Amy Irvine is an author and nature activist who recently published Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land. The memoir explores her place in the culture and history of the Southwest as well as her struggle to realize her personal artistic vision. Ms. Irvine recently granted ECOllective an interview after returning from her recent book tour.
You write about a sense of craft in both your grandmother’s painting and in your father’s outdoor living. Do you think that these two influences helped you to connect art and creation with your physical surroundings?
Absolutely. Mormon culture is, in some areas, known for its lack of aesthetics—something that stems from a history of extreme pragmatism and spareness for the sake of survival. My grandmother’s view of the world—one of abstract yet organic beauty—coupled with my father’s almost primal yet reverent love of the outdoors—gave me a unique alternative to the dominant culture’s view of landscape, specifically the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau deserts that the Mormons claimed as their divinely promised lands. Those influences awakened in me something that I believe lies dormant in all of us—a remnant strand of DNA that evolved from ten thousand years of hunter-gatherer lifestyle that was, by all indications, a highly successful and satisfying way of being—a time when people’s spiritual and creative endeavors were very much a part of every day living, and shaped their profoundly connective relationship to landscape.
One of my favorite quotes reads “For advocacy—of religion, politics, environment, emotions—is a precarious thing.” What helped you to keep the balance as you wrote?
There was very little balance throughout the nine-year process. For some time, I wrote from anger and grief and a familiarity with the polarizing language of our day. I’d go back a year later and realize how shrill and dishonest the chapters sounded, and I’d re-write and re-write until I found something I hadn’t known before, some kind of understanding that wasn’t so “us versus them.” But the last two chapters of the book, in some eerie way, wrote themselves in a matter of days—coming in torrents after years of struggling with the rest of the manuscript. It was definitely a time of epiphany, a sudden grasp of thinking and writing in the nuances of gray, rather than in the black and white. But I was living the last chapters as I was writing them, and the pain of the near demise of my marriage—an incredible love affair that is chronicled as a central theme in this book—led to a new crisis. How would the book end if the marriage ended? And as my husband and I muddled our way out of the mire in which we were stuck, there was just enough understanding of reconciliation for me to finish the manuscript. It’s funny, you so often look back on something you have written and think you understand so much more after the fact, that you have somehow grown past what you wrote. But with Trespass, the final chapters, where I find not middle ground but instead a deep soulful excavation that allowed me to reclaim the projections of estrangement and betrayal I had thrust out onto the world, I have grown into the words. I more fully embody its words now than before.
In Trespass, you explore both physical and emotional landscapes. How were you able to pull all the pieces together? Did it occur organically as you wrote or did you have a detailed plan?
I had an outline of the chapter structure divided into four sections of prehistoric cultures on the Colorado Plateau—for I knew there was a fascinating story of a rise from a very successful and satisfying life to one crippled by extreme socio-religious polarities and resource degradation—by people we have collectively and romantically known as the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans. Not only did this pre-history seem to parallel our own rise and demise today, it also seemed to reveal a great deal about my love affair with the “lion man,” the man I would marry in simple wild passion and devotion only to see us nearly devastate one another as our lives got more complicated. This overall structure worked very well and served as a compass when I got overwhelmed with prose or research. But everything else occurred organically. For example, I had no idea how much I would write about my Mormon pedigree, how much I would extract from my great-great-great grandfather’s diary about settling the West to analyze my place among its people until I was writing it. And I wasn’t at all prepared for the angst and grief I had about being a half-breed (a half-Mormon, half-Gentile) and the schizophrenia it caused throughout my life—especially when I moved to a remote region of the state to work as a wilderness advocate. This led to a spiritual crisis that felt nearly like a nervous breakdown. As I began to examine the way the Heavenly Mother had been excised from Mormon theology over the years, I realized it was very much like the way the ancient people, as they became more socially and religiously fundamentalist in agricultural times, diminished the presence of Kokopelli Mana, the female fertility deity that is counterpart to the male Kokopelli that figures so prominently in the Ancient Puebloan rock art. I wrote a lot about the loss of feminine, how I couldn’t see myself in the divine mirror because of that. That’s not to say I would replace male-identified religion with woman-identified, nature-as-goddess spiritual practices. That would be just another duality. And this book, my life as a wilderness activist, a half-breed Mormon, and a lover, convinced me that dualities always fail.
Above all, I feel that the saddest loss in Trespass is the loss of community and connection. Has writing this memoir helped you to uncover a sense of connection?
Indeed. But perhaps not in the ways one would expect in this day and age of war/anti-war, Republican/Democrat, etc. In the end, as I said, it was about realizing how dualities fail, and that whatever we project onto the Other is a rejection of our own abandoned, feared self. So much of what I criticized Mormons and anti-wilderness forces and even my own father and husband for were actually parts of my self that had not been fully explored and understood. Once I dug deep and owned those parts of myself, or experienced them in a more complex way, I was able to connect even with my adversaries, to feel a sense of kinship and commonality. I gained true empathy and understanding for their perspective—and this was true whether it was a Mormon neighbor, a rancher shooting at coyotes, or my husband throwing his junk across the yard. In making this move, I was stunned by the diminishment in my sense of exile and hurt, and how it moved others toward me, rather than away from me. Some people have misunderstood this to say that I have developed a conciliatory attitude, that I have compromised my views and agendas. That’s not quite right. Rather, I believe that to stay focused on oneself, to call forth and satisfy what has been repressed for in our species since a time that better nourished our psyches and physiologies, brings very different results. The black and white orthodoxy of us versus them fades into shades of gray—the color of possibility and hope.
You write about a very specific heritage and region, yet at the end of your memoir you state that we shape our life through “the trespasses we suffer”. Have you met anyone on your book tour that has connected to your work through this statement?
I am astonished at how many people outside of Utah, or outside of Mormon culture have felt this book resonate with their own experiences of betrayal and estrangement. For some, it has applied to national politics and conflicts, for others, it has applied to a different religious upbringing or even their own marriage. There was some concern in the publishing house that this book would be pegged as a regional book, or as a woman’s book, but we’re finding, thankfully, the very opposite to be true.
What do you have planned for the future?
I haven’t yet unpacked my bags from the book tour, so for now, it’s laundry and time with my daughter. And since I’m still reeling from the writing and living of Trespass, it’s hard to envision anything remotely similar to it at this time. After exposing myself and my family in such detail, writing a fictional novel suddenly has great appeal!