Together Apart


Together Apart is a new Orion web series of letters from isolation. Every week under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar.

This first exchange is between Amy Irvine and Pam Houston. 



March 26, 2020

Hi Amy,

I’m really excited to have this conversation. I can tell because there are about ten different places I would like to start, but maybe I will start out simple.

One of the things we have in common is that, unlike most of the Americans who are sheltering in place, we have unrestricted access to vast parcels of the natural world right out our back door. If I start walking out my kitchen door and hop my own fence, I am in the Rio Grande National Forest, and if I kept walking I would enter the Weminuche Wilderness, and after a couple of days I would get to the San Juan National Forest (4 million acres altogether). I could wander around for weeks up there, especially now that the tourists have been discouraged, without seeing another soul. We are sort of the opposite of those Italians singing from their balconies. We chose these lives, but we were immensely privileged to be able to choose these lives.

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about the wildlands that normally grapple with a constant onslaught of people, but are, these weeks, empty. I picture the animals whispering to one another, Do you think they are all dead down there? Then I picture them linking arms and dancing around the campfire. I hear the trees bending toward one another and singing. You might have seen the article in Forbes with the headline Corona Virus Lockdown Likely Saved 77,000 Lives in China Just by the Reduction of Air Pollution.

For all the suffering, and heartache, and grief, and economic catastrophe this virus may cause, I can’t help wonder what reevaluation of our priorities might come out of it. Will we learn that, in fact, we don’t need so many choices? Will we get better at being, instead of doing? Will we remember that we are actually nature, and neither its master nor the beneficiary of its charms? Will clean air, just for one example, seem like a thing worth staying home for?



March 27, 2020

Good morning Pam,

Indeed, we are women and writers who chose wilderness as our neighbor. I live off-grid on a remote little mesa that serves as connective tissue between the 14,000-foot peaks of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and the redrock deserts of my Utah homeland. In every direction there are millions of acres of public forests, canyons, basin, and range. A quick morning walk in a shallow, unremarkable gully might result in watching a mountain lion and her two teenagers, playing on the other side, just fifty yards away. A scramble through a steep jumble of boulders might prompt a spotted owl to rush out at you, to graze your head and send you reeling—the resulting scrapes and bruises well worth it. The day my now-husband and I decided to marry, we were walking a stone’s throw from the house when, in the dirt and duff, two matching arrowheads made themselves known.

Like many writers, I started out believing that something akin to Thoreau’s life at Walden was necessary for both craft and soul. It’s so romantic, this way of being in the world! Not an hour goes by in which I am not brought to my knees by the lands I live next to—the beauty, the freedom, and the promise that the natural world will go on, despite greed and tyranny. Since our shared governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order, I’ve been more grateful than ever for this wide-open space to wander in. And at the same time, I am more aware than ever that if this life is necessary for stories that connect us to the natural world, we will lose storytellers as quickly as we’re losing people to this new virus. This life of ours cannot be the pre-requisite—

You ask, as public life contracts, if we might realize we need not so many choices. One hopes. What if one doesn’t have the luxury of choosing to live and write where and how we do? What if one has but one patch of sky that she sees through a tiny, smog-smeared factory window, or from between buildings that crowd out what’s overhead? 

Well if it’s the patch of sky you refer to, in China, it’s a big fucking deal. For the first time in a long while, tens of thousands of Chinese can take a breath and not worry that the pollution will kill them in just hours. For the first time in many Chinese children’s lives, they are seeing that patch of sky as blue. These things must feel miraculous to the people who have just experienced them! That horrifies me, as breathing and seeing blue sky should be things we take for granted. Let’s hope we get to take them for granted in the future, by no longer taking them for granted, here and now.

I’m also curious to hear you say more about “being” versus “doing.” That seems like a major reset for America. How do you think we might manage this shift?



March 28, 2020

Hi Amy, 

We just got back from a hike in a canyon called Embargo Creek. It was meant to be eight miles roundtrip, but my younger wolfhound, Henry, let the snowmelt and the springtime smells put him into his wild mind and he climbed a ridge that put him in another drainage (following, not elk, not deer, but only the smells they left behind), and it took us a couple of extra hours to be reunited. The blue birds were out in force and we scared up an annoyed coyote, watched a red-tail soar.

I was thinking about our conversation, and how lucky we are to get the thing we need most during the lock down, but also thinking that there are many many people, many of my dearest friends in fact, who would trade the day I just had for an hour in their favorite coffee shop with a macchiato and a morning bun, or a Wilco concert, or a baseball game. I have picked, intentionally, three things I love too, but I don’t need them the way I need to walk on the land. And it is a good thing for the land that it is not everybody’s first choice. As you have written about so powerfully in Desert Cabal, it has more of us out there loving it than it can sometimes stand. 

I don’t know how you get from living in a fast-paced city full of art and technology to loving the land enough to write powerfully about it, though we both know some great writers who do. As a writer I am so driven by my senses, my hands- and feet-on experience of the physical stuff of the landscape, that it is almost impossible for me to imagine finding my drivers without a lot of time out there. But I could hope to channel whatever Leslie Silko found when she was missing the landscape around the Laguna Pueblo so fiercely that the exquisite novel Ceremony popped out.

I also have noticed, when I teach, for instance, in Davis, California, that fewer and fewer of my students take a real interest in the natural world, fewer of them want to go backpacking, fewer of them could define the nouns that have always made my heart beat fast: elk, mesa, trilobite, eddy… (There are the beautiful exceptions, of course, and those students find their way to me.)

There is no reason that the one percent in China need to eat wild pangolin at their cocktail parties. There is no reason the one percent in America needed to have their billions doubled in the months we ought to have been testing for this virus and preventing some, maybe a lot, of the carnage we are about to see. Maybe those Chinese children will see the blue sky and decide they like it that way. I know this sounds impossibly naive, but I do believe that is how the world changes. 

My dirty little secret is that I fly on way too many airplanes. And I like that—have liked that—about my life. I love to go, I love to see what I have not seen before. I have many places around the country and the world that have become like second homes and I love to visit them. As my awareness about the climate catastrophe has grown exponentially over the last decade, I have known I had to do something about my airplane problem. Which is related to my “doing” problem. I say yes to every job, every talk, every teaching opportunity. I make a Tetris game out of my schedule and I squeeze additional events in on 12-hour layovers, and when my schedule is so full I can hardly breathe or sleep, that is when I feel sure I am earning my place on the planet. I have barely been home in the eighteen months since Deep Creek came out because I have been so busy proving proving proving I am worthy…until now. It is the sickest thing about me, this workaholism, and I don’t know exactly when I would have slowed down, if this virus hadn’t come along and forced me to. In a way I am like those Chinese children. If I don’t die from the virus, the virus might end up adding years to my life. 

So now I am being, or at least something closer to it. Every day, a four-hour walk with the dogs, every day a two-hour bath. I cook luxuriously complicated soups and stews. I work some, I am overseeing nine graduate student theses at two universities, so there is reading and critiquing to do. I am writing, a little bit. That may sound like plenty of doing, but the difference is, I am not chasing anything. For the first time in a long time. I am just here. 

I know you teach as well, and I am curious what you are seeing in your students’ relationship to the natural world, and what you see as your role as mentor. In Desert Cabal you said we needed to be together in our love for the wilderness, we needed to work together so that we can love it more gently, and maybe from a respectful distance sometimes, but we have to raise our voices together to save what is left of it. How do you communicate that to the young people you work with?



March 29, 2020

Hi Pam,

First off, I am so glad you found your dog!

So it’s noon on Sunday and I’m just now sitting down to my desk. First, there was a neighbor’s chicken to stock in the pot. (I’m making a bunch right now to freeze—my Mormon prepper genes just love a good apocalypse.) Then I made pumpkin muffins, thinking my daughter would love waking up to them. But instead Ruby woke up frozen in trauma. Medical trauma related to her years as the unfortunate vessel for two autoimmune disorders. So there was talking her down, back into her body. 

One of the things I love so dearly about Victorian novels is the way letter-writing initiates such an intimacy between two individuals. In the age of LOLs and heart emojis, I knew I missed that kind of back and forth. But now, in the age of COVID-19, I find it almost as vital as being out on the land. And so here we are, and I count this conversation as one of the gifts to come out of this pandemic, one small gain amid so much loss. 

Other meaningful correspondence this week: My friend Leslie Jamison, who just published a gripping essay about being quarantined in Brooklyn, with a toddler and the coronavirus. She’s on the mend, thank god, but her experience is so different from ours. Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, who is trying to shine some light on how the virus will affect nearby indigenous communities that are so underserved already. My mother, who was already self-isolating at home in Salt Lake City when the earthquake hit, followed by 100-plus aftershocks. And Lydia Peelle, who is navigating this new normal in the total ruin of her Nashville neighborhood, thanks to the tornado that tore through on Super Tuesday (my god, that seems like a year ago).

I acknowledge these women, their current circumstances, because I am so keenly aware of the contrast between our lives and theirs. Each of them deeply loves the natural world and is so wrought about what’s happening to it. But with the exception of Regina—whose life remains rooted in her native homeland—I think the other three might choose the macchiato or the concert (maybe not the baseball game!), and as you said, yes, thank goodness not everyone needs or wants to live where we live, how we live.  In contrast, Leslie and Lydia are examples of women writing about the natural world, about threats to it, and yet they live in big cities and do big city things. 

But their writing cannot be pegged as “nature writing.” And I think this is a very important thing. I’m not sure that those of us whose books end up on that particular shelf are changing public consciousness or public policy as much as we’d like to think we are; we’re often just preaching to the choir. Which is to say I am grateful to my friends who are writing about all things perilous to the planet in a broader way, in stories written for a broader readership. They may not be out on the land all the time, but they very much care about oceans rising and climate refugees. They are no less heartbroken than we are that orcas are preying on great white sharks because there’s so few fish left in the sea. They are no less furious that yesterday the EPA announced that industry could pollute to their ice cold hearts’ delight, using the coronavirus as an excuse not to enforce rules such as the Clean Air Act (oh, air…there it is again, as a casualty). 

Your books, Pam, achieve the same thing—they are read by so many, and they connect people to places, to other species, in such meaningful ways. I’ve assigned your memoir Deep Creek to a few of my nonfiction students—women who have never stepped foot into a wilderness area and likely never will. It’s such a big-hearted story, and it had them looking around the perimeter of their own lives and wondering about how they were shaped by place. For some of them, it was their first time with that concept.

The MFA program I teach in is a low-residency program, so many of my students already have families and careers. It’s all they can do to get their day job finished so they can get home and tend to family, chores, and reading and writing assignments. There’s that “do” thing you mention; in that paradigm—the only one they know—they have one helluva time imagining creative writing as something that can’t be scheduled, as anything but perfunctory. Not that I fault them; most days I cannot figure out how to stop the clock for even five minutes on the porch, to watch the sun set over this amazing red anticline that runs all the way from my mesa to Utah. Meaning I struggle with embodiment in my life as much as I do on the page. Every day is a battle, to just be. But the stakes are high. If I don’t scratch and claw my way back into the carnality of my life, I might as well be another casualty of this new and nasty organism. 

So I try to teach embodiment with that kind of urgency. I have students stand in a scene that they’ve written. We reconstruct the angle of light, the warped floorboard, the soft pawing of willow branches on the window. I direct other students to step in—as other characters, but also to make a window frame out of their arms. I’ll direct another to stand as the tree on the other side of the glass, where I have them move and make sounds like branches stroking the panes. Suddenly they remember more: the ticking of the grandfather clock, the shudder of ground from nearby fracking. At some point it gets uncomfortable, and you can see them jump away. At that point they are only in their heads, which means they’ve fallen out of the sensuality of the moment and the emotional heft that it provokes. So I bring them back. I make them stay. With all the physical sensations. I help them feel the ground shudder—ground that now has a poisoned water table that has made the author’s family and friends sick with mysterious ailments. The intimacy of all that, for the student, is often unbearable. Even those playing supporting roles can jump away just then. I keep bringing them back, helping them hold the whole of it. Meanwhile we quickly jot down a bunch of notes while they’re still in their bodies, in the moment. It really helps with the next draft.

I say all this not to toot my teaching horn, but rather to celebrate our ability to return to embodiment—of oneself, of the natural elements around oneself, and all the emotions and intimacies that follow. Of course, there are times when it’s vital to leave the body in order to endure trauma. As was the case with my daughter, having been subjected to so many tests, procedures, and insensitive medical providers. This morning, the only way out of that old story that has gripped her for several years was to bring her back into her body, to explore the lived experience, so that she could move forward, beyond the tyranny of the memory.

We have people in cages at our southern border. We have indigenous communities whose lands are being plundered. You and I have written about our own wounds and losses. But now it feels like we are collectively traumatized—first by climate change, and now by the novel coronavirus. This is not to say that these traumas will affect us equally. Some will suffer hugely. Others will remain comfortable by way of denial. And most of us in the developed world will still make choices and purchases that further jeopardize the less fortunate. Like you, the choice I struggle with is airplane travel—I love moving about the world, experiencing new things, encountering new landscapes and people. Travel has also been integral to how I make a living—speaking and teaching. And sometimes I must go chase down a story. Last fall, it was a horse pack trip in Mongolia. There was a story there that I just had to hunt down. As storytellers, this is our job—we travel where we must, physically and psychically, to tell the story. So I made some serious carbon cuts elsewhere in my life, to make up for that expenditure. This is how I look at it now. Each of us lives and works in a certain context. The sacrifices each of us makes will be different. 

This leads me to the thing I most want to ask you, to ask all the poets and writers I admire: How does this pandemic, the stay-at-home life it demands, change what you are writing? What sort of stories do we tell now?



March 31, 2020

Hi Amy,

Well, I am not Mormon, but I am a good old-fashioned Utah river guide and I can manage a 120-quart Gott cooler and all the food inside it into meals that allow not one single thing to go bad during a twenty-one-day river trip. My nickname on the river was “Oh Great Protectress of the Block Ice.” We all have our special skills to bring to bear. 

Letters are a good thing we have largely lost, though my dear friend Fenton Johnson writes them still, meaning, he never took a break, and it is one reason I think that our friendship has stayed so dear across the years and miles. You and I would not be learning about each other in this particular way without this pandemic, nor would we be learning about ourselves in this particular way. 

For me the “now” of “what sort of stories do we tell now” has had a long run up. One “now” after which the writing could never be the same was Trump’s election. I am the child of a violent, alcoholic, physically and sexually abusive malignant narcissist (with a little borderline personality disorder on the side) who resembles Trump in so many ways that after three years of Trump I can scarcely remember my father. Climate change and our growing awareness of the imminence of the catastrophe and our roles in it has been kind of a rolling “now” over the last eight to ten years. Also, in that time, I have had the life-altering opportunity to teach in the Low-Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, in a community that, depending on how you measure, is roughly 75% Native American. There I have learned a thing or two about the history of my country (not that I was completely naive before), I have learned how denial and the whitewashing of history is embedded so deep within us, so deep inside our very language, that it feels like a kind of continuous excavation to get anywhere near the actual America where we reside, to understand the crimes it/we are committing every day. (Yesterday, not only did the government give polluters license to pollute here in this moment when everybody is just for the love of God trying to breathe, but it also moved to disestablish the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation on Cape Cod as some sort of third class land grab.)

I’m not saying the virus isn’t huge. Here are the numbers of the dead, a fraction of what will be the total. Here we are in our houses, for weeks, with no thought of leaving. But because of my experience with my father, I knew Trump would not be satisfied until he had caused massive, unimaginable damage (until he shot someone on 5th avenue and got away with it). All the novels and memoirs I was reading from the IAIA students detailed the brokenness of our systems so thoroughly I would never be able to unsee those schisms. Late stage capitalism indeed

The pandemic feels inevitable, doesn’t it? Isn’t it the natural expression of greed and corruption gone completely unrestrained? 

So my work, since Trump, since Kavanaugh, since Greta’s trip across the ocean, since my own trip to the fracking fields of North Dakota….well, on the one hand there is an urgency, and a kind of freedom in that urgency to speak out, to not be polite, a kind of if not now, when? But there are also just a shit ton of things that feel not all that worth writing about now. I know that gets tricky. I know that most stories can be made to matter, or I used to know that. I said a long time ago, after Cowboys Are My Weakness came out and I was accused of setting feminism back fifty years (for heaven’s sake), that I believed that feminism is meaningless if it is not every woman’s right to her own story, whatever that story may be. On the other hand, what I say to myself about every thirty seconds when I am at IAIA, is “Shut the fuck up for a minute, white girl, this is not your time to talk.”

To answer much more simply, it is hard to write, these weeks, about anything that is not in some way COVID related. I am working on a collection of short stories these last couple years, and my character, Maggie, is a retired clinical psychologist who used to work with lifers in maximum security prisons and even super maxes, and now she trains young PsyD’s who are about to go into the prison. (These stories came out of an opportunity I had to work with eight lifers on storytelling at the California Men’s Colony.) I was thinking last night that Maggie has exactly the right attitude for a good COVID story. I feel lucky to not be so deep into a book, in other words, that it can’t accommodate what is happening now. 

I love how you described putting your students back in their bodies. I take, in a way, the opposite approach, where I refuse to let them (in first draft) say anything about themselves at all. I make them find themselves in an object, a stretch of river, or the bark of a tree, or the face of the woman at the checkout line at Walmart. Nouns, nouns, nouns, I tell them, I want nothing but the nouns you encounter, and when you can make me feel how you experience those nouns through little more than your descriptions of them, I will be able to see you inside/through the objects themselves. 

I made some carbon cuts too. Not having children was the big one, but I keep my thermostat at sixty in the winter, and I don’t have a clothes dryer. I bought a used Prius strictly for the non-snowy months to get me to the Denver airport and back. I always add the carbon offset tax to my plane ticket on the United site…these things feel pathetic when I line them up this way. And I love love love to go, I cannot lie. And when I am in a brand new landscape the writing is relatively effortless. A new place makes me want to move my pen like nothing else. Three weeks ago I would have said if I stopped flying around my writing would suffer (to say nothing of my psyche). But after three weeks looking hard at the familiar, I am not as sure that is true. Two months from now it may have flipped back the other way. But there is much to be learned from this semi-confinement. That I am sure of. 

None of us knows where this will end, or what will remain of the lives we have known when it is over. I feel like my job right now is to focus on the nouns. The guy at the gas station who told me Bill Gates invented the virus in a laboratory; my dog Henry, set free in the canyon, following his nose; today’s walk up to the Ivy Creek Trailhead, two hours during which no plane passed overhead; this morning’s avocado eggs with the very last of last summer’s green chilies; my five-year-old hen, delivering me the first egg in six months, since she started growing her winter feathers, doing her part to help the pandemic. I think we may have lambs in a week or two, and that will be another adventure. 

What about you? What are you writing? What are you feeling urged to write? I tried most of the afternoon to work on an essay and got mostly nowhere, but in correspondence the words come more easily. Perhaps we will all emerge from the pandemic, those of us who do, with books of letters…that could be beautiful, don’t you think? How we were, together apart.




April 2, 2020

Good morning Pam,

How we were, together apart. Reading this last line of your letter last night had me weeping—one part grief, one part mad joy. Just days ago, the Internet often represented isolation and now it’s the agent of infinite intimacies. And that dime turn is the thing now, isn’t it? So many topics I thought I would write now feel trite, irrelevant. I too, find myself stepping aside with the thought that it’s time for the privileged white folks to step off center stage and let other stories and voices come forward. 

But that’s not quite right, is it? Our stories still matter. Who are we to know which stories will change the world? What if Cowboys Are My Weakness is the thing the that opens some white girl’s eyes to possibilities beyond the mall, suburbia? What if it leads her to make and tend her own fire? What if she learns to love the land, enough to speak on its behalf? To learn of its true history—the way it was stolen from Native people who were, in the process, victims of genocide? Without that trail of stories to follow, she might never know she’s hogging the stage.

I am one of those privileged white girls whose life was changed by two stories about privileged white people in the wilderness: one was Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and the other was Cowboys Are My Weakness. Solitaire was what turned me into a wilderness activist. (Ironically, where your first book was criticized for not being feminist enough, my book that responded to Desert Solitaire was criticized for being too feminist—a real ball-biter, which baffles me.) But Cowboys was a book that had me returning to what I was raised with—hunting, in particular. I too was the daughter of a narcissist and abuser. My father was an alcoholic and although he wasn’t overtly physically violent, he was still sexually abusive and reckless as hell with me. The last thing I wanted was to spend a day in the duck blind with him, or go to elk hunt camp with his buddies who were also alcoholics. He never forgave me for not going.

Then I read Cowboys and, oh, how I related. I had managed to make my own packstring of terrible romantic relationships that all fell apart while climbing or canyoneering or fighting fires. Your stories helped me realize that these dysfunctional if not abusive affairs were modeled on my relationship with my father. This epiphany led to me climbing long routes with other women, hunting with other women. Eventually I made better choices about men too—as partners both in love and adventure. Through this I grew more marbled into the land. It became less about me and more about the whole of the natural world. This led to Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shelland that led to me wanting to know more about the real Native Utahns who were so displaced from lands I had been led to believe were mine by birth—not only as an American but as a sixth-generation Mormon. Soon I was reading Simon Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo. 

Holding all of this, I wrote Desert Cabal as a response to Desert Solitaire, and this was on the heels of Trump, Kavanaugh, Me Too. It was after five Tribes came together to advocate for lasting protection of the Bears Ears. What an experience, to see so many white writers and public lands advocates defer to the Tribes’ coalition, to Native visions and voices. The movement was what forged my friendship with Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, an Ute Mountain Ute public lands activist and all-around gem of a human being. She wrote such a beautiful epilogue for Cabal. She joined me on book tour, and our friendship has grown—by sharing both causes and stories. 

My point: it is through stories that I evolved as a human, an author, an activist. White stories saved my ass—I was a terrible version of myself before books like yours and Abbey’s. Through them, I found my place in the wild; it was no longer the domain of my father. I grew past his example and kept going. I learned to hold the whole of the wild, the people born to it, in a more expansive and less entitled way. 

Does this mean I am free of prejudice, of entitlement, of hypocrisy? Oh, how I wish! But at least I now know that there is so much I don’t know. And that seems like a good place to be—especially now, as we turn to a future awash with uncertainty. 

So what am I writing now? I’ve had this second memoir festering for over a decade, and up until now, I have never been able to get right. It’s about how a woman like me—with my need to wander in the wild—managed to be confined at home with a severely epileptic child. In this new age of dire conditions, I almost gave up on the book entirely, because as hard as our reality is, my predicament seemed so minor in comparison to the larger issues of what is at stake, what threatens global survival. And yet this personal story is part of the panoramic one; my daughter’s seizures are caused by an autoimmune disease—and her body attacking itself is very much a product of this poisoned, imbalanced world. My sense of captivity as a mother also speaks, I think, to how unnatural we’ve made motherhood, by relegating it to a domestic sphere.

So I scrapped the first draft, the chapter outline. I’m starting over, mid-pandemic. Because everything has changed. There is only this place, crawling with zoonotic viruses. There is only this place, where what used to seem essential—good French roast, a dental cleaning every six months, camping with friends on a certain stretch of river—has been replaced, literally, with breath. Can my lungs get enough air if I am infected with COVID-19? Will that air be breathable, given the pollution from cars and factories, given the smoke from such vast wildfires?

It’s my turn to share a dirty little secret—although perhaps that’s all we’ve been doing here. I live for dystopian narratives. My copy of The Road is in tatters. But as much as I love that book, it’s a book in which the mother checks out—which in a sense, vilifies her—and the rest of the story is about survival, and going it alone. My complaint with it is similar to my complaint with Desert Solitaire: It’s a singular masculine narrative. Lately, I’ve turned instead to world-gone-to-hell works by women. There is Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living GodOctavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus. I have read Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From three times. It’s like The Road, but from the mother’s perspective. The mother who chose to live, to breastfeed her kid through the oceans rising and flooding Britain—with everyone headed for the Scottish Highlands. What I love about these books is what I love about what is happening in our letters, on social media: the intimacies, the cultivation of creativity. The love and nurturing of one another. And, in some, the hope that the natural world will recover. 

Two Christmases ago, my daughter and husband sighed when I gifted them each with one of those buckets full of a months’ worth of meals with a crazy long shelf-life. All the women in my family have always obeyed the Mormon Church’s counsel to keep two years’ worth of food and supplies on hand, and after Trump was elected and climate change made itself more apparent to the general populous, it seemed like a good idea to stock up as well as step up support for local farmers and ranchers. Later that day, Ruby logged into a doomsday prepper site, from which she made a list of freeze-dried sweet things with a long shelf life. She printed the list, handed it to me. It was titled “Desserts for the Apocalypse.”

Yes, we must not minimize this pandemic, which, as you point out, was inevitable—although how many lives will be lost or rendered barely worth living, was not. And we certainly shouldn’t adopt Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake,” with regard to those who are hit hardest by climate collapse, species extinctions, the one percent supporting tyrants as leaders. No, this is no dystopian fiction, no single nation’s revolution. But what sweetness might we find here, in this unprecedented era? What basic nouns now taste like confections?

Home. Soup. Stories. 

Spotted Owl. Soap.

Egg. Sky. Ballot. 


About the Authors:

Amy Irvine is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her work has appeared in Orion, High Country News, High Desert Journal, Rock & Ice, and Red Rock Testimony—an anthology that was instrumental in Obama’s establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land (2008), received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and the Colorado Book Award—while the Los Angeles Times wrote that it “might very well be Desert Solitaire’s literary heir.” Irvine teaches nonfiction in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes on a remote mesa in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century among other anthologies. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA Award for contemporary fiction, the Evil Companions Literary Award and several teaching awards. She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is Professor of English at UC Davis, and co-founder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

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