When I read literary nature or science writing or writing about Earth stewardship, I measure its effectiveness, first, by whether or not the langauge is engaging enough to rouse my sensibilities, and second, by whether or not the writing discusses human behavior toward this planet in creative yet responsible ways. Thus I appraise a writer’s language on two points: passion and sustainability.
Passion, or soulfulness, reflects the writer’s depth of feeling for and engagement with her subject. If a nature writer is capable of making deep connections with a landscape, senses alive and open, consciousness aroused and heightened, her language will filter through that enthusiam, offering the world to readers with transparency and, sometimes, magnification. Passionate nature writing engages readers in the way any out-of-the-ordinary experience engages them, so that they might feel wonder, consider their position, or form their own attachments. Fully formed passion thus demonstrates not only the writer’s profound affection for her subject but also reveals something of her love affair with her audience. Even when a writer feels ambivalence toward her audience, her ardor for her subject ought to throw off bright enough sparks they leap across any gap between her and potential audience members, igniting interest in willing, perhaps even forgiving readers.
My ideas about sustainability in language arise from my belief that human language is an energetic, originative part of the Creation. We might even consider language a natural resource, a great wilderness in its own right. Like other features of life and landscape it erupts, blossoms, and erodes. It has power and provides an environment for experience. If we get out into it, we have adventures and not only witness events but also cause them to happen. So any effort we make to improve our behavior toward the natural world ought to include efforts to improve behavior in the natural environment we call language.
Good logic is a component of sustainable language. I’ve written before on the role of logic in creative writing, but briefly, writers need logic for the same reason scientists need logic: to tell stories about human inquiry and experience as accurately as possible. Taking responsibility for what you say and how you say it is part of developing a sustainable presence on this planet, just as taking responsibility for how you use other natural resources is part of your stewardship accountability. Thus narrative art”“all narrative art”“ought to be open to judement upon its coherence.
I can’t always separate a writer’s passionate engagement with her subject from the degrees of sustainability her langauge demonstrates. I imagine the best writing to be seamless that way. I divide the two criteria simply for convenience of discussion. Writing about nature should be alive and its langauge ought to be sustainable. These are my standards for nature writing: Take “˜em or leave “˜em.
Now that I’ve said all that, I have to say that Amy Irvine’s memoir Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land falls so low on any scale I might set up for either of my two criteria as to barely register. This is because, for the entire stretch of its narrative, Trespass rarely leaves the interior landscape of Irvine’s soul, an environment that has suffered years of abuse, abandonment, trauma and illness from which it has not yet recovered. That bile rises into her language is not only natural, it’s to be expected. Holding her to my standard for nature writing thus seems uncharitable because Trespass isn’t really literary nature writing per se. First, Trespass reflects Irvine’s desperate drive to make sense of her life and leans heavily upon the arm of the confessional, rising frequently to the pitch of the cry of outrage. Second, Irvine’s very serious health issues keep her off balance.
A self-described Jack Mormon, Irvine vents spleen on the Utah Mormon culture with constancy of purpose. The invective starts mildly and somewhat stereotypically: “In Utah, fitting in”“not standing out”“is paramount to all other qualities. In both a social and professiona sense it is how one survives” (20).
A temple tour she took, she says,
“¦ solidified my image of the celestial kingdom”“the Mormon version of heaven”“as a place that would be a sterile-looking white room. I had imagined entering it in a white robe, and now I imagined I would be wearing those dreadful booties too. A very large man with a long white beard would hand down judgment of my life. He would tell me that I hadn’t been good enough, that I would have to go to a lower level of the kingdom”¦ As God spoke, I would look down at the spotless ivory tile. There would be not one speck of dirt. I would hear no wind, or birds, and through the robe, hanging heavy and opaque, I wouldn’t feel my own body. It was there on the temple tour that the idea of heaven began to terrify me”“not enough to keep me from getting baptized, but enough so that I would quit attending church by the time I was twelve (33).
And so on, ranging between better and worse. She describes Salt Lake Mormons as “relatively sophisticated and worldly “¦ if only by necessity,” because “You don’t become a major metropolis without “¦ learning the skills of tolerance and compromise, even if only for the sake of getting along (28).”
But most of Trespass unfolds in San Juan County, Utah, where I live. San Juan County Mormons get the worst of her language. They are, as she puts it, “hours away from anything remotely urban, more insulated than nearly any other county in the lower forty-eight” (19). The result, according to Irvine: “a relic of the oldest kind, its people and culture “¦ not only oppressive but nearly prehistoric in their ways” (29). She provides a list of “you must understands” about San Juan County Mormons, describing them as “unyeilding,” saying that they’ll go to great lengths to “protect their way of life and all that they see as theirs.” She asserts “the term “˜democracy’ doesn’t really apply “¦ only God’s laws and cattle rule the land”; “Everything is described, measured, and comprehended in terms of divine will and forage” (40).
Irvine displays the LDS culture and religion to the world in sepia tones of unflattering snapshot moments from its far history. From the Mountain Meadow Massacre, to her Idaho-Mormon grandmother’s “hard-edged” behavior, to the anonymous fellow she witnesses deliberately drive his vehicle over achaeological features, to the historical LDS practice of plural marriage, she takes the most painful events and most starkly controversial matters and conflates them to typical modern Mormon beliefs and practices. She waves quotes lifted from prophets one hundred and fifty years ago as the contemporary standard, some of the least attractive teachings of Brigham Young being among them. She purports that her source for what she learned about temple rituals was a bunch of whispering, preteen and teenaged Mormon girls, saying, “I learned “¦ that at the [celestial kingdom’s] highest level “¦ were roads, and they were paved and glittering with gold” (96). She professes some admiration for Joseph Smith”“what she describes as his shamanistic skills of seeing into other worlds”“to set the stage for expressing her repulsion at how washed out and uninspired ward and stake houses appear and how sterile LDS temples are. On and on it goes. Such constant kvetching undermines the potency of her language.
Perhaps her least transcendent moments occur during strident remarks she makes about the LDS missionary program, which she apprears to find especially threatening. In a chapter interspersed with fugues about Mormon sexuality, she waxes juvenile about why male missionaries (she speaks as if sister missionaries don’t exit) are called “companions.” Her confrontation of two elders at her door reaches the heights of a melodrama wherein she sees herself in the heroic female lead:
The missionaries stand before me, poised to pierce the most vulnerable parts of my psyche “¦ I stand straighter still, look the tall missionary squarely in the eye “¦ The elders want in. The power of the priesthood is most effective inside”“between the walls”“where domesticity tames even the most wild of beasts.
“”¦ 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” (103).
Despite appearances, Irvine’s complaints against Mormonism don’t fall back on the usual “all organized religion is stupefying and anti-progressive” refrain. Truly, she longs for a more spiritually compelling way of life. Her actual charge against the church is a charge against agrarian culture, which she sees contemporary Mormonism as being steeped in, especially in San Juan County.
To argue this point, she charts the movement of the Ancestral Puebloan culture (called “Anasazi” in Trespass) away from the greater fitness, the heightened sensuality, and full-bodied spirituality of the hunter-gatherer way of life into the apostasy of agriculture, drawing parallels between the church’s prospects in the American West and the collapse of the Ancestral Puebloan culture in the Four Corners region. Agriculture, she asserts, makes people aggressive, sick, sexually distraught, and incapable of truly vibrant spirituality. Eventually, it falls upon itself in fits of psychosis. The hunter-gatherer life, she asserts, was the more fully realilzed life, the ecstatic life. Following her logic here, as in other places in the book, becomes a bit of an adventure, marked as it is by flights of imagination and spurning and it does grounding in logic.
But whether or not Irvine’s arguments contain weight-bearing walls is not the issue. Trespass is exactly what the author says it is at its outset: an excavation she has undertaken to uncover what she needs to know about who she is. Occasionally, she admits that she suffers from the problems archaeologists do when they draw hasty conclusions about a layer of stratigraphy without wondering what lies beneath it or don’t take proper care of the details of provenance. She understands that archaeology destroys in the process of unearthing the story. This leads me to believe that on some level she realizes that she’s still troweling through the surface stratum of her soul. Yet because her situation is desperate, she feels compelled to make something whole of the jarring fragments she’s found even while their context slips through her fingers.
But I gotta say. If I wrote about another species with the degree of misapprehension and unbridled imagination that Irvine displays in her treatises on Mormonism, no one would take me seriously. If I described another religion through the same jaundiced eye that she does, I’d be labeled “insensitive” for the least of it and “intolerant” for the worst. If I wielded as much defensive anger and fear against another culture, ethnic group, race, etc. as she does against the LDS culture and faith, I’d be called “hateful,” a bigot, a racist. I would be branded, in her words, as “a real Mormon” who “would never question anything at all” (98).
So her language is hardly sustainable, and therein lies its deepest trespass. At the outset, Irvine remarks ominously upon how San Juan County residents have been known to burn environmentalists in effigy. I haven’t lived here long enough to be privy to that behavior, but I have seen the window stickers of the Calvin figure peeing on the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance acronym that she mentions. I’ve witnessed anti-SUWA signs on floats in Fourth of July parades. SPEAR (San Juan Public Entry and Access Rights, an off-roading group) members have demanded to know whether I’m an ATV rider or “one of them tree-huggers.” I’ve read the half-page long tirades against environmentalists published on the Letters to the Editor page of local papers. Yet Irvine herself focuses the language in her book on fashioning straw men, hanging “SJC LDS” signs on them, and burning them in glee. The language of Trespass is so caught up in throwing punches at the local culture it gives anybody in San Juan County who might be aching for a fight just the fodder they’re on the lookout for, effectively stoking the fires of conflict.
And boy, I’d sure hate to be a Mormon nature enthusiast living in San Juan County after its residents read this book. Oh “¦ wait “¦
While Irvine’s anti-Mormon spiels grate on the nerves, more troubling for me is her lack of passion when she speaks about the land she professes to love. This single failure of feeling suggests the severity of the trauma she has suffered and how deeply it has shaken and disconnected her. When she describes her forays into the backrocks she moved to San Juan County to be close to, I hear no tones of ardor in her voice, no music in her words”“only a degree of relief such as a person who is chronically depressed might feel after taking a sedative. Irvine is one of the “hiking wounded” who take refuge in angry environmental activism. She’s aware of this, but as of Trespass’s publication date, she lacks the means and energy to overcome her obstacles. Toward the book’s end, Irvine’s shaman friend Jessica sums up my impressions of Irvine’s dilemma succinctly: “In the wild world, you indeed found hallowed ground, but kneeling on it has failed to infuse you with anything soulful. In this sense, you are no better off than those you criticize” (395).
It goes without saying that most Mormons won’t like this book, even if they summon the will power to make it past its numerous burning Mormon effigies to reach the inner sanctum where Irvine’s actual points about agriculture are ensconced. If you are an aspiring Mormon nature writer or a Mormon interested in writing about Earth stewardship and have the heart not to take Irvine’s effigies personally, perhaps you should set aside some time when you’re laid up with a hiking injury (like I did) to make the mental trudge along Trespass’s switchback trails, just to see what’s out there. Then go thou and do better. Much, much better.