Book Review: Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness by Amy Irvine


Finally, a take down of Edward Abbey by a female desert rat herself. Amy Irvine’s Desert Cabal, a New Season in the Wilderness, doesn’t express my more visceral dislike of Abbey and his legacy, but it does address many of the offensive positions he took, e.g., racist rants about immigration and a “good old boy” character that flaunted misogyny and misanthropy.

Irvine’s nuanced assessment of the scoundrel environmentalists love to love is done at his gravesite out in the borderland Sonoran desert on the 50th anniversary of his most famous book, Desert Solitaire. Irvine was also a park ranger in Utah, although not at Arches National Monument, where Abbey bemoaned the exploitation of our public lands by the government and the public itself that failed to appreciate its place in the larger scheme of our ecosystem. She finds it ironic, however, that he has chosen this resting place to “lie in situ—given your aversion to immigration.” She speculates that he didn’t return to Arches for his final rest because the solitude that he craved could no longer be found in that “much-diminished resource.”

Irvine shares Abbey’s passion for solitude as a child of the Utah desert who traveled many of the same paths Abbey did: rock climber, river cook, park ranger, journalist, essayist. Born in Salt Lake City, now living in southwest Colorado, she knows “Abbey country” intimately. She chafes at the term, however, pointing out how absurd it would be for her to call it “Amy’s country,” even if her family has been in Utah for seven generations: “Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn’t get to call it ours—because it’s all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn’t snatch from the region’s Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another. But that’s what the white man does. He comes in after the fact and lifts his leg on someone else’s turf. You, sir [Abbey] were no different.”

The book swings back and forth between what Abbey “got right” and what he “got wrong.” His clarion call to protect our public lands was prescient, as they’ve never been more in danger than they are today. Irvine believes that Utah is in the “worst shape of all” because of the Trump administration’s attacks on the nation’s two newest national monuments, Bears Ears and the Grand-Staircase Escalante (two million acres are slated for removal to allow for oil and gas exploration). She includes a detailed list of what else Trump did during his first year of office: issued a hiring freeze on the National Park Service (NPS) staff; repealed the Clean Water Rule; ordered the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency to review and rewrite laws that put limits on energy development on public lands; repealed the Clean Power Plan; and rescinded a NPS directive to use science based management practices to combat climate change.

Addressing “what he got wrong,” Irvine informs Abbey that at least ten thousand miles of renegade roads “have been gouged into the surrounding wilderness.” But it’s not the “recreational motorheads,” like those who have ruined the area around Moab, Utah, but the United States Border Patrol chasing after thousands of “desperate Latinex people—only to turn them back toward the desperation.” She tells him of the cages where they’re held and how the patrollers “even seek and destroy the food and water caches left for the boarder crosses by bleeding heart liberal types.” Abbey referred to immigrants and refuges as “illegal aliens” who were “diluters of American culture.”

Irvine places Abbey in a more modern day assessment of gender privilege and abuse and uses it as a means for discussion, rather than complaint. Married (five times) with children and other women, he could still leave it all and go scribble away in his notebooks that would become “a bible for the desert brethren.” She wonders about a line he wrote in one of his books: “If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.” While she’s with him on “forsaking time” and “embracing space,” she then asserts, “And for parity’s sake, let’s find out what it means to live like women. Or perhaps, we should say, let’s find out how women like to live. I don’t think we’ve ever been asked that question.”

She then brings the discussion back to their common love and appreciation of solitude, but with a gender twist: “Solitude for women, is a different animal entirely.” She recounts experiences when she found herself in dangerous situations where she wouldn’t have been able to protect herself. “I don’t suffer from hysteria, as Freud would have you believe . . . [but] in the United States, a woman is raped every two minutes and eight-one percent of us have been sexually harassed.”

Irvine also has an interesting take on the BLM renegade Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons’ takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, which I wrote about in my blog, Unf*#!ing Believable. She admits that she loves the “idea” of what they did, “sticking it to institutions too large and too lethargic to be effective. . . . But for Bundy’s kind, the land’s not the thing, either. It’s another kind of buzz that has to do with big guns, big hats, and big boots.” And as I pointed out in my article, it’s the buzz of white nationalism. While we may wish for resistance against “authoritarian government,” the Bundy’s of the West are just the latest manifestation of the Wise Use movement, whose base is actually now in Irvine’s beloved Utah, the American Lands Council, which advocates for the transfer of public lands to the states.

Irvine’s combination of the personal and the political also allows her to tell “private” stories: “I’m still hopeless at discerning the difference between the two [personal and private],” but she does so with grace and lovely language: being a single parent; her love affair with a horse named Dante; and outdoor adventures with her father, her “locus Dei.”

She ends the book with a plea to Abbey: “Ultimately, this is why I’m here today: to invite you to join me in asking your followers to do away with their rugged individualism—which I never bought anyway. By nature, we are a cabal. A group gathered around a panoramic vision. A group gathered to conspire, to resist. This is vital to our survival, as institutions fail and tyranny threatens. Believe me when I say our democracy, with its wide but firm embrace of the last best wild places, has never been so jeopardized.”

I never sent my letter to the editor critiquing Jack Loefller’s glorification of Ed Abbey at the New Mexico History Museum’s “Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest” exhibit in Santa Fe a couple of years ago. I’m going to let Irvine’s more eloquent book stand in my stead.



  1. The criticisms of Edward Abbey have been pretty well documented by far more accomplished feminists and others besides Amy Irvine although perhaps not someone as connected to the desert as she is. America’s racist past permeated pretty much all its institutions so there’s nothing much surprising to look at regarding environmental racism in attacking Abbey but we do need to be reminded of it as it still persists throughout the country. Irvine’s book is eloquently written but doesn’t offer the reader either the insights or recommendations on moving forward. This book is nothing more than an expansion of an essay written years ago. For the reviewer to criticize Abby’s personal flaws as a way of criticizing the environmental movement makes about as much sense as criticizing the civil rights movement because MLK was a sexist and adulterer. A divisive agenda rather than looking to move forward on common ground only serves personal interests.

    • I’m glad you acknowledge that we “need to be reminded” that environmental racism still exists because La Jicarita has, and still does, cover instances where it remains flagrant and hurtful (including what’s happening at the border). That kind of negates the false equivalency you make with your MLK comparison.

  2. Always good. I picture you in El Valle, thinking, writing, thinking, writing, Paco panting to help… ox LRL

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