Book Review
What Does Gender Have to Do with the Desert?

What Does Gender Have to Do with the Desert?

Overheard in Grand Junction, Colorado on February 4, 2019 after Amy Irvine’s reading from her book, Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness.

[gblockquote]Her: “That was random.”
Him: “Yes. What does gender have to do with the desert?”[/gblockquote]

Amy Irvine’s Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness is a monologue written as if Irvine spoke directly to the deceased writer Edward Abbey at his gravesite. For those who don’t know, Abbey helped define a particular kind of love for wilderness and environmentalism for a largely white audience. Or, as Irvine writes to Abbey, “you crowbarred open the American consciousness and the red raw desert strode right in.”1

In his 1968 Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Abbey wrote a masculinist version of himself as a desert inhabitant who was mostly alone, “in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place.”2 Abbey helped his readers see the desert in a way most had not bothered to see it before as a place of beauty and wonder that needed to be protected from the forces out to destroy it. Desert Solitaire is often beautiful and insightful, but it is not without problems.

Headshot of Edward Abbey with a bushy gray beard, a tan wide-brimmed hat, and ared bandana. Behind him is a desert sunset
Photo of deceased author Edward Abbey. (Wikimedia Commons | Fair Use)

On February 4, 2019, Irvine explained to her audience at the Mesa County Public Library that originally she had been asked to write an introduction to a 50th anniversary edition of Desert Solitaire. The publishers had lent her Abbey’s original manuscript with its line-edits and corrections. Her introduction, however, became long and longer, and the publisher kindly told her that her piece could not serve as an introduction but that they would publish it as a separate book.

In Desert Cabal, Irvine tackled some of the problematic pieces of Abbey’s narrative, including solitude, gender, and colonization. It turns out, like David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Abbey really was not solitary much of the time. When he lived in Moab, Utah — where much of Desert Solitaire was set — he lived in a trailer with his wife and children, or, sometimes with female lovers when his wife and children were away. However, he wrote those women and children mostly out of the book.

In addition, Abbey had no awareness that being solitary was (and continues to be) different for men than for women. And Abbey called the red-rock desert “Abbey’s country.” Irvine scolded him for this, “Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it ‘Amy’s country’?” She and her family have lived in Utah for seven generations, but she understands what Abbey did not. White men or women don’t get to call the land theirs “because it’s all stolen property,” taken first from the American Indians and then from the Mexicans.3

Photograph of a group of more than 30 Mojave Indians mourning over the body of their dead chief, Sistuma, standing or sitting under the thatched porch roof in front of a small dwelling with a thatched roof. Many of them are wearing blankets draped about their shoulders. Other dwellings are visible behind.
Group of Mojave Indians mourning over the body of their dead chief, Sistuma, in front of a small dwelling with a thatched roof, ca.1902. (CC Pierce/Wikimedia Commons)

In Desert Cabal, the chapter “Down the River” invokes some of the ways being alone in the wilderness and on public land is different for women than for men. In this chapter, Irvine writes of her own close encounters with men in these spaces. They are frightening experiences filled with violence or the threat of violence. She described the time she tried to change a tire on a dirt road found herself surrounded by “a truck full of men on meth … circling like a shark.”4

She escaped, but she informs Abbey that women have not always been that lucky. “In the United States,” she tells him, “a woman is raped every two minutes and eighty-one percent of us have been sexually harassed. Meaning the vast majority of us have feared for our jobs or our lives.”5 It is important to understand that Irvine writes in the midst of a continued wave of #MeToo stories that crowbarred open the American consciousness about the daily violence women face. Although Irvine is cautious about the label of feminist, assuring Abbey that she is not “some shrill, ball-biting feminist with a bone to pick out of your saltbush beard,” she certainly writes feminism into every page.6

Her feminism, apparent in the passages she chose to read, brings me back to the conversation I overheard between two young people as we left the library together. I had thought the entire audience had been as wrapped up in Irvine’s narrative as I had. Because of this, the conversation startled me, particularly when the man asked, snidely, “What does gender have to do with the desert?” If I had been prepared, if I hadn’t been thinking about Irvine’s words so hard, I would have said two things. The first would have been, “Weren’t you listening?” The second would have been, “Everything, of course.”

Whether Americans have been conscious of the fact or not, gender — and race — have always been two of the lenses through which we view the desert — and all other types of landscape. As Joan Scott writes, normative concepts “typically take the form of a fixed binary opposition, categorically and unequivocally asserting the meaning of male and female, masculine and feminine.”7

And of course, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham tells us, masculine and feminine are also determined by our construction of race, or “a highly contested representation of relations of power between social categories.”8 Gender and race cannot be separated from the ways Americans have written about the desert or the land.

A rock formation in a sandy reddish hue forms a arch in the desert.
Double-O-Arch in Arches National Park in Southwestern USA, where Edward Abbey served as a Park Ranger. (Tobias Alt/Wikimedia Commons)

In the time and place I know best historically, the early American republic, concepts of land were thoroughly tied up with concepts of women’s bodies and colonization. This is everywhere apparent, including in the Fourth of July orations that were given and then published in the early nineteenth century. The orations reflected a European-American people deeply divided by political differences but joined together by an origin myth: in their colonial past brave Christian settlers came to a savage land, tamed it, and made it safer for women and children.

Daniel Abbot’s 1803 oration was typical. Like others, he reached back to a past peopled with hearty pilgrims who were “Driven from their native land by the sword of persecution.” In the “wilderness” that they found “tenanted only by wild beasts, or men equally savage and ferocious,” they faced danger at every turn. This danger included “wives and children sometimes inhumanly murdered … or led captive into the wilderness, there to suffer savage barbarity, far worse than instant death.”9

But in the end, these “needy pilgrims” prevailed, taming the “howling wilderness” into a society that celebrated “the continuance of rational, virtuous freedom.”10 These Fourth of July orators claimed that the result of their civilizing mission was that women and children became safe from harm, ignoring, of course, the intimate violence these same women and children could face in the midst of the “civilization” of European-American settlements.

The important other side of the myths created by men like Abbey and Abbot is the historical and present-day reality for American Indian women and men upon whose lands and bodies the colonizers enacted gendered violence. As Winona LaDuke writes in the foreword to Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, the situation of American Indian women “is directly related to the process of colonization, sexual violence, [and] dehumanization.”11

For these women, “what is personal and intimate … becomes the centerpiece of power relations.”12 And as Smith writes in the introduction to her book, “colonial relationships are themselves gendered and sexualized.”13 Rape, murder, and other forms of violence go hand-in-hand with colonization no matter what the heroic mythmakers would like their listeners or readers to believe.

Throughout American history, women have faced different dangers from their male counterparts, whether they lived in or moved through towns, woods, plains, or the red-rock desert. If I had been ready and equipped with the courage to address complete strangers, I would have liked to have asked the young woman who laughed when her companion asked, “What does gender have to do with the desert,” if she hikes alone and if she does, if she ever feels fear when she comes across male hikers. Those crossings of paths are not always fraught with danger, but every solo female hiker I know has had a moment of fear in the wilderness. All of us who love the wilderness and love to be alone in that wilderness have heard the stories of the women raped or killed when out on the trail alone. Gender has everything to do with the desert just as it has everything to do with all of our places and all of our interactions. Irvine knows this. Her book is a call for a cabal, a “group gathered to conspire, to resist,” rather than a call for solitude.14 Out of a lived experience as a woman, Irvine has a different relationship to the land, to solitude, and to others than Abbey had. Irvine would like us to come together to resist both the depredations to the land we share and the misogyny that runs deep in our culture and cultural expressions. To do this would mean to change our gendered relationships to the land and to each other, relationships that have deep historical roots.


  1. Amy Irvine, Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness (Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press, 2018), 9. Return to text.
  2. Edward Abbey, “From Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,” in The Best of Edward Abbey (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1984), 74. Return to text.
  3. Irvine, 8. Return to text.
  4. Irvine, 53. Return to text.
  5. Irvine, 54. Return to text.
  6. Irvine, 13. Return to text.
  7. Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988), 96. Return to text.
  8. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs 17, no. 2 (1992): 253. Return to text.
  9. Daniel Abbot, An Oration, Delivered at Nashua Village, Dunstable, N.H. the Fourth of July, A.D. 1803 (Amherst, NH: Joseph Cushing, 1803), 5-6. Return to text.
  10. Abbot, Oration, 10. Return to text.
  11. Winona LaDuke, “Forward, “ in Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), xvii. Return to text.
  12. LaDuke, “Forward,” xviii. Return to text.
  13. Smith, Conquest, 1. Return to text.
  14. Irvine, Desert Cabal, 78. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Moab Desert. (Courtesy Jill111/Pixabay)

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.