Sunday, March 29, 2009

Green books in spring

Not that spring is evident today. We're having a full-scale, impudent, and aggravating March snow storm here in Chicago. All right, it's pretty. The fluffy sort of snow, clinging creamily to tree branches and all the cables and wires that make things such as this blog possible. But we were so much happier to see crocuses and robins.

The stubborn hold of winter does not impede the blossoming of books. April, May, and June will bring many works of tremendous insight and beauty our way. And this month has delivered the third annual Orion Book Award.

I had an excellent time serving as judge along with Roger D. Hodge, editor for Harper's magazine; Scott Russell Sanders, the author, most recently, of A Conservationist Manifesto, Susan Straight, whose novel Highwire Moon is always playing somewhere in my mind, and H. Emerson Blake, Orion magazine editor-in-chief.

Here's the deal: The Orion Book Award was founded in 2007 to recognize books that deepen our connection to the natural world, present new ideas about our relationship with nature, and achieve excellence in writing. It is made possible in part by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Here are the finalists:

Trespass, Amy Irvine (North Point Press)
The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books)
The Bridge at the End of the World, James Gustave Speth (Yale University Press)
Inventing Niagara, Ginger Strand (Simon & Schuster)
Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams (Pantheon Books)

And the winner is Amy Irvine's Trespass. A book I raved about in the Chicago Tribune, nearly a year ago:

Memoir of sadness
A wilderness activist mourns the damage to Utah's desert landscape and her own personal tragedies

By Donna Seaman

February 23, 2008

Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land

By Amy Irvine

North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 363 pages, $25

Amy Irvine's family tree reaches back to one of the original Mormon saints, but it also bears the sharp, sometimes bitter fruit of nonconformists. Her paternal grandmother, Ada, was an atheist and an artist enthralled by the dramatic beauty of southern Utah's red-rock desert. Irvine's father had the pedigree and demeanor of a good Mormon, but he could not abide the strictures of Salt Lake City life and took off hunting every chance he got. Add to that his alcoholism in an aggressively teetotaling world, and you get a sense of the misery that induced him to turn his gun on himself. As Irvine tries to come to terms with her father's death, she ponders her inherited apostate and "peripatetic ways."

A loner and wanderer who yearns for acceptance, Irvine explores the red-rock canyons, observing that "the mark of the ancients is everywhere," even though pueblo ruins have long been stripped of every artifact, with the exception of rock art visible only in certain slants of light. As she tries to imagine the lives of the hunter-gatherers who once lived in this arid, sculptured place, she braids together threads of Mormon history, her own family's stories and her quest for illumination, creating a singularly elegiac and astringent memoir of dissent.

Not long after her father's death, Irvine is working for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and madly in love with Herb McHarg, a longhaired, Catholic, wilderness-defending attorney. She tries to fit into her small, high-desert town near a Superfund site, even though her neighbors' pickup trucks sport "a window sticker displaying the cartoon character Calvin, pants down. He is urinating on the acronym" of the wilderness alliance.

Seeking a fuller immersion in the glorious place they are working so hard to protect, and more privacy, the couple buys 10 acres and a dilapidated, off-the-grid cabin in spectacular and xenophobic San Juan County. The four-state panorama is thrilling - - the vista embraces swathes of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado - - but the risks associated with their advocacy work remain high.

Irvine staves off her fears by hiking and pondering the past. And the conclusions she reaches are startling. Take her bold paralleling of the natural histories of coyotes and Mormons, sworn enemies. Both have been despised and hunted, yet both have thrived, even though the Mormon modes of survival are proving environmentally deleterious. Irvine acidly critiques the damage done by cattle ranching, the razing of foothills to build golf courses (guzzlers of precious water) and, widening her view to encompass the entire problematic development of the West, the damming of the Colorado River. Her environmental survey also covers a rarely examined consequence of 9/11: the federal government's loosening of restrictions on oil and gas leases on public lands, including Utah's most-scenic places.

Readers versed in the fiery eloquence of Irvine's kindred red-rock defenders Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams and Ellen Meloy will have a ready context for her probing critiques of the exploitation of this sacred yet much-sinned-against land, but her views on the demise of hunter-gatherer societies and the rise of agriculture are unique and provocative. Irvine suggests that men and women foragers were equals, and that their roaming way of life was active, varied and healthy. With the advent of farming came punishing labor and a sedentary existence. Women had too many children too close together, and a divide opened between the sexes. Inevitably, the impact on the overused land was equally depleting.

In her sorrow, anger and feelings of helplessness, Irvine seems to be channeling six generations of outraged and lonely Mormon women restricted to obedient lives as wives and mothers in polygamous marriages. Outsider Irvine preserves her freedom but still suffers wrenching losses. Her first child dies in utero, and during her second pregnancy she endures a harrowing health crisis, tragedies of the body she can't help but equate with the accelerating destruction of the living world all around her.

To trespass is to violate, to infringe, to unlawfully enter, to err or sin. Irvine composes a staggering litany of trespasses great and small that ultimately reveals the interconnectivity of life; the fact that everything matters: every cow, every blade of invasive cheat grass, every dam, every hole drilled into the desert, every life-crushing off-road vehicle, every betrayal. For Irvine - - passionate, imaginative, furious and visionary - - language is a ladder out of the silencing cave of despair. And what, after all, is a voice for if not to praise life? Of what use is a gift for metaphor and argument if not to provoke, entrance, persuade? After her steeling trials of body and soul, Irvine turns away from the rigors of advocacy to take up the more radiant and fluent defense of life that is art. Beauty and truth, she hopes, will speak to everyone.

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune

Amy Irvine will receive a cash prize of $3,000, and the finalists will each receive $500 each. You'll welcome to honor them and celebrate green books at a public event on April 15, 2009 at the CYNTHIA-REEVES gallery in New York City. I'll be there.