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.