Amy Irvine is a writer and a mother, a competitive rock climber, an activist, a caregiver, and a truth teller. (She is also a friend.) Her latest book, Desert Cabal, is a fiercely tender and provocative response to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—his classic and now canonical account of the desert West—on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Desert Cabal is about Irvine’s own life in the West—raising a family, falling in love with the land and working to protect it—and it explores the myths of Western masculinity, the sublimity of endangered territory, and the kinds of intimacy enabled by spaciousness and proximity.
Near the beginning of Desert Cabal, Irvine evokes Abbey’s seductive evocation of solitude as “loveliness and a quiet exaltation.” But her book challenges his understanding of solitude in nuanced and surprising ways. “Now that I have been a working mother wrangling a special-needs child in a complicated and congested world,” she writes, “my definition of solitude has changed.”
As soon as I read that line, I thought, Yes! Solitude means something different for women. It has to do with the intense expectations we face around caregiving—the assumption that we’ll take care of places, people, objects, schedules. Before I became a mother, I remember thinking, How does parenting work for introverts? These days—as someone who loves my ten-month-old daughter so intensely I can hardly stand it, but still loves to be alone—I’ve spent much of the past year thinking about the vexed relationship between care and solitude.
I’m not an expert in wilderness literature, but Irvine’s book is written for all of us: those of us who know the literature of the wilderness, and those of us who don’t. Because the wilderness matters to us all. We are all beholden, and we are all culpable. In proposing a new way of thinking about the wilderness—not in terms of solitude but in terms of relation—Irvine is posing even broader questions about how we understand ourselves in relation to one another. This is a book written for anyone who has ever wanted to be alone, and for anyone who has ever realized solitude is a delusion.
At one point in your book, you point out: “Solitude, for women, is a different animal entirely.” Let’s start there. Can you talk more about solitude and gender?
Rereading Desert Solitaire in its fiftieth year, I compared my wilderness experiences—as a backcountry explorer, park ranger, rock climber, cowboy, hunter, and wildland firefighter—to Abbey’s. On one hand, I thought, yes, we both share a deep, abiding love for the wilderness. In this way, I am quite aware of my own privileges as a white woman who has the time and the means to access wild places and embrace a certain adventure aesthetic. But I was present when a man entered a neighboring tent and put a knife to a woman’s throat. I have been part of a climbing community in which another female climber went out for a run and was taken by a serial killer. Indeed, there have been many instances in which I felt my wilderness experience, if not my life, has been menaced by my own species. And while this hasn’t stopped me from exploring the American West, I would say it means the scope of what I consider pleasurable solitude is far narrower than it is for Abbey.
As for caregiving: Edward Abbey had five wives and just as many children—and other women on the side. And yet he was able to leave them all behind, to live this romantic life as a seasonal ranger and writer in a remote and rugged landscape. I can’t tell you how much I coveted such a job—but when I worked for the Park Service, I was assigned to an urban setting, giving daily cave tours to throngs of people. I didn’t last long. I quit so I could be out in the backcountry more, and so I could write more. I, too, wanted to find “loveliness and quiet exaltation.”
Then my daughter was born. I swaddled her against my chest and made every effort to get outside with her, although the extent of my adventures was dialed way down. I was mostly okay with that; I figured it was just for a few years. But writing hardly happened. I was blindly driven to be there for this small but overwhelming wonder of a human! At the same time, it was assumed by most everyone around us that I would forgo the long, focused hours that writing demands to tend to her needs. Sure, her father was willing to care of her so I could get a few things done, but it was by no means a fair trade. Research shows that working mothers put in far more hours of unpaid, domestic labor than working fathers, and I’d say that was my experience. Meaning that when I tried to carve out more time for myself, my guilt and blowback from others conspired against all plans. Yes, I managed to write and publish a book during those first years of motherhood, but I really couldn’t follow through with publicity efforts, or the teaching and magazine assignments that followed—opportunities that would have improved my earning capabilities. My mental and physical health suffered. Later, when I filed for divorce, my daughter asked, “But who’s gonna do the shopping, make dinner and tidy the house for us?” That was sobering; to know that at ten years of age, she believed that was Mom’s job after a full day at the office. That kind of compressed day-to-day does not allow for solitude, if we go by Abbey’s definition. It was lonelier than being alone—and that is not the takeaway I want my daughter to model.
But there are other relationships to solitude: This summer, I was teaching a writing workshop at a very nice retreat center set in nature. A group of female veterans with PTSD were also there. One day, as I was walking along a forested path to my classroom, I came across an African American woman, frozen in terror. I approached and asked gently whether I could help. She grabbed my arm and said, “Please, get me out of here!” So we headed up the path together. I said, “It’s okay. You are safe here.” She turned to me, incredulous, and said, “Don’t you ever tell a black woman that she’s safe in the woods!” This was a watershed moment for me, in understanding just how contextual solitude is.
When you talk about being blindly driven to care for your daughter, I can’t help but think of another beautiful moment in your book when you describe your life as a mother: “With my daughter, there have been so many, many sleepless nights, so many close calls. I didn’t keep a journal, I kept vigil.” I find that haunting: I didn’t keep a journal, I kept vigil. Not only the necessary recognition of writing itself as a privilege but the observation that attention is not always ours to hoard. Some of the most beautiful writing in this book is about your daughter, Ruby, and her fierce and generous spirit.
At one point, you describe finding a reference to Abbey’s wife and children in an early manuscript of Desert Solitaire that he deleted from the final version. You wonder about that deletion, asking his spirit directly: “Why did you delete this line? Why is it that the juniper tree and the scorpion figure largely on the page when the people you loved do not?” From all this, a few questions: How has your relationship to writing changed from your years of keeping vigil? And what do you make of that deleted reference to Abbey’s family in the original manuscript? Why do you think he took it out?
This project began as a commissioned essay, to serve as a foreword to a facsimile of Abbey’s original manuscript of Desert Solitaire—which has Abbey’s handwritten annotations on it. These were produced as a limited edition by Moab’s iconic bookstore, Back of Beyond Books, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of their best-selling book of all time.
In that original draft, there is a line that plainly refers to Abbey’s wife and kids, but that line is crossed out! This stunned me, to know that Abbey had made, or agreed to, such a choice—because I find it impossible not to write about human relationships in the context of my experiences in the natural world. So I began with the question: Why did he use solitude as a literary device, and what impact has that trope had on his cultlike following—in terms of a national lens on wilderness, and its embrace of a rugged and hypermasculine kind of individualism?
I won’t presume to know why Abbey chose not to include his intimates and write only about acquaintances. But I am guessing that it is because it is far easier, far cleaner, to write in such a way. Imagine, writing a novel with only one character!
Mentors and colleagues in the nature-writing realm often caution me to scale back the personal aspects of my writing. But I am convinced that it is that aloofness, the separation of wildness and humanness, that has made it impossible for us to develop a broader constituency for protecting wild places. It’s also a false narrative. People have always lived together; we evolved with the visceral understanding that to go it alone meant certain death by way of freezing, starving, or being eaten by something with teeth and nails far larger, sharper, than ours. And we know from the diaries of gold rush brides and homestead wives that even if one survived one’s singularity in the wild, one might go mad in the process.
The madness waned when I began writing again—despite the ongoingness of my daughter’s nocturnal epilepsy. I had to—to pay the bills and to save my soul. The nighttime vigilance and the profound sleep deprivation have meant that writing residencies and long periods of deep immersion are no longer possible. In their place, I have learned to write on the steering wheel, at sixty-five miles per hour. To hold my daughter at night and type on my phone because the glow of my laptop screen was enough to trigger seizures. I now listen to audiobooks in the dark, rather than reading—so I can be next to her when the convulsions happen. Those times definitely fail to qualify as the romantic kind of solitude one imagines when one signs on as either writer or mother.
Yes! And pushing back against the familiar kinds of romance we associate with the wilderness is such a necessary part of bringing it to life in all its glory and all its complexity. I love your commitment to pushing back against romance—against clean lines and simple morals. Elsewhere in the book, after telling a difficult story about going into the wilderness with your sister—a story I loved because you absolutely refused to tie it up with a bow; you did justice to the ragged confusion of living instead—you concede that writing about solitude feels clean while writing about others often feels more “messy.” I’ve found this to be true as well. But I also think the most worthwhile writing is almost always messy—in its truths if not in its craft.
So as a counterpoint to that first question about solitude, can you speak to what feels worthwhile about bringing the mess of other people into your work?
We live in a time that feels particularly dehumanized, and it doesn’t help that the planet is so crowded. When Abbey worked in what is now Arches National Park, it was often void of people. Now the traffic is bumper to bumper, all day, almost year round. Overpopulation looms as one of the greatest threats to the planet, but the consumption habits of America rival it—a fact we don’t want to look at for even a moment. So we, like Abbey (who drove a big, gas-guzzling red Cadillac and tossed his Coors cans out its window), distract ourselves with population growth in developing countries, and related issues such as immigration. This avoidance of our complicity in the planet’s demise feeds nationalism and bigotry, and this is where we must take another hard look at Abbey, who groused about wanting to send Mexicans back to where they came from. He also espoused population control among the Navajo—whose homelands are included in the place the writer deemed “Abbey’s Country.” (Can you imagine, if—despite my pedigree, which includes being a sixth-generation Utahan with noteworthy Mormon ancestry—if I had, in my previous book about the desert, called it “Amy’s Country”?)
To wax psychoanalytic here: the distractions, avoidance behaviors, and projections associated with going it alone all converge as a misanthropy we cannot afford—not with so many of us living in close quarters, competing for finite resources. To do so is to turn on one another in ways that dehumanize us entirely. And then, we’ve squandered our souls, so what would be the point of surviving? It feels not only important but necessary to discontinue our romance with solitude and begin to question what is missing in our lives and communities that has us trying to “get away from it all.”
To write as a woman who has had such grand adventures, has felt threatened by her own species, and is raising a child to survive and thrive in the wild, is to refuse the Otherness assigned to me. This, I hope, invites others in, to share their own Othered experiences of wild places—experiences we have not yet heard about that would help to garner broader public support for maintaining large, intact ecosystems. To this end, it matters hugely that two African American writers/poets, Camille Dungy and Major Jackson, are publishing/anthologizing black nature writing. That indigenous journalists like Jenni Monet and Jacqueline Keeler are reporting on Standing Rock, and Bears Ears, and the outrageous numbers of Native women and girls who go missing and whose cases are never investigated. These are counternarratives to Abbey’s—and those of other privileged white nature writers—which means they are exclusive narratives. They are gilded with a mythos that the rest of us cannot inhabit, a mythos that fails to truly wrangle with humanity the way Charles Bowden’s writing about the U.S.–Mexico border succeeded at doing. No longer can we afford to speak about nature separate from its intersections with race, poverty, misogyny. That we ever thought we could, and should, is a failure of community and conversation.
Which brings me back to Abbey’s misanthropy and exclusivity: he was not alone, in writing this way. Thoreau’s work is quite disdainful of fellow humans, as Kathryn Schulz pointed out in a 2015 New Yorker piece titled “Pond Scum.” More than any other writing, Schulz says, “the Thoreau piece earned me mountains of hate mail.”
It’s hard for me not to read the response to “Pond Scum” as an attempt to put yet another female writer in her place—a response I’ve also experienced with Desert Cabal, for daring to tackle a man whom many wilderness lovers view as a sacred idol. But I think the backlash says something about our desperation to project our vulnerability elsewhere: Onto nonwhite bodies. Onto female bodies. Onto animal bodies. And onto bodies of land. I think that’s the whole point of exclusion: to sanitize the mess, to quiet the chaos we cannot control.
It makes me think of what happened after Eula Biss published her essay “White Debt” in The New York Times Magazine: our shared editor, Jeff Shotts, said that the vitriolic comments posted in response to her essay were the most powerful argument he could imagine for why it had been so necessary to write in the first place. In that vein, I wonder what you make of some of the backlash to your work: What larger nervous system is getting illuminated by the nerves your work seems to be striking? Where does the resistance to your project come from and what does it suggest—to you—about why the project is necessary?
The pushback has come from a select few who belong to an older generation of wilderness writers and activists—all of whom are very white and privileged, all of whom have been at the center of the wilderness movement for decades. These people have been mentors and colleagues, and yet a few have been outright bullies—insisting that I had no business challenging Abbey. One even pulled a blurb for the book—which was fine, that’s her right—but we are a community! A cabal! Wouldn’t you want to have a conversation with one another, about why you can’t come together, on a particular project? When did we start avoiding that kind of civil discourse and debate? Actually, we know when it happened: when Trump was voted into office. And yet no matter what that man does, his base remains devout to him. Meanwhile, we’re feuding over whether or not I get to write about Edward Abbey? When we have a fucking planet to save?
This isn’t just a failure in the wilderness community, to build a constituency that is broader, more diverse—and therefore more powerful. This is a failure of progressive politics in general. The infighting, the holier-than-thou responses to one another are poisoning what should be common ground. Meanwhile the Right marches on, gaining hideous momentum.
Whatever reasons Desert Cabal’s critics give for being so opposed to its publication, their opposition looks an awful lot like an attempt to preserve their places at the table inside the ivory cabin. Excuses have been made on Abbey’s behalf: the man was writing in another time, and therefore we can’t really fault him for using sexist or racist terms. This is so laughable! His writing came on the heels of World War II—the Western world was hyper aware of the dangers of using language to Otherize groups of people! The civil rights movement and the women’s movement were unfolding, too! To excuse Abbey’s bigotry just becomes another version of “boys will be boys.”
This is precisely why I thought it important to challenge Abbey, even as I paid tribute to his work and the galvanizing effect it had on so many generations, in terms of wilderness preservation. I knew there’d be backlash, but the truly daunting thing was articulating my own desert dialect, and admitting I was quite bored with nature writing, with its lack of human characters and conflicts. It’s hard for me to separate bodies of land from the love affairs, the marriages, the suicides, the infidelities, the postpartum depression, the kid with epilepsy. For me, when I retreat into solitude, I am likely running away from something or someone—and in this dark new era of intolerance, that feels like both a pathos and luxury that I, we, cannot afford.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, a New York Times best seller; the novel The Gin Closet; and, most recently, The Recovering. Her second essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in fall 2019. Read Leslie Jamison’s essay “I Met Fear on the Hill” in our Winter issue.