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for people who care about the West

Meloy's last message — from bighorn country

 

Author Ellen Meloy died unexpectedly at her home in Bluff, Utah, last Nov. 4. The gifted writer, illustrator and environmentalist leaves behind an impressive canon of nature writing that includes Raven’s Exile, The Last Cheater’s Waltz and The Anthropology of Turquoise, a book short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.

Eating Stone, completed just before her death at the age of 58, recounts Meloy’s close observations of a nearby band of desert bighorn sheep she names the Blue Door Band. Meloy believes that if we don’t "witness other species in their world," it will lead to "an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely." Meloy is eloquent, passionate and convincing in conveying how the close field study of bighorn sheep leaves her less lonely.

"Attention, fierce or dreamy, affixes my butt to sheep country, to long hours on bare limestone slabs in chilly wind. Sometimes the sheep are completely boring, sometimes their animation moves me beyond words. Our ‘companionship’ closes the distance. I am here to learn something. I will need this knowledge. Time is running out."

Meloy travels across the Southwest and to her native California in her pursuit of the "stone eaters," as the sheep are called. In New Mexico’s San Andres Mountains — part of the White Sands Missile Range — she learns that only one ewe remains from the area’s indigenous band. The herd has been decimated, not by atomic tests or screeching jet bombers, but primarily by Puma concolor, the mountain lion.

Whether it intends to be or not, Eating Stone is an optimistic book. The Blue Door Band, thought to be extinct in the 1960s, eventually grows to a level where two dozen of them are transplanted to another section of Utah’s magnificent canyon country. And it is ironic that this recovery was aided by the tools of our modern world — helicopters, four-wheel drive trucks, radio collars and DNA tests.

"Desert bighorns may bring you to places where they live," Meloy writes, "but they may not show themselves to you. This does not matter. What matters is this: Look."