay that would serve as a foreword to a special 50th-anniversary edition of Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. It was in March that I signed a contract to deliver about 3,000 words to Andy Nettell, proprietor of Moab, Utah’s iconic Back of Beyond Books. I sat down to write in early April. Ten days later, I emerged from a fever dream with 18,000 words. I remember little about those days, except that I nearly burst with a sense of urgency, devotion, and fury over what’s happening in Utah, my home state, where some of the last, best wild places have been sacrificed not only to industry and motorized recreation but also to muscle-powered adventures — if only because there are so many of us out there, loving the land beyond capacity.
When I turned in my pages, Andy read it and thought, “This is SO wrong.” It made him as uncomfortable to read as it was for me to write it — after all, this was Ed Abbey I was taking on. But he sent it to Torrey House Press (THP), which has become a force in what I’d call “landscape literacy.” Together, Back of Beyond Books and Torrey House committed to publishing what had earned the name Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, before year’s end.
In the book, you have a frank and open conversation with Ed Abbey in which you don’t shy from confronting and even criticizing his legacy. Taking shots at the man is a rare thing, especially coming from a fellow wilderness activist. Why was it time to have this conversation?
I didn’t just pay tribute to Abbey (although I do that, too), I also took him to task for having converted so many redrock desert defenders that we are now loving the land to death. Also, more than ever, it was vital to address his views that helped to elevate the white, “lone wolf” male supremacy at the heart of the modern day wilderness movement he helped inspire. Ultimately, I needed my own desert dialect. I had been parroting Abbey, looking at what he called “Abbey’s Country” through his lens for too long.
But I am not “taking shots” at him. I am in conversation with him. This is vital to distinguish here, because taking shots means not being in a relationship. And the notion of solitude that Abbey defined, was a false construct: During his time in what was then Arches National Monument, Abbey had a wife, children, and many women on the side. This is important stuff — because we have been emulating a misanthropic model that can breed intolerance and exclusion. The wilderness movement, like wilderness itself, should operate as a model of interdependence, not independence. If we want to save the wild remains of the nation, we’ll need a broader, more cooperative constituency that includes women, indigenous people, and other underrepresented others. And we’ll have to tread more lightly.
Aside from just talking to Abbey about his writing and the state of American wilderness, you also weave in your own story in a way that’s extremely vulnerable. Talk about your decision to do that.
We are so divided, we cannot even have a civil or intelligent conversation. In Marriage Counseling 101, a therapist will tell you to own your own shit before pointing the finger at your partner. I believed it unfair to go toe-to-toe with Abbey’s ghost if I didn’t own my complicities and infidelities. And I was trying to bring the human elements of partnership and community into the wilderness construct — where it belongs. After all, no one lives alone out there for very long.
How do you think Abbey would react to the book?
Who knows? Many have speculated, but he’s not here to tell us how his views on women, or Native Americans, or immigrants may have changed over the past several decades. The only thing I do know is that whatever he predicted in terms of environmental degradation, poverty, and human greed, it’s far worse than he could ever have imagined. A few of our mutual friends think he’d react by volleying a few choice remarks, but that he’d ultimately enjoy the tete-a-tete.
And finally, what do you hope readers take from Desert Cabal?
I hope Desert Cabal not only confronts and updates the ideas that Abbey embraced, but it invites others to find their own desert dialect. As a woman who openly agrees to wrangle with the elements and animals in the wilderness, but also has been forced to fear for her life through dangerous interactions with her own species, I hope people understand that solitude is contextual, and for those who have the time, means, and physical/financial ability to get out there and seek out adventure, this is a privilege that is not available to everyone.
The other thing that is vital for we outdoor adventure enthusiasts to remember is that our carbon footprint is pretty high. All that gear and travel adds up, and the paleo diets we prescribe to are fueling the single worst contributor to greenhouse emissions. So this is the other takeaway I hope for — that we’ll find a way to act on behalf of the wild places we love. By voting, and by taking inventory of our own consumptive habits.
If you haven’t read Abbey, these books would be a great place to start
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968). One of the true classics of adventure, outdoor writing. You’ll fall in love with the desert, shed a tear for the inroads of civilization.
The Journey Home: Some Words in the Defense of the American West (1991). Abbey takes the reader from his childhood in Hoboken, New Jersey to his life wandering the desert.
The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). Abbey’s novel about George Hayduke, a green beret who takes the protection of nature to an extreme degree, has inspired and entertained environmentalists for decades.