Tribute by Four Corners Free Press
Sometimes the desert exhilarates me to the point of soaring. Other times I am so heartsick I cannot bear up against the despair, a palpable aching longing. Longing for this wild beauty to last and for me to never die and no longer be able to feel, see, hear, taste and breathe it. A yearning to die before the desert's wild heart is lost so that I do not have to witness it. A longing to be a better person, for the world to be a better place, for us to truly measure up to this land, for this land to not be a battlefield of anger and greed." —Ellen Meloy, "The Angry Lunch Café," The Anthropology of Turquoise
Anyone familiar with Ellen Meloy's work knows that she loved the desert, the rivers, the land. She was a woman with an incredible mastery of the English language who used that gift to write about the places that she loved.
Anyone familiar with her as a person knows that she was funny, caring, passionate, clever and unique.
I was privileged enough to fall into both categories, and am therefore saddened on so many levels to say that Ellen died early in November.
My initial encounter with Ellen was when I headed down the Green River through Desolation Canyon for the first time. A friend handed me Raven's Exile and said, "Take this. Enjoy." Wow, did I enjoy. Raven's Exile is Ellen Meloy's account of her life on the Green with her husband, Mark, who was the river ranger at the time. She became intimate with the canyons, the river, the wildlife; the world of Desolation. She tasted the river, made pies from local mulberries, and was visited by a cougar in her sleeping bag one night. She approached it all with curiosity and humor. The title is a tribute to the fact that there were no ravens, one of the West's most prolific birds, in Desolation Canyon.
I traveled with her through the pages of her book as I rowed our boat down the river. Sometimes, being completely overwhelmed with the beauty and the magnitude of the canyon I was rendered speechless—unable to put into words how I was feeling or what I was witnessing. I would open up Raven's Exile and feel like here was someone who understood. Her words, her sentiments, her laughs, became my best friends on that trip. Of course, I also spent every day looking for ravens.
At the end of her season, and at the end of the book, after wondering all spring, summer and fall where the big black birds were, Mark sees one and calls Ellen to let her know. Ellen's response," Why those two-bit, no-good, lunchmeat-breathed, bunny-sucking anarchist featherbombs, they slip in as soon as we're out the door."
It was shortly after this trip that I had the opportunity to actually meet the woman. And there began a friendship, too short lived I must say, that I will appreciate for the rest of my days. As I got to know her, I began to appreciate her writing even more.
After reading Raven's Exile a few hundred times more, I decided that I would move on to her second book, The Last Cheater's Waltz. Here, she focuses on an area closer to her community in Southeastern Utah. Having found a yellow rock near her home and assuming it is radioactive waste, she proceeds to explore the impact of nuclear testing on her beloved homeland. Quite a serious subject, but, again, written with wit and human-ness. (The "yellow-cake" turns out to be a chunk of asphalt.) Her passion for the desert and the mysteries that it contains is ever-apparent. She begins the first chapter with "Any day, any time, I would without complaint travel seventy miles to see a claret cup cactus in bloom."
Ellen was incredibly intelligent. According to one friend, "She had the most brilliant mind." In addition to this brain, she had an incredible gift for detail. Kate Kearns, friend and devoted reader said, "She reminds me of what the poet Mary Oliver said, 'Attention is the beginning of devotion.' Ellen paid such close attention to details, to her surroundings, that she became devoted to her subject—the desert and the rivers." To read Ellen's work is to appreciate everything that she saw, heard and felt. Her love of detail combined with her humor makes her writing truly stand out.
Her incredible insight and talent led her to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her third book, The Anthropology of Turquoise. Turquoise is a series of essays that all relate to the color turquoise in some way or another; the stone, a bay in the Bahamas, swimming pools in California. She shares her own stories, the small details of her life, with a complete lack of self-consciousness. One of the books' chapters begins "I have just stapled my hair to the roof... The house, with me attached to its south flank faces a river bottom..." Ellen was always able to have a good laugh at herself.
Never one to take herself too seriously, she did take seriously the life of the desert and of the river. The San Juan River was her home; she knew it intimately; its moods, its foibles, its strengths and weaknesses. She was a fighter in the on going battle to protect these areas that she so loved. She put her heart and soul into reminding us that humans need a connection to nature. She epitomized this connection.
I share all of this with you because although Ellen has moved on, she has not left us. Those of us who loved her will continue to do so. She lives on through her writings and the way that she influenced so many people in her lifetime. Her books are a must-read for anyone who loves the desert and the rivers. She also has one more on its way. Just before she died she completed her fourth book, Eating Stone. It has yet to be released, but I await its arrival anxiously.
"I have seen so much of this desert, but I know so little. Its instruction is addictive. . .the desert's forms. . .feed an internal aesthetic as ingrained as instinct; they provide the perfect crucible for imagination's hunger." Ellen Meloy, Raven's Exile