Canyon Country's Great Divide

By Grace Lichtenstein,
who covered environmental and political issues in Utah and the Rocky Mountain West for the New York Times
Thursday, April 3, 2008


Living at the Edge of the Promised Land

By Amy Irvine

North Point. 363 pp. $25

Southern Utah's mesmerizing landscape of rock, river and ruins has inspired at least one masterpiece, Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," which provides Amy Irvine with the epigraph for her fierce memoir, "Trespass": "Beware traveler. You are approaching the land of horned gods."

"Beware" is the key word. Although there aren't many occupants of this beautiful but isolated area, most of them consider Abbey's pro-environment, anti-cattle ideas extreme. Irvine, who had worked for a key Southern Utah environmental advocacy group, seemingly understood what she was in for when she moved from Salt Lake City to Monticello, a small town in the heart of the region, to recover from her father's suicide and to be closer to her "lion man," an environmental attorney. She thought she might encounter hostility, but believed that her Mormon background, lapsed though she was, and the hunting skills she learned from her father would provide her with cover.

Her friends were rightly skeptical. How much do the locals hate environmental advocates? A popular window decal shows the cartoon character Calvin "urinating on the acronym of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance," Irvine's employer.

Irvine's attempt to fit in, as well as to enjoy and protect the beauty of canyon country, is the most vivid ground-level report from this war zone that I have ever read. The enemy is not only the "industrial tourism" that Abbey predicted but the area's residents, whose ancestors, Irvine writes, "developed a cultural conviction that the wilderness was an adversary of the worst kind." From the beginning, she could not get through any encounter without revealing her own apostate, tree-hugging fervor. Neighbors wanted to know if she'd be joining them in worship on Sunday. Mormon missionaries showed up on her porch to proselytize, and she had to slam the door to get them to leave. Riders in all-terrain vehicles mauled the trails around her property.

She couldn't even do laundry without conflict. At the local laundromat, the missionaries (doing their wash) wouldn't acknowledge her. A bachelor in a Stetson flirted with her, under the misapprehension that she was a nice, unattached Mormon girl. But another woman shredded her cover in a rant about "crazy earth-worshipping" types who put "snails and slugs before humans." The woman eventually apologized, saying she wasn't being "very Christian, just hating and judging all of you people," but the chasm that separated Irvine from just about everyone else in the county deepened.

What lifts "Trespass" beyond polemic and personal suffering is its structure. The book is divided into sections named for the periods of early habitation of the Southwest: Lithic, Archaic, Basketmaker, Pueblo. The narrative skips back and forth from the author's own history to those of the Mormon pioneers and the earliest natives. This gives Irvine the chance to compare coyotes, despised as predators by ranchers, to the polygamist Mormons of the 19th century, who were "truly coyotelike in their survival skills" and who claimed virtually the same habitat. She argues that early hunter-gatherers damaged the fragile land less than did the later agricultural Anasazi (the architects of wondrous places such as Mesa Verde), whom she describes as descending into decadent, over-populous cults and cannibalism.

Similarly, Irvine suggests, contemporary culture is trying the patience of Mother Nature. During the recent drought, Lake Powell, the artificial reservoir that drowned the majestic Glen Canyon and then became a boating haven for families like hers, has receded so much that it shows a permanent "bathtub ring" at its former high-water mark. Locals who swim in it become ill from the sewage.

In the end, the author and the "lion man," now her husband, chose to retreat. They moved to a more hospitable small town in Colorado, where, in a bar, a cowboy bought them drinks even after learning they were professional environmentalists. Irvine found her sense of self to be more sustainable "so near to the promised land and still so free of its grasp."

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