Monday, December 08, 2014

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy

I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing fiction, so that I can talk to you about the incredible naturalist writer Ellen Meloy. I’ll be paying special attention to her last book, published shortly after she died in 2004, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, but each of her four nature-study books deserves to be read and praised. 

Meloy loved the desert, and especially the band of wild bighorn sheep thought for many years to be extinct. A sub-species of mountain sheep found only in the Four Corners area, Meloy named the little band she followed and watched for many years, the Blue Door band. Even in the time she was studying them, she remarks on their elusiveness, noting that on one particular sighting, the band disappeared into a crevice of rock, not to be seen again for many months. At the time, she thought they may have vanished forever.
For bighorns, topography is memory, enhanced by acute vision. They can anticipate the lands every contour—when to leap, where to climb, when to turn, which footholds will support their muscular bodies. To survive, this is what the band would have to do: make the perfect match of flesh to earth.
Meloy has the eye of an artist, and a facility with language that lets her word-paint for her readers  what she sees and understands about nature. Her first  college degree was in art, and upon graduation she became a wildlife illustrator until returning to school to get a Master’s degree in environmental science. There she met the love of her life and her eventual husband, Mark Meloy, a river ranger; their marriage and their love affair with nature continued until she died suddenly at fifty-eight in their home in Bluff, Utah.

Although Eating Stone is ostensibly about the Southern Utah big horn sheep, it is also simply  about beings of the desert, plants and animals. Her understanding of geologic history and biology shines forth on every page, and I found myself as astounded by her lyrical use of language as by her profound understanding of nature.
Home sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth  of them.
Meloy talks a lot about arctic big horns and the vanishing herds of desert big horns in Arizona and California. She even takes the reader on a side trip along the Baja peninsula with lively descriptions of its history and of the steady and rapid encroachment of modern living on that so recently wild land.

Although a passionate advocate of wilderness preservation and critic of environmental degradation caused by corporate greed, more and more golf courses, and expansion of dwellings onto wildlife habitat, it is more her love and understanding of wild things that comes out in her work. Given her travels and her tireless exploration of nature, she cannot but see and warn us of the perils of the future, and yet her voice is hopeful. As one critic notes, she  seems hopeful that the power of words (and of really looking) may change things one reader at a time.
…in the desert there is everything and there is nothing. Stay curious. Know where you are—your biological address. Get to know your neighbors, plants, creatures, who lives there, who died there, who is blessed, cursed, what is absent or in danger or in need of your help. Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.
She certainly took her own advice. Midway through this lovely book, I decided I would read everything she has written; let me mention the titles of her three other works. Raven’s Exile. A Season on the Green River; The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, art and spirit.

Meloy is warm, witty, deeply insightful and extraordinarily patient, as anyone must be who decides to see and understand the quiet life of these ruminant creatures who return year after year, decade after decade, eon after eon to the same lambing grounds, the same rutting grounds, who depend on expansive vision and quick vertical escape. As faithful as they are to place, they are also so careful that they may abandon a favorite feeding or sleeping ground forever because of one encounter with a helicopter or some other feared predator.
There is in that animal eye something both alien and familiar. There is in me, as in all human beings a glimpse of  the interior, from which everything about our minds has come.
Meloy has an acute eye for where we have come from and, I think, for where we are going.

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