Review: Desert Cabal by Amy Irvine

I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of lonliness, I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. –Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire

…we seek not so much solitude as solidarity, intimacy more than privacy. But it’s the way of wilderness too — in a thriving ecosystem, integration matters far more than independence. –Amy Irvine, Desert Cabal

Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is an album that seems to gain more praise with each passing year. An album encompassing snark, pathos, and raw emotion.  At the time of the album’s release, critics noted less the songwriting talent of Liz Phair and more the hook on which the record hung on. Meaning Exile in Guyville as a response to the seminal Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones An album that is loose, sloppy, raucous, and often encompassing male braggadocio.  And a classic of rock. And though Exile in Guyville is a bit of a response to the Rolling Stones album, the core of the record should not be defined by another work. Instead, Exile in Guyville stands on its own as an essential album in its own right.

Which brings us to Desert Cabal: A New Season in Wilderness by Amy Irvine.  Early reviews of this book (available from most retailers on November 6th) as a woman’s response to the also seminal Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey.

Desert Solitaire, of course, is the influential book that shaped many of our modern views of the Southwest and the wilderness overall. And, by no coincidence, is celebrating its 50th anniversary of publication. At times the writing is rhapsodic about the desert landscape leavened with a large dose of curmudgeonly views about where wildness is heading.   As with many literary heroes, Ed Abbey’s legacy is mixed. Lauded for his views on the importance of wildness, his words do come across as misogynistic and racist in places and will make most readers cringe.

By I think any book is not served well by defining the book as a response and a response by a specific gender at that.  Does Desert Cabal address some of the mixed legacies of Abbey? And from the prism of a woman active in the outdoors? Of course, but the book is more than a response to Desert Solitaire. The fact my partner and I had discussions about the book and the issues it brought up illustrates how the book is more than just a reaction to Desert SolitaireDesert Cabal is a book worth reading for itself as outdoor literature.

The literary device of Irvine’s Desert Cabal is that Irvine, an active outdoors person, and author, goes to the undisclosed location of Abbey’s grave and has a conversation with him over some cold beers and other libations. As with many of us, Irvine came to read Desert Solitaire at a young age. At reading the book at a young age inspired a lifelong passion for the outdoors.

If there is a thesis of this book, it is that the wilderness as wildness celebrated by Abbey while not gone has changed.

As Irvine wrote:

…it’s getting harder to have a wild and reckless reckoning that has nothing to do with rereation. And enterainment.

In other words, with our pursuit of the outdoors as a bucket list item and must do, and primarily as the playground for people who are college educated, affluent, and of European descent, are we celebrating the wildness or treating the wilderness the way Abbey warned about in Industrial Tourism chapter in Desert Solitaire?

Irvine takes a jaundices eye towards the typical outdoor recreationist above who talk about rednecks whose values don’t match their own more “enlightened” views, but often travel through places inhabited by them and not getting to know their perspective. Irvine is unique (perhaps coming from a ranching background and being in Utah for six generations) in that she not only looks at the white privilege many outdoor enthusiasts posses.  But Irvine also addresses the cultural capital resources that not every person of European descent can claim  (Arguably ignoring cultural capital differences explains our current political landscape. But that’s another book or books!).   The rural ranchers working the land will not have the same privilege as the SLC inhabitants in McMansions on the hill.

Irvine’s dialogue even deconstructs the idea that people want solitude in the wilderness. That people actually want the idea of solitude instead while pointing out how people tend to go the same publicized spots, use the same “must have” equipment, and use the same guidebooks while in groups. Much as Thoreau at his cabin in Walden, Abbey’s solitude ended up being more of a literary device than reality. More than a few people visited Abbey at his ranger cabin. Some more intimately than others!

In the end, though, Irvine celebrates Abbey’s overall idea that we need true wildness. And we need to defend this idea. Not the concept of wildness as presented on another GoPro video or #epicadventure.  And that defense is done not by enjoying the wildness in solitude (as important as that may be at times) but coming together as a cabal and fighting for the idea we believe.

I realize this review is more free-ranging wool-gathering session than a critical look at a book.

The fact that this quick read of fewer than one-hundred pages engendered such discussion is praise enough.

Desert Cabal is not a response to Desert Solitaire in the end. Instead, Desert Cabal is a book that expands upon and challenges the ideas outlined in Desert Solitaire and Abbey’s legacy overall.

Read Desert Cabal and ponder upon the questions it raises. We all need to do that if we hope to have the wildness, to paraphrase another author, we all need not as a luxury but as a necessity of the human spirit.

Disclosure: I picked up Desert Cabal at the Back of Beyond Books in Moab with my funds before the general release. 

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5 years ago

Thanks for that! Anything that qualifies as a comparison with Desert Solitude is a must read.