Last words from a desert scribe

Essayist Ellen Meloy’s posthumous collection is profound, outspoken and hilarious.

 

Who hasn’t wondered what a favorite writer might still have bestowed on the world if not silenced too soon? What fan doesn’t long for more — letters, a journal, unpublished fragments, even an annotated grocery list?

Devotees of the late southern Utah essayist Ellen Meloy need no longer wait. The sketches gathered in Seasons predate her untimely 2004 death by up to 10 years and are not, strictly speaking, last words. But for those who haven’t yet discovered Meloy, they can serve as a gateway drug to her profound, sometimes deceptively breezy work. Seasons’ opening salvo, the thoughtful but hilarious “I Stapled My Hair to the Roof,” encapsulates her approach. Outspoken and passionate, Meloy skewers grandstanding, mindless consumption, militarism, patriarchy: “In pioneer times, while the men mumbled about posses and punched each other’s lights out, the grandmothers of my Anglo neighbors simply got off their horses and took care of business.” She makes an absolute gas out of much that is ghastly. Meloy’s eloquent levity, however, was no mere parlor trick; the humor sugarcoats the pills we’ll have to swallow if our planet is to heal. It threads through all of her books, even The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, her 1999 account of a nuclear road trip. Such light-handedness has been lacking in too-often dour and preachy “nature writing” ever since Edward Abbey rowed into the back-of-beyond, followed all too soon by this Bluff, Utah, philosopher-clown.

Seasons’ gems all originated as radio pieces. The “Roof” story in particular showcases Meloy’s structural genius. Stapled between her gables, she contemplates the view rippling concentrically outward from the house to include the San Juan River, Diné Bikéya (the Navajo heartland), the Colorado Plateau, Earth, and the universe — a mirror of this writer’s bio-centric orientation. In the essay’s final scene, she flips the perspective, seeing herself through the eyes of gyre-borne vultures: a speck in the landscape, a “two-legged smudge on a plywood platter.”

A bighorn sheep scales the rock face enclosing Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Utah.
Blaine Harrington III / Alamy Stock Photo

Among countless other things, Seasons’ 26 one-to-two-page vignettes portray quotidian acts: birding, fishing, boating, listening, voting, herding lizards, chauffeuring dough, and — yes — watching TV. Chop wood, carry water. Go to the town dump, but pay attention; “If your Tevas melt, it’s probably not a good day to scavenge.” Like the critters and plants Meloy cherished, nothing was too commonplace to escape her laser-beam attention. She kept returning to desert bighorn sheep, which she personalized and immortalized in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild (2005). They, like their domesticated cousins, make an appearance in Seasons. The tame ones bounce around a truck bed “like berserk piñatas,” alas, slaughterhouse-bound.

For this reviewer, a former Moab guide, the magic portal into Meloy’s universe was Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River, her 1994 distillation of eight years of floats through Desolation Canyon with her husband, Mark, a Bureau of Land Management ranger. It is hard to resist an author who so downplays her considerable outdoor skills, who named one place “Deviated Septum Riffle” after her oar struck bottom and its shaft was rammed into her nose.

The curiosity of this sagebrush sage delighted in the bizarre. Who knew that European classical violin virtuosos palmed toads before a performance so that neurotoxins from the amphibians’ glands would numb their own and prevent sweating? Or that medieval science posited that geese hatch from mussels? Meloy’s own behavior displayed streaks of eccentricity when she crossed barbed wire and in socks and pajamas thrashed through tamarisks in the dark, alerting geese about to be ambushed. Or when she swapped notes tucked under windshield wipers with a literary stalker, as recounted in The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. That collection, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist, also brought her visual verve to the fore. A plein-air watercolorist and one-time art curator, she’d studied at the Sorbonne, so it is no surprise that her writing sparkled with haiku-like lines, conjuring scenes worthy of Van Gogh. Sunbathers’ skin “blushes in lambent coral air or ripples in a stab of lemony sunlight.” One wishes samples of Meloy’s paintings were at hand to match with her writing. Seasons’ few black-on-white drawings give only inklings. Her artistic training taught her patience, to just sit and watch the light change and notice nuances — terracotta, blood red, salmon, vermilion, the “temperament of iron” scoring mesa flanks.

This latest outing is a slim volume, but you shouldn’t be fooled. It telescopes decades spent exploring home and the desert, two terms that for Meloy became synonyms. Stuff it in your pocket, perch atop The Goosenecks or the Raplee Anticline, where wind gusts can make the roots of your hair ache. Relish it, and if you’re lucky, some bighorn sheep might pop up from the limestone, “all springs and coils.”

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. An anthropologist and wilderness guide, he also dabbles in photography.  Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.