Remembering Ellen by Elizabeth Grossman
On November 4, 2004 when Ellen Meloy died suddenly at her home in Bluff, Utah on the banks of the San Juan River, the desert lost one of its most passionate and eloquent advocates. The landscape Ellen loved came to life in her prose—in her books: Raven's Exile, The Last Cheater's Waltz and The Anthropology of Turquoise (which won the Utah Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize) and in her essays. Her writing is filled with exuberant and exquisitely vivid pictures of the charismatic and challenging amazement that is the desert, and a sharp and sly sense of irony and refreshingly irreverent humor. Ellen's work has a searing sense of ecological, social and political realities, and an enormous appreciation for the details of natural history. It is playful and profound but never self-important. When she wrote about floating a desert river you are there with her, gazing open-mouthed at the astounding scenery, laughing and whooping through the rapids, and wishing you never had to leave.
Ellen was born in California in 1946, graduated from high school in England, and studied in France and Italy, before earning a degree in art from Goucher College in Maryland, and later a masters in environmental studies from the University of Montana. She and her husband Mark, a river ranger, were married in 1985. Their life together was shaped by river seasons. Ellen did not merely observe the landscape and record it in her books; she actually lived those desert river canyons. As she wrote in Raven's Exile, "For two biophiliacs who have lived most of their life outdoors, no other life but River Life seems worthwhile."
"My home," Ellen wrote in The Last Cheater's Waltz, lies in "the southeastern Utah portion of the Four Corners, where the borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet. It is a geography of infinite cycles," where "Mesozoic rivers drown beneath rock and dune. Red sand and prickly history fill your boots unbidden. It is a land of absolutes, of passion and indifference, lush textures and inscrutable tensions." The county, she wrote, "is nearly as large as Belize, and you will not find a single traffic light within its borders…The predominant language in the laundromat is not English but an ancient Athabaskan tongue."
I met Ellen on the Green River in Utah completely by chance. We became friends and I visited Ellen and Mark first in Kenilworth, then in Bluff, and we went canyon exploring and on the river. When I think about Ellen, I think of the cedar-colored sandstone of Comb Wash, about looking up the canyon walls while paddling the Goose Necks of the San Juan and about bumping down the rapids of Desolation Canyon in an inflatable kayak. I think about sage and globe mallow, of cliff rose and juniper and of lizards clinging to swells of lichen spotted slickrock. I think of cactus blooming in improbable colors of pomegranates and watermelon. I think of Ellen's pen and ink drawings, her patience at coaxing to success a garden under the scorching Utah sun and of her wonderful laugh.
Ellen was one of my signposts for life—an inspiration and a reminder of how to be in this world. Sometimes I start to laugh just thinking about some of the things she's written; others make me shiver because they are so true. Her generosity was huge, her commitment to the people, places and principles she cared about unwavering and her sense of getting to the authentic heart of things without ever losing a sense of humor something I always keep tucked in the back of my mind. Ellen's generosity and friendship were as expansive as the landscape she reveled in.
When I first met Ellen, I lived in New York City. I had fallen in love with the Western landscape, and when I started to plot my escape from New York, Ellen was wonderful about egging me on. A staunch believer in exploration and adventure, she sent me a postcard—a picture of the Colorado Plateau's red rock canyons—that she called a "get-out-of-jail-free" card; if I was having trouble explaining my move, she'd be happy to help out. Ellen was one of the experienced writers I'd call for advice or an occasional sanity check and she was always wackily and utterly reassuring.
"Despite the obliteration of the natural world by environments entirely of human invention, despite the preponderance of lives now spent in artificial light, the human eye evolved in daylight . . . Our bodies are still profoundly timed to the heavens. Our perceptions remain our only internally generated map of the world. We are blood-tied to the landscape by the language of cells . . . . For me it is simply instinct, and perhaps this is all that a person can try to put into each of her days: attention to the radiance, a rise to the full chase of beauty." ~ Ellen wrote in The Anthropology of Turquoise.
Explaining how she was able to spend seasons on the river with Mark, Ellen wrote, "The BLM graciously allows me to accompany my husband on his job—as a volunteer. Quite frankly, nothing short of death would stop me. Even then I would haunt this place through eternity." I hope she does and expect she will. Her spirit is much needed.
Ellen's final book, Eating Stone, will be published in the fall of 2005 by Pantheon.
Reprinted with gracious permission of the publisher and author. This was the first issue of this new literary journal and can be found at highdesertjournal.com/.