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Living on the Edge of the Promised Land

By Chip Ward

In the grand scale of time, white settlers have been living in the American West briefly, a scant 150 years at most, a mere drop in the Gaian bucket.

We are still struggling to understand how to inhabit such a vast and dynamic landscape, much of it still as raw and wild as the day we stumbled upon it. Our responses to being here have been as varied as the place itself. Some came to conquer and return home rich—the conquistadors, the goldminers, and the landscalpers. Others came to stay and make their homes, build communities, and understand the limits of the land and try to live within them.

The history of the West is filled with the struggle to find a balance between those two conflicting tendencies, what Wallace Stegner described as the clash between the “boomers” and the “stickers.” It goes on today in the conflicts between those who want to drill for oil and gas, dam rivers and build pipelines, bury radioactive waste on the desert floor, graze cattle on public land, or simply ride their ATVs wherever they please, and those who believe the land’s ecological integrity and unique beauty are threatened and must be defended. Where, we ask ourselves, is the boundary between use and abuse?

The struggle to reconcile our contradictory needs, values, and perspectives is not played out in the political realm alone, though that is where we find the most direct and stark accounts. It also takes place within families, within towns and cities, and even within marriages. It troubles and tangles the heartstrings of earnest individuals like Amy Irvine BA’96, whose book Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land is a widely acclaimed tour de force that bears witness to her own struggle to make sense of and accept the contradictory impulses in her own life.

Trespass, already considered a modern classic in the literature of place, has won lavish praise from such luminaries as Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, and Robert Redford. Fellow U of U alum and acclaimed author Terry Tempest Williams BS’79 MS’84 called the book a “transformative memoir that dances between shadow and light.”

Amy Irvine.jpg

Although Irvine’s writing is lyrical, and her vivid descriptions of the texture and tone of Southwestern landscapes are apparent throughout, Trespass is not simply a poetic paean to wilderness. It is an intensely personal and unsparingly honest story of one woman’s journey toward grace and wisdom. It took her nine years to write the book, which kept changing as she lived through the heartbreak and hardship she describes. At times, the effort to get her story down and probe its meanings made her ill, and sometimes, she says, “felt like a nervous breakdown.”

During her childhood, Amy experienced cultural confusion because of her family’s contradictory and often contending worldviews. A sixth-generation Utahn, she is descended from Howard Egan, Brigham Young’s right-hand man and an early practitioner of polygamy. Her mother was an ambivalent “jack Mormon” and her father an adamant unbeliever, but her beloved grandparents were devoutly LDS and also devoted to ranching. Amy struggled to fit into the predominant culture but felt marginalized and conflicted. Her father’s apostate ways and, later, alcoholism clashed with her desire to belong to the righteous community she believed was her heritage.

After a short stint at Berkeley and a season as a ski guide in the French Alps, Irvine enrolled at the University of Utah but eventually dropped out to pursue rock climbing. “I worked at Patagonia part time to support my vertical habit until I got sponsors and could climb full time,” she recalls. After gaining a national reputation as a skilled and supple climber, she began to write about her experiences in such publications as Rock and Ice and Climbing Magazine.

She returned to the U in 1993. “I was hungry to learn, to think, to write,” Irvine recalls. “They pushed me hard—especially [English professor] Kathryn Stockton. I won a departmental scholarship two years in a row, which was a huge help. And I minored in creative writing—Franklin Fisher and David Kranes [both emeritus professors of English] were willing to let me go out on a limb.”

Returning to work at Patagonia Outlet, Irvine took a lead role in the store’s efforts to oppose a controversial wilderness bill in 1996 and transitioned from being an athlete to being an advocate. After graduating in English magna cum laude, she was hired by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, first as a volunteer coordinator and then as development director. While there, SUWA board member Terry Tempest Williams pushed Irvine to write, and her writing career expanded beyond rock-climbing publications.

However, her conservation advocacy put her at odds with her upbringing. She had learned to love the outdoors while hunting and fishing with her father and while visiting her grandparents’ ranch, envying the cowboy lifestyle she saw there. But when she moved to San Juan County in 2000 with her new husband, SUWA attorney Herb McHarg JD’96, her SUWA affiliation became a kind of scarlet letter among her Mormon ranching neighbors. Struggling with the aftermath of her father’s suicide and a failed pregnancy, Irvine ached for community and friendship but found mostly suspicion, anger, and hurtful rejection.

Tired of their status as unwelcome interlopers, Amy and Herb bought a cabin in remote Lila Canyon, southeast of Price in Emery County, Utah, and lived off the grid. There, her increasing feelings of alienation from the local culture, physical isolation, a series of tense stand-offs over wilderness intrusions, Herb’s workaholic tendencies, and an undiagnosed hormone deficiency destabilized her marriage and left her struggling against despair. But eventually, both she and the marriage healed, a beautiful baby was born, and the family built a cabin of its own in Norwood, Colo. A welcome, although tentative and fragile, peace was reached.

It would have been easy for Amy to translate her experiences into a simplified “us vs. them” dualism, but she refused to reduce her neighbors’ concerns or to dismiss her own doubts about the rightness of her opinions. Ultimately, Trespass is a luminous exploration of the nature of orthodoxy, the loss of spirituality, and the meaning of resilience. It becomes a plea for us to heal our pervasive disconnection from nature and each other by moving beyond rhetoric to realize the primal connections that bind us to the land and to each other.

In describing a literary performance like Trespass, critics tend to say the author “bared her soul.” In fact, book reviews have noted Irvine’s “naked honesty” when revealing such very private matters as her father’s alcoholism and eventual suicide, the passionate push-pull of her marriage, or her yearning to belong to the Mormon traditions of her grandparents and her subsequent feelings of loss. Irvine’s willingness to look unsparingly at even her own behavior and attitudes is breathtakingly brave.

It is not surprising, then, that rock climbing was the genesis of Amy Irvine’s career as a writer. The best writers, like great rock climbers, also struggle to find a clean but eloquent route to the top, must also endure and take risks, and must also find handholds and sure footing on loose and broken ground. The fear of failing, like the fear of falling, must be overcome. Irvine may have come down off the sheer stone ledges she climbed as a young woman—becoming now a respected author and mother to a toddler daughter—but she is still exploring perilous edges, this time of hope, hunger, and life itself.

—Chip Ward is an author, blogger, and environmental activist.

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