Edward Abbey’s warnings were right

Author Amy Irvine’s answer to the classic ‘Desert Solitaire’ on its 50th anniversary.

Mid-morning now, and hellishly hot, so I’ve donned a long-sleeved shirt and my grandfather’s greasy, brow-beaten Resistol hat. He was the real deal, you know. Ran 500 head of cattle in the high desert country of southern Idaho. I mention this because you and I seem to share the acquaintance of stockmen and a fondness for moving through rough country on horseback. I don’t know — perhaps rounding up herds of cows via equines gave us both the excuse to feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose out there, to deem our place in the desert as somehow more worthy than the tourists’. Neither of us ever wanted to just pass through.


Whatever the motives, I think that we both understand the “other side” of this public-lands debate — by which I mean the self-proclaimed old-timers, the rural folk. Which is, of course, not the other side at all — not even the likes of Cliven Bundy and the guys who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Most of today’s environmental groups won’t agree, but you might, when I say that sometimes I vote libertarian to help break up the country’s two-party gridlock, but also because I love the idea of what those guys did; I love the active resistance, the sticking it to institutions too large and lethargic to be effective. After all, the folks who have defied federal authority believe as you believed, that we might need the wild woolliness of the West “as a refuge from authoritarian government,” and “as bases for guerilla warfare against tyranny.”

The anti-federalist, Mormon part of me agrees with your words, their actions. But, for Bundy’s kind, the land’s not the thing either. It’s another kind of buzz that has to do with big guns, big hats and big boots. It’s not the lawlessness that gets me as much as heartlessness — the way the cows go starving and the land perishes from too many large and foreign beasts on it. It’s not a thing we can afford. For me, it’s a matter of degrees. My grandfather, the other ranchers I’ve moved cows for — none of them sits on the extreme and hostile end of the spectrum. Besides, there are so few independent ranch outfits remaining they are hardly the main problem. But I’ll tell you what is:

I was invited to speak at a book club in Salt Lake City, my hometown. The hostess’ directions took me up one of the city’s seven canyons to a tall iron gate, which ran across the hillside for as far as I could see. On a keypad, I entered a security code and the gate rolled open to a razed hilltop lathered in huge, shiny new homes built from whole forests of trees, steel, hewed stone, concrete, granite, and marble. The gathering was to be held in such a structure, and when I found the right one I squeezed my Subaru between the megafauna — Ford Explosions and Land Rovers — all of which sported stickers that claimed allegiance to The Nature Conservancy or Sierra Club.

I entered the host’s home, which may as well have been a ski lodge, so vast and luxuriously rustic-chic it was. A table displaying imported wine, olives, cheese, grapes and shrimp beckoned — items that traveled from farmers and vintners and fishermen to warehouses and then to the distributors, and then to Salt Lake storefronts. After these items were purchased, they were driven home — from the heart of the city to the McMansion atop this canyon. They were laid out next to recyclable paper plates, napkins and cutlery. A blue recycling bin stood proudly at table’s end to collect what could be used, in some other fashion, again.

We filled our plates and glasses and gathered in a great room fit for kings and queens. We discussed my living in and writing about rural southern Utah, among people who hate that the Feds are in charge of lands they believe to be their backyards. At one point, a woman wrinkled her nose and said, “God, I hate all those backwoods rednecks down there. Their lifestyle is totally unsustainable.”

The other book club members nodded and murmured in agreement.

I leaned into the fire at my back, a fire that should have been making my skin bead with sweat but instead left me lukewarm because the hearth was so absurdly large. I took in the impeccable hygiene, the curiously bright white teeth, the new hip clothes. I thought about my rural neighbors and my own ranching relatives. All of them lived in much, much smaller houses than this. They grew, raised or hunted nearly all their own food. Their cars and trucks were driven until there were 300,000 miles on the engines. They owned about two pairs of jeans and one pair of boots each, and they reused every piece of baling twine. Hardly ever did they use fuel to go on a “road trip,” let alone commute to work or to a book club or fly in airplanes to exotic places. And the cattle they trucked to sale? They were sold to the supermarkets and restaurants the rest of us frequent, to serve as the main course for the paleo diets to which the good liberals prescribe — diets that burn way too much carbon, but, hey, they burn fat too — especially if we drive across town after work for a CrossFit class before heading back out to the suburbs to pump more protein into our systems so we are lean and chiseled and ready to head to the desert come Friday afternoon, where we’ll camp, cook, poop and pump our bikes amid ancient grounds where the region’s Native Americans lived.

These good white liberals want monuments and wilderness to protect the places they recreate, to keep out companies that want to suck the fossil fuels out from under the sandstone. But the oil and gas will be burned by and large by them, to travel to Utah’s public lands. And it’s used by us — you in your big red Cadillac and me in my Toyota truck — although I’ve recently downgraded to a more fuel-efficient Subaru, the preferred method of transport that’s most often frosted with bike, ski and boat racks for outdoor enthusiasts across the nation.

The land and those who live off it know this arrangement breeds no symbiosis. We all want to get to, and get off on, a body corralled and commodified. We are horses headed to the barn. Our orgasmic need for release and relief eclipses the fact that this is the living, breathing body of the Beloved — the naked desert that has been demarcated and delineated — ribbed, we believe, for our pleasure.

But you knew all this, even then — before Arches was paved and Moab became a monument to motors and muscles. You gave us warning. Desert Solitaire was another kind of red flag, waving wildly in the blinding, blasting wind through which we have failed to see our own tracks.

So now what? How has the land become beside the point, even as people go to such lengths there — to play on it, to make a living on it?

If we objectify, we can enjoy. To love any more deeply is to love in a way that devastates. As you said about the drowning of Glen Canyon, the most tragic of all Ophelias, “We dare not think about it for if we did we’d be eating our hearts, chewing our entrails, consuming ourselves in the fury of helpless rage. Of helpless outrage.”

We are they.

The new adventure starts now. It takes place on hazardous, heartbreaking terrain, without the contagions of carbon.

No longer can we be voyeurs, catching from scenic pullouts mere glimpses of the wild, uneven territory of our collective unconscious. The hour at hand demands that we molt all that we want and believe we know. That we slither — belly to stone — into the dens and burrows of our souls.  

Excerpted from Amy Irvine’s most recent book, Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness (Torrey House Press, November 2018).

Amy Irvine is a sixth-generation Utahn and longtime public lands activist. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, among others. Irvine lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado.