Amy Irvine Loves Ed Abbey

This my response to Tonya Audyn Stiles’ July 30, 2019 “Response to Amy Irvine’s “Desert Cabal” in “The Canyon Country Zephyr,” of which she is the co-publisher: “Edward Abbey Needs No Defense” —

I couldn’t agree more; Ed Abbey’s work needs no defense. It stands for itself. Amy Irvine likewise needs no defense. Her work stands for itself.

Despite her assertion, Tonya Stiles has mounted a vigorous defense. I will mount a vigorous defense as well . . . although isn’t the word defense beside the point? Abbey’s work lives on and in us because it moves us deeply. We think about it and respond to it and wrestle with it because we’re not quite sure that cutting all barbed wire fences west of the 100thMeridian is really the best solution, but we’re not quite sure that it isn’t either. Stiles prefers Abbey over Irvine. I adore them both. So let’s get started.

Stiles doesn’t like the poetic quality of Irvine’s work. She prefers Abbey’s more straightforward prose. She claims to make no sense of Irvine’s poetry. Abbey’s prose makes me jealous. Irvine’s poetic prose lifts my spirits. I think I could teach Stiles to understand poetry – there are still seats available in my fall class.

Stiles writes that Irvine is writing about herself and not about Abbey, that she pays little attention to the natural surroundings. I just reread Desert Cabalwith those two questions in mind. Like all inspiring writing about nature, the book repeatedly reminds me that I’ll live more fully if I follow Irvine’s and Abbey’s passion for what Abbey called the “rainbow-colored corona of blazing light, pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence, about to speak my name” (this quoted by Irvine) and Irvine’s lament that “when I was tucked under that overhand of stone as porous as a sun-bleached skeleton, spiders waving on air like prayer flags and the meat on my tongue like an offering, I failed to hear the roar of the river as the chanting monks in the temple, brothers and sisters in the tabernacle. It was the calling to enter into communion with . . . every being in the whole wide web of the world, each of us, a sacred and vital strand.” Abbey. Irvine. Nature. If you can separate the three while you read this book you’ve got something else on your mind than the text before you.

Stiles ignores context when she points out that Irvine “goes so far as to defend the Bundy family of anti-BLM activists. ‘Most of today’s environmental groups won’t agree,’ she writes, ‘but you might, when I say that sometimes I vote Libertarian to help break up the country’s 2-party gridlock, but also because I love the idea of what those guys [the Bundy’s] did; I love the active resistance, the sticking it to institutions too large and lethargic to be effective.’” For some reason Stiles doesn’t complete Irvine’s thought, that, for the Bundy’s and their ilk, “the land’s not the thing either. It’s another kind of buzz that has to with big guns, big hats, and big boots.” So very different from her rancher grandfather, Irvine concludes.

Stiles response takes an odd turn when she writes that

“we’ve published countless articles on the topic [of Bears Ears National Monument] over the last few years in The Canyon Country Zephyr, trying to inject nuance and complexity into an issue that frequently devolves into angry black-and-white emotionalism. And multiple times in Cabal Irvine acknowledges how the impacts of industrial-level tourism are threatening Southeast Utah. She even seems to recognize how Monument designation and those subsequent impacts go hand in hand. She writes, ‘the minute there is a line drawn around these lands, a sign staked on their behalf, the masses come running,’ and ‘with every new human added to our population, every new guidebook written, and every new place protected and promoted, it’s getting harder to have a wild and reckless reckoning that has nothing to do with recreation.’

But these lines stand in complete contradiction to the rest of her book. First Irvine condemns Trump for shrinking Bears Ears National Monument, then she seemingly concedes that Obama’s massive monument, whose much larger ‘lines drawn around these lands,’ did far more damage. And then she goes back to condemning Trump for shrinking it.

Yes, Ms. Styles, Walt Whitman answers in his “Song of Myself,”

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Yes, Ms. Styles, I answer, it is a more complex and nuanced issue than the one that routinely devolves into black-and-white emotionalism.

Irvine questions Abbey’s multiple and various encounters with women and confesses that she has had a similar fraught history with men. For reasons I don’t understand, Stiles finds this off-putting, this confession of troubled similarity. It is a moment of truth for me, a confession that validates the criticism. Yes, me too.

Finally, Stiles writes that

“as a feminist, I found a number of things offensive about the publishing of Desert Cabal. . . . [T]hey’ve chosen . . . to adopt the philosophy that women need separate books from men, and that women are somehow innately opposed to solitude, which is indicative of a dangerously unfeminist mindset for an otherwise “progressive” group. . . . They exhibit [an] eerie sort of benevolent sexism that is only a short hop away from the men who argued all women should be stay-at-home mothers because they are naturally best suited to nurturing and caregiving.

Somehow I had been laboring under the impression that it was bigoted to reduce people into categories and to state that one group was “nurturing” and the other “warlike;” one “lazy” and another “logical.” Generalizing people like that is the definition of prejudicial thinking, and in complete opposition to Feminism as I know it, which is to say a movement for women to be treated as individuals with their own individual characteristics and desires.

Maybe I’m out of touch with today’s Feminism, or at least the sort of Feminism that dovetails into this earth-mother style Environmentalism. But to claim, as Irvine does, that individualism is masculine and collectivism is feminine—that women “seek not so much solitude as solidarity, intimacy more than privacy”–is far more offensive to my feminist principles than any Abbey-styled men out in the wild who might be musing on the importance of “the silk of a girl’s thigh.”

Essentialisms like Stiles presents are troublesome indeed. But perhaps Irvine is up to something else entirely. I’ve just read Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouseand recognize something of Irvine’s argument in Woolf’s marvelous feminist exploration.

Mr. Ramsey, a philosopher, and Mrs. Ramsey, mother of their eight children, represent two poles in how we see the world and respond to its inhabitants. When Mr. Ramsey deflates their youngest son’s hope to visit the lighthouse the next day with the flat statement that the barometer is falling and the wind due west, Mrs. Ramsey is dumbfounded: “To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her [a] horrible outrage of human decency. . . .” In the novel, Mrs. Ramsey is both gender-bound and able to transcend those limitations, more able than her husband to stand erect when needed and to incline when necessary. In my reading of Desert Cabal, the woman’s vision that is offered in place of Abbey’s male perspective is less gender-bound and more an alternate perspective. We need a different way of looking at our world. Men’s philosophical erections have dominated our thinking – although not all men think this way. Women’s considerations for others — although not all women exhibit them — might lead us in a better direction.

And a final observation: Amy Irvine is in love with Edward Abbey, Ms. Stiles. Every sentence and every following sentence testifies to that fact. She loves him so deeply that she honors his work with compassionate and contested conversation. Her work deserves the same.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Amy Irvine Loves Ed Abbey

  1. Mark Bailey says:

    Terrific, Scott. Thank you for adding your insight and wisdom. Your learnin’ shows. I hope Amy sees this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex caldiero says:

    damn good writing and thinking from the heart. this is an important discussion we need to have. bravo.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s