Since publishing his iconic desert paean “Desert Solitaire” in 1968, Edward Abbey has been lionized — deified even — as a master of prose, champion of wild places, eloquent curmudgeon, desert anarchist and pioneering monkey wrencher. 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 Many of his stances on gender, immigration and user populations are considered outdated. Even calling the desert “Abbey’s country” rankles some.
And in writer Amy Irvine’s new book, “Desert Cabal,” Irvine marks the 50th anniversary of “Desert Solitaire” by both celebrating the legacy of Cactus Ed, and challenging it.
The slim volume brings Abbey up to date on the state of wilderness in the context of an ever-crowded West, the new activism of #MeToo and Standing Rock, climate change, white privilege, and other issues that dominate modern conversations. Parts pay homage to his legacy; others take shots at his beliefs as dusty relics. But at the core of the conversation, Irvine says, is an urgent mission.
“What it came down to for me in the end is that it’s a landscape that is vulnerable and exposed,” she said.
Because of that, it gets commodified and exploited, even by those who love it. And the hard truth, she said, is that “to truly love the desert, is to leave more of it alone.”
“Desert Cabal” is hot off the presses, and Irvine is swinging through the region on her book tour. The Norwood-based scribe will host a reading and discussion Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at the Livery in Norwood as part of the “Save the Livery” effort. She’ll follow that with an event Wednesday at Telluride Arts HQ. And on Nov. 11, she’ll appear at the Sherbino Theatre in Ridgway.
The book was never actually supposed to be a book, and Irvine notes it’s the product of a real-life cabal. Early in 2018, Andy Nettell of Moab’s Back of Beyond Books approached Irvine to ask if she would write the introduction to an early draft of “Desert Solitaire” as part of a host of events commemorating its 50th anniversary.
This, she said, was daunting.
“‘Desert Solitaire’ is sacred and canonical — the bible of many conservationists and outdoor lovers. I didn’t know where to begin,” she admitted.
She fumbled at first. Then one day, she was thumbing through the table of contents, and she realized that for every chapter title, she has her own set of stories — and that she could turn these into a volley of words with Abbey. The words spilled out. In just ten days, she penned 18,000 words, far surpassing the 3,000 she was supposed to write.
But when she showed it to Nettell, he agreed that it shouldn’t be limited to an intro slot. With the help of Torrey House Press, the essay was fast-tracked into a book.
The result is a lyrical, raw and vulnerable conversation between Irvine and Abbey that is part tribute, part memoir and part polemic. In just 82 pages, Irvine manages to take on the white-male dominated patriarchy, call out the hypocrisy of elite environmentalists, mourn the places that have been lost, and reveal her own vulnerabilities as a wife, mother and land worshiper. She makes a case for both a more inclusive wilderness movement and a simpler lifestyle with less impact on the land. And in the end, she points out that despite the way Abbey romanticized the hardy independence of the lone white male, he never fully embodied that life. He was a family man who kept lasting friendships and was often accompanied by companions. Abbey even acknowledged these facts in the original “Desert Solitaire” manuscript, but they were ultimately omitted. And that, Irvine argues, has helped engender the myth that we’re OK in isolation — that we don’t need each other. It’s a dangerous belief to hang on to.
“So I say to you, go solo, into the desert,” she writes. “Yes, do this and love every minute. But then come back. Come fall in with the cabal that has joined together, to save what we know and love. It will take multitudes to slow the avalanche of apathy. And it will take a lot of devotion.”
How does she think Abbey would react to her words? Well, the man did have a healthy respect for angering the establishment.
“We share a number of mutual friends who have said to me, you would have pissed him off on a few things and he probably would have come up with some clever responses,” Irvine said. “But he would have conceded that you did the right thing to piss off both the left and the right.”