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for people who care about the West

Tangled up in blue

  “It has been rightly said: Color is the first principle of place.”

A quick look across any desert reveals a lack of watery blues and leafy greens. But Ellen Meloy fills that void in her memoir, The Anthropology of Turquoise. She uses turquoise — the color and the mineral — to explore desert geology, flora and fauna, personal and cultural histories and destinies.

Connecting the Sierra Nevada of her grandmother’s life with the Utah redrock desert of her own, she finds turquoise coloring in pine needles, mountain faces, mines and reservoirs along the way. Meloy finds indigo in the azul maya dyes of Mayan civilizations during a vacation with her husband on the Yucatán Peninsula, and aquamarine in the oceans while exploring her family’s genealogy and history in the slave trade in the Bahamas. At moments, the constant recurrence of turquoise as mineral, pigment, sky or water feels stretched. But Meloy’s book reminds us that symbols of meaning and strength can be found wherever we seek them out.

According to Meloy, most people have severed their connections to the landscape by failing to submerse themselves in similar quests. Because of this, she writes, unrest permeates Westerners’ attitudes towards land management. She reminds us: “There are people who have no engaged conversation with the land whatsoever, no sense of its beauty or extremes or limits, and therefore no reason to question their actions in a place that is merely backdrop.”

The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit, Ellen Meloy. Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2002. Hardcover: $24. 324 pages.