‘My own desert dialect’ — 3 Utah women write about wilderness and nature

(Courtesy photos) Utah authors Jana Richman, Julia Corbett and Amy Irvine.

Edward Abbey roamed what is today Arches National Park as a seasonal ranger in the 1950s, treasuring the isolation and the harsh but fragile landscape that surrounded him. His observations and experiences became “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,” considered a classic of nature writing that helped spur the modern environmental movement.

To mark the 50th anniversary of its publication in 1968, Back of Beyond Books in Moab commissioned Amy Irvine to contribute a 3,000-word essay for a publishing project that includes printing a facsimile of Abbey’s typed draft. But when Irvine, a sixth-generation Utahn and a public lands advocate, started to write, she found she had a lot more to say.

Her imagined conversation with Abbey, updating him about what has changed physically and politically since “Desert Solitaire,” became her own book: “Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness,” being published in November by Torrey House Press.

Her book is one of three recent releases by Utah women writing about the impact of wilderness and nature on their lives.

“I sat down to write and couldn’t stop; the whole thing came out like a freight train bursting forth from a mountain tunnel into the light of day,” Irvine wrote after finishing her book. “I realize now that I’d been unable to speak my own desert dialect, to tell my own stories about Abbey’s country — and the challenge now was to claim it as my country.”

(Courtesy photos) Covers of "Finding Stillness in a Noisy World" by Jana Richman, "Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday" by Julia Corbett and "Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness" by Amy Irvine.

While Irvine shares the love Abbey, who died in 1989, had for Utah’s public lands, she contends some views and sentiments from his time need to be challenged. She points out privileges Abbey enjoyed as a white male; she questions his use of “Abbey’s country.”

Despite her family’s generations in Utah, she would never call the land hers, she writes, because it’s all stolen property: “Whatever the forefathers didn’t snatch from the regions’ Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another.”

Each of her essays plays off a chapter in Abbey’s book. From his first morning in the desert to his tale of a snake that guarded his campsite, Irvine questions and compares their experiences, including their failed marriages.

“You had five wives. I had three husbands,” she writes. “I truly am curious if we are headed the same way on this trail, or if we’re coming at it from opposite directions. For me, I came to believe that love in the desert was unlike love for the desert: it was not only unsustainable, but unattainable too.”

She asks the question: “That idea of fidelity to public lands; why could we be faithful to these places we love and yet not to people?”

Irvine values community over the solitary life celebrated by Abbey. “By nature, we are a cabal. A group gathered around a panoramic vision, or passion. A group gathered to conspire, to resist,” she writes.

“The idea of the cabal is that the multitude of stories and voices is what matters now and examining where we have been exclusive and remain exclusive.”

Some have criticized her for confronting Abbey when he can’t defend his ideas or without a response on his behalf, she said. Her intent, she added, was to raise questions she would like to be able to ask him and to convey her belief that more can be accomplished by people working together than by revering solitude.

“My goal is to open up the places of the conversation that I felt like I had not been allowed to speak,” she said in an interview, “and [I’m] wondering if there are other people that also haven’t felt like they’ve been allowed to speak.”

‘Finding Stillness in a Noisy World’ by Jana Richman

Escalante author Jana Richman’s collection of essays examines the geography of the desert and how it relates to her internal landscape. She describes the eroticism of digging in the dirt and how the shush-shush of walking in deep snow can calm and quiet her fears. Monsoonal desert rains taught her the importance of allowing kindness and love to flow to her.

Many of her experiences taught her a reverence for silence, being still and listening.

“The hope in taking these [environmental] issues, water issues, public space issues, through a personal lens is that they resonate in a universal way,” she said in an interview.

Many of her essays are set in or inspired by Escalante and the lands in the original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “Finding Stillness” was published by University of Utah Press.

‘Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday’ by Julia Corbett

University of Utah communication professor Julia Corbett argues in a series of essays that nature isn’t just “out there” — it’s all around us, from your coffee cup to the chair you’re sitting on. Everything we use, wear and own comes from some element of nature.

Corbett describes how “our language reinforces this us-them boundary; when we say ‘animal’ we typically mean the nonhuman ones” and how that conveys a sense of otherness. We may take better care of our planet and its inhabitants, she says, if we not only change our language and our notions of nature, but realize just how much we are interconnected to this place.

“We need to reimagine nature in our whole lives,” Corbett said; “part of that involves language, but also in how and where we see nature, and how we think about it, treat it and value it.”

“Out of the Woods” was published in September by University of Nevada Press.

Reading ‘Desert Cabal’ 

Amy Irvine will read from her new book, ‘Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness’ at two upcoming events, both free and open to the public:  

Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City on Oct. 23 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m 

Booked on 25th in Ogden on Oct. 25 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.