The art of compromise: Local author says ‘us vs. them’ mentality won’t save the environment

Environmentalist and author Amy Irvine wanted “to turn tail and bolt” when her father committed suicide on New Year’s Eve, 1999.


She left the Salt Lake City area, where she grew up, for tiny Monticello in southeastern Utah to work for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Southeastern Utah is “arguably the most anti-wilderness [spot] in the nation,” she says on the phone from her current home in Southwest Colorado.

She does not want to tell where she lives, because some people do not like the views she expresses in her memoir of her nine years in Monticello, “Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land,” just published by North Point Press.

The time resulted in a marriage that she and her husband struggled to learn to make work, a child, a change in attitude about protecting the environment, exploration of her Mormon and her non-Mormon ancestry, and a hard look at global resource issues.

In her book, Irvine explains that she grew up in a multicultural family. Her great-great-great-grandfather on her dad’s side crossed the continent with Brigham Young and practiced polygamy. Her mother descended from generations of devout Mormon ranchers.

Her family eventually included Gentiles such as her father’s mother, an artist who came to Utah to paint the desert, and town folk who owned a logging and lumber business.

Irvine loved all of then, rebelled from from aspects of each, and finally began “straddling an unusual fence.” She thought the lessons she’d learned from the experience had prepared her for life in Monticello.

But her background, the community’s size, and especially her work for SUWA made acceptance there impossible, she says, until she realized taking a strong pro-environmentalist position was a mistake, and she began to search for middle ground on wilderness issues.

Ranchers and environmentalists needed to work together. With peo- ple migrating into the West, water and land issues would only become more pressing.

“Most important is how are we going to deal with the influx of people,” she says.

“We’re seeing off-road vehicles going wherever they want. On private lands fences have been cut, cows let loose, and springs destroyed. There have been physical altercations.”

But factors other than humans are changing the West. Irvine predicts that drought will permanently alter the landscape. Bark beetles have already infested trees weakened by lack of moisture.

“I think we’re going to be dealing with a whole hornet’s nest of problems, and I don’t think we can afford to have an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” she said. “This is a landscape that belongs to a lot of different people’s hearts in a lot of different ways. We just unify.”

“Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land” documents the process of how Irvine moved from staunch wilderness advocate and non-Mormon in some respects, to an understanding of rural people trying to make a living off the land, and of Mormons, whom she described as “near and dear” to her heart.

The book also explains the meaning of the post 9-11 era and the intensifying of oil and gas extraction on public lands.

“On a global scale we’re seeing some extremely opposing views on how resources are being handled and exchanged, and who has the sovereignty and who has a say [over them].”

Irvine doesn’t believe reconciliation of these views will come easily. “What I was trying to get at in the book is, how do you stop assigning blame and feeling so righteous about your position and actually find some kind of common ground?”

She believes one approach might be to study how hunter-gatherers survived. On the Colorado Plateau, they lived for 10,000 years with a minimum of martial weapons, and a rich spiritual life.

“Our technological life is a blip in time,” Irvine laughs.

She believes that living off the land wired the human brain to have psychological and physical requirements which modern society doesn’t meet, and that fundamentalist ideas in religion and politics have resulted because people aren’t getting what they need.

If society could find a way to correct those deficiencies, cultures and nations might be less at odds, Irvine thinks, pointing out that hunter-gathers lived in relative peace.

‘Trespass” explores several possibilities for giving people what they must have, beginning with finding ways to work together to preserve some wild space.

Encouraging creative expression would also fulfill basic human needs. The rock art in the American West and European cave paintings share common symbols because certain themes and images move everyone.

Getting out of cars and away from computers to walk, lift and carry would also help, Irvine believes. So would knowing how food gets to the table.

“I greatly appreciate the local ranchers, and a diet with meat in it, and a lifestyle that requires that we work for our food on the land that surrounds us,” Irvine says. “It’s part of who we are.”

To combat fundamentalist thinking, Irvine advocates seeking the gray areas and thinking about what is happening before saying it’s wrong or right.

“Rural folks shouldn’t be dismissed as ruining the land or being the problem,” she says. “We’re all part of the problem.”

Finally, people must let mystery back into their lives. Hunter-gatherers understood mystery better than people do today. Modern religion provides comforting answers but leads to dogmatic thinking.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen here,” Irvine says. “I think things are changing rapidly now, and it’ll be interesting to see what we’re forced into.”

From Arts & Entertainment, March 2008.