It’s not surprising that Amy Irvine’s erstwhile neighbors in Utah’s San Juan County have supplied some of the harshest online reviews of her book Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, released earlier this year. They don’t all come off well in Irvine’s retelling. San Juan County, nestled down in Utah’s slickrock southeastern corner, is one of the hardest-ribbed conservative parts of the US. The county is essentially a theocracy. If non-Mormons are not actually shunned there, neither are they really able to become an accepted part of the community.
Irvine is herself at least technically a Mormon, the child of a Jack Mormon mother and an atheist father, long-since lapsed but not yet excommunicated. Even she had trouble fitting in when she moved there in 2000, reeling from her alcoholic father’s suicide, hoping the desert would offer healing, or at least solace. As other not-exactly-shunned locals put it to her, if your ancestors didn’t come through the Hole In The Rock — hadn’t been part of the original Mormon pioneers who blasted an unlikely road through the Escalante — you’re unlikely ever to be accepted in Monticello or Blanding, even if you have an impeccable Mormon pedigree. Irvine’s alienated tenure in San Juan County proved this true, in a way. Her great-to-the-nth grandfather, Howard Egan, was Brigham Young’s right-hand man, or at least one of a few. His descendant was still an outsider in San Juan County.
Of course, her profession didn’t help. When she moved from northern Utah to Monticello, Irvine worked for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. An effective advocate for the redrock wilderness, SUWA enjoys much the same regard among rural southern Utahns that PETA does in the dogfighting community. Add into the mix that Irvine’s paramour is an environmentalist lawyer specializing in land use, and you pretty much have a recipe for shunning.
Irvine did in fact encounter a communal cold shoulder of varying politeness in San Juan County, and Trespass is in part the story of that evolving interaction. But Irvine rises above the predictable and cloying denouements to which most Stranger in a Strange Land storytelling succumbs. There is no climax to the conflict here, and no cloying realization of the other side’s humanity presented as a happy ending. Irvine does present her neighbors as fully human. The laundromat cowboy who launches into an anti-environmentalist tirade at Irvine proves friendly when Irvine refuses to back away from the argument. A neighbor apologizes within minutes for an “unChristian” outburst on meeting her. Another neighbor drives up to Irvine and a hiking friend all smiles, then explodes in derisive anger when the friend mildly suggests he refrain from further driving on the pre-Columbian archaeological site on which he’s currently parked.
She isn’t an innocent victim in the community’s regard for her. Irvine can be abrasive, if perhaps rightly so. After a lifetime of ambivalence toward the Mormon patriarchy and growing bitterness toward the Church’s sexism and the conformity it encouraged, Irvine berates a pair of condescending Mormon “elders” — youth missionaries — who arrive at her door in Monticello:
“… Come back and preach at me,” I bellow, “when you’ve made love — to someone other than each other. When you’ve seen death. When you’ve walked — not driven — across the desert”
(“To someone other than each other” was Irvine’s jab at the widely-alleged circle-jerk sexual explorations of the elders, who are officially forbidden romantic pairing.)
Irvine takes pains to distinguish among the diverse “other side.” The irascible ranchers aren’t the same as the energy industry behemoths, and neither of them are the same as the Mad-Max-style ORV thugs who run down another friend of Irvine’s while trespassing on private land. When a rancher finds a mining proposal would dry up his grazing allotment, he pleads with Irvine’s partner to stop the mine in court, but refuses to sign onto the suit for fear his name and the environmentalists’ will be linked in the local public eye. Irvine offers a clear look at the shifting politics in this corner of the New West, and Trespass is worth reading for this reason alone.
There’s much more to the book, though, than a simple memoir of moving to a new neighborhood.
Irvine is a seeker, one of that annoying breed of people who insist on mining everyday interactions for deeper meaning. Those interactions can be interpersonal, or between a person and a community, or between a woman and her remembered past, or between a human being and the non-human landscape: to a seeker, the superficial context of the interaction doesn’t really matter. There is thus no clear line, in Irvine’s writing, between the landscapes outside and inside her skin.
The result is prose of surprising depth, an intimate honesty. There are simple, unadorned declarations throughout the book that provoke double-takes, then open up chasms in the reader’s gut: A straightforward mention of moments of violence in her relationship. A neutral observation about her realization that her father’s suicide followed not too long after she’d published, in a national magazine, an article that cast him in a less-than-favorable light.
There are also a few passages in Trespass that make a person want to sit down and have a long talk with Irvine about the assumptions she hasn’t questioned. A reflection on her alienation from her past and concurrent and (she decides) connected hormonal imbalance veers into a gender-essentialist mini-rant on androgyny as a byproduct of toxic civilization, concluding with the revelation that the macho thug who ran her friend down was actually female. It’s no revelation that women can be thugs, after all. The brief meditation on this particular thug’s androgyny is disappointing, coming as it does from a writer who would seem, as a feminist and sorta-Mormon, an environmental radical and scion of ranchers, predisposed to sensitivity toward people who don’t fit neatly into externally imposed categories.
Irvine is more useful in her description of the ORV mob when she describes the role they play in the landscape:
“These people are not the hardworking, mild-mannered, modest, and polite version of Mormons that I grew up with, nor are they like the folks of San Juan County. These are hybrids—the new West…They may or may not go to church, but they lack my father’s genteelness, and they definitely don’t ride horses or run cows. They are extreme recreationists—the same type who own the big powerful boats and high-powered personal watercraft that now dominate Lake Powell. And, more than any rancher, they hate environmentalists. I can’t help thinking that they embody what may be the Last Days in Deseret—not in a Christ-returns kind of way, but in terms of what the landscape can withstand.”
The occasional and unnecessary blind spot aside, the result of Irvine’s commitment to gentle honesty is that her writing is every bit as critical of the writer as it is of people like the San Juan County rancher she describes who — without saying a word — drew a gun and shot a dog belonging to one of Irvine’s friends, who’d been been hiking peacefully on public land just a few feet away from its master.
There’s a tendency in environmental writing these days, and in fact in much writing in general, to identify enemies and blast away at them. It doesn’t matter whether those enemies be people, groups, or schools of thought. Sometimes the temptation to hold forth on absolute right and wrong is too much to bear, and shooting from the hip seems the only appropriate response. Irvine gets this, and reminds us that there are very few easy answers, and very few people who are completely right. In Trespass, she offers a remarkably courageous honesty and self-examination as an alternative to such overwhelming self-righteousness. It doesn’t matter how justified you’re sure you are: there’s always the chance the dire enemy of the moment will turn out, in retrospect, to have been a happy dog on a hike.