Amy Irvine Sits Down With Rachel Hamalian To Talk About Edward Abbey, Writing, and The Desert

Rachel Hamalain: In your new book, Desert Cabal, you confront the claims that Edward Abbey made in his book, Desert Solitaire – on its 50th anniversary. What inspired you to make this confrontation?

Amy Irvine: It’s a very odd backstory. So Back of Beyond Books, which is an iconic bookstore in Moab, Utah, is basically Edward Abbey Central. You can imagine that that’s where all of his greatest fans go. For the anniversary, they received permission to make facsimiles of the original manuscript of Desert Solitaire. It had all of his own hand-written edits on it. They were going to reproduce them and put them in a beautiful box and sell them as a commemorative collector’s item, and they asked me if I would write a little introductory essay or forward that they would include in it. I said, Okay, but why me? And they said, they want it to be a woman and you’re a sixth-generation Utahn, you’ve worked as a public lands activist, we think you’re the right person. I said you know I’m going to take him to task, right? And they said, yeah, based on your memoir, yes.

So I started writing it, and I started to feel a little self-conscious. Like the Wheel of Fortune, do you remember Vanna White who would turn the letters? She always came out in a cocktail dress. I was beginning to feel like a Vanna White, showing off Ed Abbey. I was a little uncomfortable with that. I decided I needed to talk to him directly, so I started writing to him as if I were squatting on his grave. I needed my voice to talk to him directly, whether or not he answered didn’t matter. Then, I was contracted to write three or four thousand words, and I wrote about 18,000. It was this fever dream that just came out of me. And I hadn’t been getting this kind of material published in the last five years, but after Trump was in office, and Me Too, and Standing Rock, and Bear’s ears, this new portal opened for underrepresented voices as alternative narratives. Suddenly it seems like that voice was okay. Everything that I had that had been welling up just got poured into this project. And I celebrate Abbey, he’s defined much of my life, and I take him to task. How could I not, being a woman? I believe that social injustices can no longer be separate from environmental. The public land and wilderness movement in the West is still built on the romantic notion of the rugged loan male in the wilderness. I’m not so sure that’s something we should be aspiring to anymore, given how many people are on the planet, how many people are getting out to recreation on public land. Do we even have time to have a smaller debate? We just need to save the planet now, this is no longer about aesthetics. But, he was profoundly sexist and racist in that book, and that’s a real problem now. We’re ready for a conversation to go beyond “Abbey’s country.”


R: Have you received any criticism about your book?

A: There has been flack. You know the term Ivory Tower Syndrome, well I think there’s an Ivory Cabin Syndrome that has happened with the Wilderness movement. It’s a small little cabin in a very beautiful place and there’s a lot of people out howling out in the wilderness that have not been let in to sit at that table. I felt like it was important that these other voices get heard. So one of the older guys that sit at that table was very angry, which I thought was really interesting because one of his excuses was that Abbey was writing in another time. But he was writing and living in the middle of the civil rights era and women’s rights, which is almost worse, and they tried to say nobody gets to write about Abbey. But I think that’s our job, to question and to write. It almost sounds like they’re saying boys will be boys. I had one man say that it’s too bad I was so shrill and political in talking to Abbey because if you look at John Muir and Thoreau and Emerson, those men who wrote beautifully never had to bring politics into it. But that’s the advantage of being privileged, they can speak as though these are grand truths and not politicize them. And those guys were absolutely political. They were trying to establish the 1964 Wilderness Act. So that was interesting, that the criticism pointed to five dead white guys to put me in my place. It’s been an interesting ride. But I feel like they’re a lot more people responding to a positively, way more people than this very small group that’s in the ivory cabin.


R: Can you tell me about your own relationship to nature and land?

A: I grew up on public lands in the west, I come from a family of Mormon ranchers. My Memoir before this, Trespass, includes my great-great-great-grandfather’s diary about coming to Utah, and he came just ahead of Brigham Young. He was the real deal. So, my whole life and family history happened on public lands.


R: How can we as humans be most effective at simultaneously enjoying and preserving nature?

A: That’s a tough one, and I really reckon with that in this book. I don’t think we can be pointing fingers at the other side until we sort of got our own houses in order. Our carbon footprint is pretty high. There’s a point in the book when I talk about going to a book club at a very big, fancy house with big SUVs, the clothes people were wearing, the food they were serving, all leave a large carbon footprint. But then they have recycling. They also talked down about the rednecks down the road and how their lifestyle is unsustainable. But actually, these “rednecks” reuse every piece of baling twine, they never leave the Mesa, they grow and raise all their own food, they only own two pairs of shoes and one jacket and two pairs of jeans. You don’t get to say that’s unsustainable. So liberals who want to protect public lands and Recreation out there have to find a way to own their flaws and reduce their carbon footprint, and still, have their playful love affair with the land. We also have to take this new climate change report seriously, it is very sobering. We don’t have a lot of time to fix things, and it will require all of us to scale down and find a more simple way to love public land. We can even consider the way we eat because livestock put out more greenhouse gases than automobiles. So, if we all went meatless one day a week, that would cut emissions by an obscene amount. We must be conscious, but we have to continue to feel joy, or we’ve lost the battle entirely. We can’t make ourselves feel guilty every day. For example, my daughter has seizures all night long, so coffee is my best friend in the world. Even though it’s not sustainable or politically correct, I love Starbucks French Roast, ya know?


R: From writers to rock climbers, who has most inspired you in your career? How so?

A: I would absolutely say Lynn Hill, a great woman climber. She free climbed the Nose in Yosemite. No man did that for a long time, and she did that in just twenty-four hours. That completely shifted my mindset about men being stronger. She’s been a tremendous beacon for all of us in terms of strength in all forms, not just muscle.

Writers, certainly Edward Abbey in so many ways. He really inspired me to write in a way that made people uncomfortable. I don’t think that presenting everybody on the left as good and making them feel comfortable solves anything. I wanted to find the gray areas where things could shift a little bit to bring together common denominators from the right and left. There’s a way that Abbey did that very successfully and that really mattered to me. I was inspired to tell the uncomfortable truth.


R: This is your third book to get published. What challenges have you overcome to get where you are now?

A: Oh my gosh. A woman said the other night at my book launch in Moab, that I sound so much more sure of myself and clear on my position in this crazy world. It’s only age, and definitely motherhood. The narrative arc of my life included publishing Trespass, which received very good reviews. And then I fell off the radar with a child that was very very sick. I didn’t get much writing done during that time, but I learned a lot about the human condition. It’s helped me think about what we’re not doing, what we should be doing, how closed our hearts still are, and how much more they can open. How much more fierce, articulate, and visible women can be in this world. We have a long way to go as female authors, but we are gaining some visible ground. As a white woman of privilege, I’ve been trying to help open those doors for voices of women of color. So I partnered with a Native American woman to write the afterward of Desert Cabal, and we’ve been touring together.


R: How does being a writer impact the way you see and interact with the world?

A: I have always seen the world in narrative arcs. I can see the map of the beginning, middle, and end when I’m watching a flash flood. I also have this nervous, weird habit of typing words, while I’m absorbed in something. I’m taking in an experience and turning it into a language almost immediately. It’s a weird habit, drives people crazy!


R: Mountains, oceans, or deserts?

A: Definitely deserts. I love them all, but my entire soul resides in the desert. I was reminded of that last week when I got caught in a flash flood with a group from Whitman college. It was a river of cold red water and cow pies. It was exciting, and it was definitely not for everyone. But for me, it was like a baptism.