In 2019, author and desert native Amy Irvine published Desert Cabal. I saw it on our library’s “New Books” display. I was utterly misled by it. It was small, thin. Understated cover. It was really mostly the title. “Desert” with “cabal?” I didn’t know what ‘cabal’ even meant – Afghanistan? Iraq? Some kind of dark Middle Eastern thing? I’m sure I checked something out that was less challenging to my comfort zone.
Shortly thereafter, two things had me half running back to snake it before someone else did:
1) I read a review.
2) I looked up the definition of cabal.
Those drawn to the desert are about as “cabal” as you can get in the American West. The reverence among desert dwellers knows no boundaries, transcends all stereotypes, cares not of our differences. The desert holds sway over so many: climbers, hikers, bikers. Paddlers, rowers. Mormons, Christians, Buddhists. Male, female, gay, straight, black, white, young, old and everything in between, on top of, underneath…the desert’s just plain ol’ powerful shit, and it definitely eclipses any one voice trying to lay claim to it.
As such, Amy Irvine had a few thoughts to share with the so-called ‘Voice of the Desert,’ a long-dead white guy with a somewhat questionable legacy. Desert Cabal is a letter to Ed Abbey, and to many of us, a resounding affirmation for the diversity within said cabal. By pure crazy fucking luck, Irvine was also to be my professor in a graduate-level writing course, Nature and Society, this past spring. She did not assign us her book. (I had already devoured it.) She had us reread Desert Solitaire and then asked us – What would your letter to Ed Abbey say? Well then, said the twice as old, less dewy eyed Girl of the Dirt...
Man, you try so hard to be the ‘crusty’ mother fucker, don’t you?
It’s certainly easier to be a ‘persona,’ or character, isn’t it? I identified with Calamity Jane for the longest time. ‘Til I got expelled from college acting like her. I really realized then that Calamity Jane wasn’t serving me, and I wasn’t even Calamity Jane, anyway. But who the hell was I?
I didn’t even know her history. How did I latch on to her for so long, and why didn’t I even look her up, find out who she was? Or what she did? She just tasted of bad assery. If I channeled her… I didn’t have to deal with my own complexity. Just hide behind my “whiskey, neat, thank you,” my unusual muscles (better when they were brown), and other folks’ assumptions; I could take on “bad ass.” My writer friend, John F.—he’s a lot like you, and a gifted, disciplined writer, to boot—he says the words “bad” and “ass” side by side are done, old, tired, over-used and unoriginal. What other could we use to hide behind? I asked another bi friend and she immediately laughed out, “What about cuntastic?”
I know you aren’t cuntastic, but I do wonder what you were really like.
Because I find myself in what you wrote. Even though I know in your private life you were kind of an abrasive asshole. Does that make me an asshole, too? I have to admit, some do find me offensive…But what of the man who wrote those sweet, tender somethings you write, with such intimacy…how you regard, and write of, the desert, this hardscrabble place that across the board seems to blow all of our minds. But you, you find it in the tiny things, too. Not just the cliffs and hoodoos and slot canyons. Tiny things one could discover in stillness.
After dating another “adventure”/environmental writer for some time, I now know there is a “persona” to some writers. Whom they profess or imply themselves to be in their narratives, but wholly unlike the truth. Those writers are frauds and cowards in my book.
In describing the plant world—having read your words guided me towards seeing—no, experiencing— skyrocket gilia the way you saw cliff rose—a tiny, delicate, ephemeral universe. Ecology as magic. Creatures as comrades. Your desert-ness was expansive as virga, as precious as dew. Rock, strata. Time, time beyond that which either of us can conceive.
Some kind of toughness in all those sensibilities and observations, Abbey.
Our more valuable traits, I’d bet. At some point in our lives, the silence called to us more than society. What a portal, that silence.
And yes, it’s also certainly easy to pen diatribes, and to resent. Did this civilized, East Coast boy find his inner wildness in the totality, the otherworldly magic, of the desert? Did you feel unique? in connecting to that feral, sharp landscape so viscerally? But what does it say when the sheep find themselves there too?
Is it because you want it all to yourself? You’re less exceptional if everyone else digs what you value so much, too? The blind, sheep-like masses?
My mamma found herself in the desert. Maybe that’s where my inherent affinity was born. She, we, lived in the desert just a short while after you tried to plant your flag. But my mamma found it astride Sargent. Her bay gelding. The scent of horse and desert are inseparable to me. One always eliciting sense of the other.
The desert was nothing like embassy life she grew up in, nannies and caretakers, parents always away at some “function.” Horses were her out. The nanny or a secretary would chaperone her to the city park of Vienna or Salzburg, where they stabled her first horse, Jezebel. English riding lessons, oh so proper! In the Arizona desert? No helmet, no stuffy English riding boots. No one watching, competing, comparing, judging. She found freedom. From her father’s politics and protocol. From her mother’s expectations– for beauty, of which she was not. For propriety–at which she failed. She was a cuss. And the desert suited her.
It wasn’t until college that I fell in love with the desert, and before I’d heard of you.
I was a climber and a landscaper back then. I “groveled” in the dirt most every day. That’s the way society, or even my Oma and Opa would have seen it, but it didn’t feel like groveling to me. I loved it, I think the way you did. Was there even any separation between me and the dirt? Clay? Sand, rock? I still enjoy laying and sprawling on the earth—I don’t care if my clothes tear, or stain. I don’t care about dusty brown ankles, the duff stuck in my hair. I feel one with it. I think perhaps you know what I mean.
I didn’t and still don’t need the grandeur of what our National Parks represent to appreciate Nature or feel connected to it. You hyped Arches and Canyonlands up so much, you sold it to everyone. Now, the traffic backs up on the highway, in season. So, we all pile in our cars and drive to the desert. I, frankly, love my back yard. I don’t need a trailer in a National Park and a ramada to enjoy the outside. I simply slip out the back door in my shower towel and sit on the concrete steps. There before me are the birds, the bees, the flowers. And I can sit there for 15-30 minutes and feel close to God and Nature without driving, polluting, or despoiling wildlands with my presence.
I confess I had no idea you were so controversial when I read your book. It was only later, on a three-month 30th birthday-my-life-sucks road trip that I read your biography. Took you along with me and wanted to understand our ties. Would it explain why I was 30, single, no child family husband or stable career in sight?
As an adult woman, I didn’t care that you were racist, a womanizer, or hypocrite. To a certain extent, we all are. You just have no qualms in expressing it. I would imagine, too, you were still a product of your times, as much as you wanted to be the black sheep, the maverick. Wouldn’t sensational statements get you more “buys” (or clicks, as we say today)? And after all, isn’t being recognized better than nothing at all? Especially for being special. You certainly found your readership in Playboy. Renegade writer, you.
And you were special, weren’t you? We didn’t take it into our cells like you, did we? We were RV loving, road-stickin’, lazy drones, weren’t we?
Books like yours, Nature porn, spurred those hordes. Public lands with small budgets and delicate places like the desert gained fringe appeal, and ordinary people who wanted a taste left the cities in droves. Couldn’t you have been a bit sneaky and simply kept the desert in your diary? Or given it made up place names? Or how about teaching us to see the wildness right around us? Or to create it? Guerrilla gardeners in the making…making the world better. That’s what I do, year after year. Plant seeds. Bring Nature to us. One less person clogging our public lands.
You throw beer cans.
What about telling stories, preacher-lessly, that embodied (and spurred) appreciation of Nature, urging us to our city parks, our swathes of urban forest, the brooks and streams wandering our suburban landscapes?
Did you have to spill the beans?
Spilled they were and I bet you had no idea what population really would do, the exponential explosion of us. We’re like cockroaches half a century later, infesting the roads and close-in trails of our BLM and National Parks. And while you decried the fracturing of wild places with roads and trails, they may now be the very thing that’s saving them, sifting the wheat from the chafe, entertaining and comforting the masses in the front country. Only the hardy, hearty, and truly heartful bother to leave them, venturing deep into the true wilderness.
As alas, you were right…our public lands are overridden. Many are earnest amateur naturalists, those who wish to share Nature with one another, with children. And then there are the recreationists, the ones who come to “take” and keep score; in my opinion no different than those who would take timber or gas. And of course, there are those who, yes, are loath to leave their comforts and travel in moving “homes,” replete with kitchens, bathrooms, large screen TVs. At least they’re blatantly honest about who they are.
But to me, to me the worst today, the ultimate betrayers and hypocrites are the fucking #vanlifers. The climbers, the mountain bikers, the recreationists that try so hard, but are hardly any different than those in the cumbersome RVs. Or the people sitting inside, shopping online… I wonder what you would have to say about them. God forbid you sleep outside or actually intentionally connect to Nature, cook over a primal campfire, live simply when you’re out there, getting away from it all, savoring Nature. No, the dirt bags of yesteryear no longer exist. They travel about in $80,000-$130,000 fancy, gargantuan Mercedes and Sprinter vans, clogging our small old neighborhoods with their convenient blight.
I mostly despise the recreational users, I admit (in a whisper; how sacrilegious of me). They’re takers. At least hunters pay habitat stamp fees. Big game fees, fishing fees, waterfowl fees, small game fees. All towards conservation. But kayakers, bikers, climbers…none pay federal fees for their sport. Our public lands are backlogged in maintenance and infrastructure needs, with billions of dollars needed to get our parks where they need to be. Slashed budgets, government shutdowns (you don’t want to know about Joshua Tree). The National Park Service is drowning in infrastructure needs and the toll of a damn near a century of patriarchy within its ranks and within the federal government.
You would be disgusted by today’s president. He’s attempting to undo all the gains of the last 50 years, rolling back protection for clean air, clean water, endangered species, even public lands—Bear’s Ears and Escalante in your sacred Utah desert, no less. President Trump, a real piece of shit, I hope you might agree. He wants to rip the belly of public lands open and suck them dry of oil and gas. And you…you go on and on about how beautiful landscapes are, so worthy of preserving, protecting, all the while speaking like a racist against your fellow humans—Mexicans, Indians. And yet, and yet, it isn’t your sacred “beauty” that would engender their protection today —it’s their sacred Native American history and roots.
What did you expect to happen to the beautiful places, objectifying them as you did…the way you do women and beer — something tasty to sample and toss aside: “Everything is lovely and wild, with a virginal sweetness.” With so many of you environmental writers being men, you set the stage for that—going on and on about how beautiful the grand places are…to look at, to experience viscerally, for your pleasure. Crawl on your knees if you must, but get in there while you can, get that virgin before everybody else does.
I think women have always handled matters differently, finding something of themselves out there in Nature, and recognizing from within the need to protect that precious something. Rachel Carson didn’t advocate pulling survey stakes or blasting damns, but she did stimulate an urgent desire to act, to protect, to prompt legislation, even. She was passionately logical and factual. You are simply fanatical and righteous.
I don’t think you could even begin to imagine how much we would continue to fuck up. It’s so much bigger than National Parks, BLM, public wild lands. The human scourge is killing the planet. We’ve wiped out 85% of animals on the planet. We’ve lost 167 million birds since you wrote Desert Solitaire…1 out 4 birds simply gone. Can you believe we’ve changed the planet’s very atmosphere? We’re not trying to preserve just wilderness at this point, we’re trying to save the air of the Earth, the whole frikking planet. It’s really that bad. And our nation is the leader of the pack in destroying it. What do you think of that?
My daughter was born into an already dying planet. What would you write about today, knowing such a generation exists?
I’m going to be a true American and bow out now, because I simply cannot bear to think and write about this. I’m going to have a drink, or shop, or waste myself in the pointlessness of social media, an alternate reality online. Because as soon as I touch on global warming, climate change and my child’s future, I cannot bear it anymore. You had it good, you bitter old fuck, and couldn’t even appreciate it. Today? Today it is at times, hard to even have hope. That is why my back stoop is a world to me. A real place to find myself. I’m not crusty though. I keep planting seeds. Making a wildness accessible to all.