It began as a nifty idea for Orion Magazine in late March of 2020 as the nation entered the first wave of stay-at-home orders in response to the growing pandemic. “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,” described the introduction for the series, dubbed “Together Apart.”
First up were Amy Irvine (Trespass, Desert Cabal) and Pam Houston (Deep Creek, Cowboys Are My Weakness). The pair of stellar, earth-conscious writers had never met. Their letters, which started on March 28 and ended on May 7, are now available in Air Mail—Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place from Torrey House Press. The 163 pages—11 letters each way—offer brisk, tantalizing exchanges that bristle with energy, ideas, and insights that range from personal to regional to global.
“In a culture defined by Twitter and the twenty-four hour news cycle, writing letters felt like ritual—intimate, ancient—two barn owls calling to each other across a starry sky,” they write in the joint introduction. “Our letters became a life raft of clarity in days filled with increasing numbers of the dead and the incessant dismantling of our government from within. In them, we could rage and cry, hold each other up, and talk ourselves back into agency, back into hope, back into action.”
The exchanges—which do read like old-fashioned, stamped-envelope letters—capture the surreal time. Air Mail is far more than an epistolary time capsule, however. It’s two writers connecting, digging deep, and generating sparks. The letters are at times whimsical, funny, biting, angry, colorful, and touching.
In the opening missive, Houston acknowledges that their “sheltering in place” situations are hardly typical, with wilderness right out the front doors for each of them. “I’ve been thinking about the wildlands that get more use than ours, that grapple with a constant onslaught of people, and are suddenly emptied out,” she writes. “I picture the animals whispering to one another, Do you think they are all dead down there? Then I picture them all linking arms and dancing around the campfire.”
They share stories and thoughts about no-mask encounters with strangers, encounters with bears and elk, the ongoing flood of weird messaging out of Washington, D.C., the looming election, personal health details, abusive parents, previous boyfriends, current partners, each other’s books, other writers, dreams, medicines, gun safety, and the future of the planet.
“COVID is but a coming attraction for what the climactic catastrophe has in store for us,” writes Houston. “And now we know how utterly unprepared we are to meet whatever Mother Earth might serve up once she decides once and for all to shake her most determined parasite off her back. The decision to master the Earth instead of love her was made long ago by the same sort of men who are using COVID as an excuse to steal even more from her. And yet it is hard not to notice how happy she is without us out there, how blue the sky, how shimmery the trees.”
Irvine, in one powerful entry, writes about fear. Both Amy and her daughter Ruby deal with medical issues that require inhalers, so she’s keenly concerned about the airborne virus and the potential damage to their lungs.
There is rage. There is love. There is bitterness. There is hope.
We eavesdroppers do what we do best. We listen. And marvel at the ability of Pam Houston to Amy Irvine to express themselves—in the moment—with such visceral, engaging ideas and words.
(This review was published originally by the Four Corners Free Press in Cortez, Colorado.)