Daily Archives: August 21, 2008

trespassing in the desert

Remember back in June when I was trying to decide whether to read  The Devil, the Lovers, and Me: My Life in Tarot by Kimberlee Auerbach or Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine, and I wound up choosing Trespass?  Well, I finally finished it, and it’s my new favorite book.

Trespass captured me from its first line:  “My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones,” and Irvine’s arresting prose continues throughout this unrelenting memoir that chronicles the period of turmoil in her life following her father’s death and during her marriage to a man she describes as the “lion man.” 

Irvine frames her experience against the history of her homeland, the desert of Utah, structuring it with sections named for archaeological terms that summon the symbols and archetypes of the Southwest’s prehistoric inhabitants.  These terms gather increasing weight as Irvine relates them to her own life, continually adding and peeling back layers, as though excavating an archaeological site.  As she refers to the past to inform her present struggle, she summons not only the Anasazi and Basketmakers, but her own ancestors, including her great-great-great grandfather, who was among the founders of the Mormon Church.  Mormon history and doctrine also add dimension, as Irvine outlines its place in the history of San Juan County, Utah, part of the Mormon promised land called Deseret.  The most acute conflict in the book stems from Irvine’s opposing desires to both establish community with her neighbors, and to identify with her belief in wilderness protection and the land’s sacrality—convictions that place her at odds with the rest of the population who are largely religious and culturally conservative ranchers.

In this interview, Irvine discusses the book’s shift in intention and its evolution from an “environmental rant” to an exploration of our shared culpability and responsibility to our environment. 

Trespass is a narrative infused with tension, as Irvine details the internal pull she feels from the conflicting lifestyles and beliefs of the centuries of inhabitants who share only the land in common. Ultimately, the desert is as much the focus as the author herself, and she conjures its images with fierce passion and intimacy, unafraid to implicate herself among those who inhabit it, living imperfectly and seeking transcendence.

Irvine’s intimate knowledge of her home’s history and landscape inspired me to learn more about mine.  If you enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, nature writing with edge or tough, intricate memoirs, you should check this book out, and even go ahead and listen to Amy Irvine read an excerpt.


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