Forces of nature

  • TRESPASS: LIVING AT THE EDGE OF THE PROMISED LAND AMY IRVINE 361 pages, hardcover: $25. North Point Press, 2008.


Amy Irvine, environmental activist, writer and former professional rock climber, sets her memoir, Trespass, in the stark geology of Utah's red-rock wilderness. Following her father's suicide, Irvine retreats from Salt Lake City to rural Utah, where she is confronted almost daily by divisive public land-use demands and ubiquitous Mormon missionaries, not to mention her tumultuous love life.

At times scholarly, at times familiar, Irvine changes tones with ease. She draws parallels between Anasazi culture and modern life. The titles of the book's sections - Lithic, Archaic, Basketmaker and Pueblo - reflect her knowledge of Utah's prehistory, a structural originality that proves to be the book's greatest creative strength.

Though distinguished by Irvine's forays into regional history, Trespass is in many ways a prototypical memoir, following an abused child-to-rebel-to-wife-to-mother trajectory. Irvine's suffering leads her to an (often self-flagellating) role as an activist. She ruminates on her estranged father's suicide and her fear of being driven, largely by a sense of rootlessness, to the same end.

Adversarial by nature, Irvine is deeply opinionated on every controversy: wilderness versus rangeland; Mormons versus gentiles; her need for home versus her lover's nomadic impulsiveness. The daughter of a Catholic and a Mormon descended from Brigham Young's right-hand man, Irvine wrestles with the Mormon Church; it looms throughout the book as a threatening monolith. Passionate and sexual, she finds Mormonism sadly devoid of physicality. She grapples with what she sees as its inherent sexism, as her female neighbors get married and have children without pursuing careers or participating in community decisions.

Irvine, determined to break down modern life into its primal constituents, sees "the unwavering want for water, meat, sex, rest, peace" as the engine that drives civilization. The natural world is intensely moving and comforting for her. She hikes to combat stress and loneliness, and believes that "learning the lie of the land seems as vital as paying the mortgage."

Reflecting on her father's death and her subsequent retreat to a rural life, Irvine writes, "Organic materials. These are what I turned to in the face of death, when I most needed some kind of mooring." Ultimately, Trespass is the record of her honest search for mooring. Irvine's introspection is graced by good storytelling, but the historic research and the ambitious breadth of Trespass truly make it shine.

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