Daring to ‘Trespass’
February 22, 2008
In 1983, the beginning of her senior year at Park City High School, Amy Irvine remembers starting to struggle again, her lifelong angst and feelings of isolation and estrangement catching up with her once more. Her English teacher at the time, John Krenkel, suggested she might find inspiration in the desert and in books by writer Edward Abbey.
"He gave me a copy of ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ and he told me to go to the desert for Memorial Day weekend and get myself straightened out, and I did," Irvine recalls. "I didn’t put that book down and I went to Abbey’s country, into the red-rock country, and had the most amazing weekend of my life. I came back with a renewed sense of what was important to me. I will be forever grateful for Mr. Krenkel for that."
Krenkel, who says this year is his last at the high school, remembers Irvine as one of his brightest students, and one who shared his passion for the outdoors. "I sensed in Amy she had a concern for those wild places," he says. "And still, today, southern Utah is one of the most special places on Earth, always in danger of being not so much special anymore."
Irvine credits Krenkel and the education she received in Park City despite of the pushes and pulls amid a family half devout Mormon ranchers and half Gentile urbanites, and from her father, an avid outdoorsman against green politics for leading her to environmental activism. "Those were the years that really helped me gain my footing, to find myself apart from so many heavy influences," she says.
Decades later she continued to share her passion, working for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance for seven years and authoring her first book, a collection of non-fiction narratives titled "Making a Difference: Stories of How Our Outdoor Industry and Individuals Are Working to Preserve America’s Natural Places."
Irvine’s return to southern Utah’s desert to live years after high school the experience she details in her latest book "Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land," which she will speak about at Dolly’s Bookstore on Feb. 29 was equally transformative, but dramatically different from her original weekend excursion. "Living in the desert," Irvine says, "is a far cry from recreating in it."
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"Trespass" is not strictly a follow-up to her environmental crusade, as much as it is an effort to come to terms with a turbulent period in her life and eventually, begin to find some peace of mind despite the contradictory forces that shaped her life. When she left Salt Lake City for the remote western perimeter of the Colorado Plateau, it was largely on impulse. She had fallen in love with her would-be husband, Herb, and her father, who also lived in Salt Lake, had just committed suicide.
"I felt inspired to write about what drives us, the things that shape our life and what happens when we lose those things or when we become estranged from them," she says. "Not only was I living at the edge of my homeland, my own people, but the same dynamic of separation and desolation had also crept in and consumed the intimacy of my most intimate relationship with the man I would marry."
Irvine says she arrived in southern Utah confident that, as a member of an LDS family of southern Idaho ranchers as well as a Salt Lake family that can that trace its lineage six generations to Brigham Young’s first trip West, she knew what challenges lay ahead. But she says she found herself surprised to be much more the outsider a trespasser in a hostile world ruled by a particular brand of rugged cowboy Mormonism a world , others warned her, where some individuals were willing to poison wells or shoot out windows to drive environmentalists out of their territory.
A believer in open space and an apostate Mormon since her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Park City, Irvine’s political and religious views clashed with her neighbors’ in San Juan County. The general consensus was that local citizens, generally in possession of the LDS faith,Church had a divine claim to the land and a right to populate it with livestock, people and all-terrain vehicles a perspective diametrically opposed to her own. Irvine went to southern Utah live a more ecologically-sound life, disconnected from the energy grid, in a cabin.
"The idea that Brigham Young drew the bright shining line of ‘Deseret’ and decided that would be the Mormon kingdom still stands today," she says. "That Mormon influence has reached throughout the West, and in the Mormon outposts there remains a very strong sense that this land belongs to them and no other persecuting, interfering Gentile government is going to tell them what to do with it."
She arrived in the desert with the intention of changing their minds about their relationship to the landscape coupled with the conflicting desire to belong. "My role is that of a desert defender, not a Saint bent on beckoning the Last Days," she writes in "Trespass." "These things, I can feel already, will ensure that my claims to this land are seen as conditional and forever suspect."
She found her activism did not soften hearts toward a greener lifestyle no matter how much she softened its delivery. This becomes clear when she slips from her self-described new diplomatic "veneer" at a local gathering of women, who, to her surprise, indulge in red wine. A woman rancher half-jokingly tells her that if her earth-worshipping friends try to drain her husband’s lake (Lake Powell), he will know where to find her.
"But then I have a second glass of Merlot. My mouth opens like a pent-up river and the veneer I worked so carefully to build recedes like a drought-stricken waterline," she writes. "I flood the room with my politics, inundate senses and sensibilities Sighs and shivers fill the room. I, for one, am finally speechless."
She explains in an interview that experiences like these in southern Utah have transformed her. This is not because her views have changed, but because she has learned that taking a staunch position only serves to polarize; nor does it account for her appreciation of the Old West and its traditional way of life. "By the end of the book, I’m much more humble in my opinions because I realize we’re living in increasingly polarizing times," she says. "It’s easy to point the finger outside of yourself at what you think went wrong, but ultimately, you have to change what is not right in yourself for you to see change in the world around you be it your marriage or a grander political landscape. Ultimately, we are all part of the problem and we only influence change by embodying deep personal solutions."
And Irvine looks to history and anthropology to inform her own experience, reaching to a time thousands of years before any Mormon settlers thought to stake their claim on Utah land.
"We live in a culture of blame and dualistic thinking Mormons vs. non-Mormons, or Republican vs. Democrats and for a long time, I was pointing my finger at my husband or the Mormon Church or the folks that didn’t believe in land use the way I did," she says. "In the book, I draw heavily upon the prehistory of Utah to show that there was a time when things weren’t so black and white, so either-or. In fact, such fundamentalist tendencies, I learned, are the sign of a culture in distress."
As she began to research ancient history, she says she concluded the hunter-gatherer period, some 10,000 years ago, was the most successful period of human existence by almost all indicators in terms of quality and longevity of life, lack of violence and health. Gender roles were more balanced, she argues and people lived closer to the land, working only three days a week, leaving time for creativity, leisure and spiritual development. The result: Community where deep, irreconcilable conflict was the exception.
"My marriage not only survived, but thrives, largely because Herb and I ceased to blame each other and instead look inside for what was missing in our lives, what was not right within ourselves. This came from satisfying that which was more psychically and physiologically resonant of what humans were like as hunter-gatherers," she says.
Irvine is not advocating a return to the loin cloth and spear, but rather a more simple, soulful life where our most basic and original spiritual, physical and psychological needs are fulfilled. "It’s not easy," she admits. "Everything in this culture, despite all our advancements and luxuries, conspires against such primal satisfaction. While wishing she could spend four days a week on spiritual and leisurely pursuits, she keeps the hunter-gatherer ideal in mind eating locally, getting enough time outside and keeping both her work and free time as meaningful as possible. As "Trespass," draws to a close, she recognizes her true path is one that uses something other than politics and rhetoric. Not unlike Abbey, she ultimately decides her tool for change, is to write.
"True lasting change and sustainability must rely on something more ancient and universal art," Irvine writes. "And so I will tell stories. To my daughter. To anyone who will listen. I will string together words that, I hope, will summon from the listener a primordial sound full of grit and soul."
Meet Amy Irvine, author of "Living at the Edge of the Promised Land"
Who: Amy Irvine, Park City High School graduate, and author of "Living at the Edge of the Promised Land"
When: Friday, Feb. 29 from 6 to 7 p.m.
Where: Dolly’s Bookstore, 510 Main St.
In advance of this event, Irvine will also be making an appearance in the auditorium of the Main Salt Lake City Library at 210 East 400 South on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. for a book signing and reading. Author and activist Terry Tempest Williams will be introducing her.