Mourning the Loss by Dennis Lythgoe

I was saddened to hear of the untimely passing of Ellen Meloy, a noted naturalist, artist and energetic writer of the land, at the young age of 58.

A native of California, Meloy studied art at Goucher College and environmental science at the University of Montana. It was there she met her husband, Mark, a river ranger. And it was while driving back to California through Durango, Colo., that she discovered the Four Corners.

In my August 2000 interview with her, she said, "I pulled over to the side of the road to go to the ladies' room and stayed in the region a month. I called my family in California and said, 'I'll be late!' I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

That was the beginning of a love affair with the Four Corners—and Meloy was living in Bluff, Utah, when she died suddenly on Nov. 4.Over the years, Meloy wrote three books on the Colorado Plateau. The first, Raven's Exile: A Season on the Green River (1994), was the result of her curiosity about Desolation Canyon. "I had written a lot of notes about that beautiful and very wild canyon," she told me. "My husband and I took a series of river trips with lots of quiet time to observe."

In the book, she wrote, "A river nomad acquires peculiar idioms. An inability to sleep indoors. Brain death at the sight of neon. A release from the tedious barracudas of intellect so that what is left is entirely sensory, a measure of life I embrace." It earned Meloy the prestigious Whiting Foundation Award.

In 1999, she wrote The Last Cheater's Waltz, a collection of essays about the same region. In our interview, she said, "I found underlying this beautiful land is an inspiring history. I organized a map that took me all around the Four Corners, a quest to earn my place by knowing it. The metaphor for the atomic age is that such a beautiful place could become a location for destruction."

She was referring to atomic testing that has been done in the area. Walking around the White Sands missile range with a poet, she stopped to reflect on military technicians exploding "a large blast thermal simulator." She compared the 3,200-square-mile military reserve in its "stark beauty" with her home rock in Utah on the San Juan River.

It filled her with pleasure, she wrote, "and the entire spiny chunk of desert gives me the creeps. This deranged jungle of ironies coinhabits my skull like feathers and fireworks. My heart fills with stones. I am the mad aunt who laughs her head off at the funeral. There rises in me the most inappropriate hysteria in this most somber of places."

Her third book, The Anthropology of Turquoise, has become the most celebrated of all, having been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 2003. It includes a collection of stories about the Southwest and the Mojave Desert. She called the book "a little more personal than the others, a little more memoirish."

In a letter I wrote to the Utah Center for the Book, recommending it as the best nonfiction book produced in Utah in 2002 (a prize she won), I said, "This book reeks of color, adventure and memory. Ellen Meloy has transmitted her deepest feelings about landscape to the written page in such a way as to speak convincingly to the reader. In a day when almost anyone may pretend to write a book, Meloy has written one for the ages."

I noted that she blended some "eccentric adventures with the beauty of nature." Then I concluded that "This is the closest I've ever come to seeing beautiful prose successfully replace poetry."

She was recently finishing a new book, to be titled "Eating Stone."

Her nature writing was an effort to "rejuvenate the humanities." But on the other hand, she told me, "Maybe nature writing is just an excuse to write about anything."

A very disciplined writer, Meloy would get up every day at 4 or 5 a.m. to work because she felt more alert early in the morning. She would go outside with a "little torn-up notebook and write." Often she forgot to take a day off.

A voracious reader, who believed all good writers must be good readers, she was reading in bed when she died.
One can only imagine how much more beauty she would have brought into the world if she were given another 40 years.

Dennis Lythgoe 

Reprinted with permission from the author. 

TributesJon Reynolds