2019 Award Recipient - Leath Tonino


 The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers has chosen Leath Tonino of Crested Butte, Colorado, as the recipient of the fourteenth annual Desert Writers Award. A grant of $5,000 will support work on his writing proposal, titled Strange Immersions: Five Deep Dives into Lands Cut from the Grand Staircase—Escalante Map.

Mr. Tonino has published more than 135 articles and essays in a variety of journals and magazines.  His work as a writer frequently takes him outdoors and into mountains, plains, and deserts across the U.S.  He is predominantly a writer of the wild backcountry wherever he can find it.

“I sold my first magazine story in 2008,” he said, “when I was an undergrad studying philosophy and ecology at Colorado College.  Ever since, I’ve supported myself primarily as a freelance writer, contributing essays, interviews, and reported stories, along with some fiction and poetry, to a number of publications, such as Orion, Outside, Tricycle, New England Review, Men's Journal, and The Sun.”

His first book, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (Trinity University Press, 2018), he explained, “attempts to glorify the inexhaustibility of Vermont, where I was born and raised, by documenting repeated forays into the wilderness and history of the place, each foray providing a different lens and a different understanding.  I traveled the length of Vermont seven times by seven modes of locomotion – hike, hitch, ski, bike, paddle, swim, fly – and wrote essays for each trip.”

A second book, The West will Swallow You, “brings this same spirit of exploration, celebration, and wonder to the American West,” he said.  The book will appear in autumn 2019, also from Trinity Press.

Mr. Tonino’s proposal to the Meloy Fund sought grant support to allow him to take five week-long solo trips into portions of the Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument which the Trump Administration has removed from the original boundaries created by President Obama.

The Trump Administration reduced the 1.9 million acre monument by fifty percent.  Tonino pointed out that a recent Bureau of Land Management document indicates that some 700,000 acres of formerly protected land in the GSE will be opened specifically to mining and drilling.   

“I want to make five deep dives,” said Tonino, “each a week long, into the map’s lost spaces. I won’t fast but neither will I bring GPS, camera, phone, book, tent, stove, or headlamp.” 

Mr. Tonino sees his work as being much in the spirit of writer Ellen Meloy.  He said, “Her work is notable for the strength of her voice on the page: reverence and irreverence, fact balanced with story, beautiful original language in every paragraph.  I’ve always been drawn to voice, as both reader and writer, and yet there are certain homogenizing influences in our literary culture –  subtle and not-so-subtle demands to sand off the rough edges and weird bumps of prose.  When it comes to investigating the human relationship to the rest of nature, I believe we need to push away from the center, into the hinterlands of unique sensibility and idiosyncratic expression – that’s often what makes us question and think, and that’s what Ellen inspires me to attempt.”

In addition to Mr. Tonino, two other applicants qualified as finalists in the 2019 contest: Kathryn Wilder of Dolores, Colorado, for a project titled “These Seasons of Disappointment,” and Samantha Karas of Marfa, Texas, for “The Funnel.”   

A group of five Meloy Fund board members comprised the 2019 Awards Committee.  They included Don Snow and Jake Lodato, both from Washington State; Ann Walka of Flagstaff, Arizona; Jullianne Ballou of Davis, California; and Edie Lush of London, England.

The Ellen Meloy Fund supports writers whose work reflects the spirit and passion for the desert embodied in Meloy’s writing and in her commitment to a “deep map of place.” Before her untimely death in 2004, Meloy published four books, numerous articles, and radio commentaries. Her last book, Eating Stone, won the John Burroughs Association Medal for 2007. An earlier work, The Anthropology of Turquoise, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.