Ellen Meloy Fund


Imagination and the Loss of the Wild

By Ellen Meloy
Pantheon (2005)

November slides toward December, tilting the balance of light further toward night. When I find a group of bighorns, I more often watch them in shadow than in sunlight. The canyon air turns frigid inside its chamber of stone. Cleared of much of its silt, the river flows verdigris against banks of salmon-colored sand, edged with the white lace of ice. 

~  From Eating Stone



For four seasons, Ellen Meloy kept company with a group of desert bighorn sheep she called the Blue Door Band; EATING STONE: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild (Pantheon Books/September 13, 2005/$26) is a record of that year, written in Meloy's characteristically graceful and good-natured prose, as 'spirited and intelligent, as vivid and vibrant as the land itself is dry and spare' (Boston Globe).

Desert bighorn sheep are animals whose natural territory continues shrinking with the development of the West, who suffer from attacks by wild predators as well as from domestic sheep diseases, who often seemingly become extinct in one area, only to reappear years later. Tying together observation with scientific study, mediation with detailed description, Meloy brings to life the world of the bighorn sheep—the personalities of the rams and ewes, the sight of lambs jumping five feet straight up, the steepness of the canyon walls that the sheep run down with gravity-defying lightness. She helps transport part of the Blue Door Band to a separate canyon, so that if something happens in one place, the other sheep might still survive. She eats a ram that has been killed, and writes "the taste of meat lingers on my tongue. Rain and river. Bedrock to soil to plant to milk to bone, muscle, and sinew. I am eating my canyon. Eating stone."

With humor and compassion, Meloy reveals the essential relationship between animals and humans, the deep bond created by history and evolution—alongside her sadness that the world of the wild is fast ending. "Animals give us a voice," she writes, "They map a world we want to live in. Without them, we are homeless."

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Ellen Meloy's Eating Stone is an incomparable work of power, beauty, wisdom, tenderness, and great humor. This book reminds me of what it is I love about reading great books: time stops, and a deeper understanding, a deeper way of being, inhabits the reader. Ellen is missed deeply, and all the more so when reflected in the beauty of these pages. 
Rick Bass, author of Caribou Rising

In nearly every writer's life, one book stands out from the others. While all of the books might be fine, one proclaims the writer’s energy and passion, all of her heart and all of her soul. Eating Stone is that book for Ellen Meloy. It is her prayer, her elegy, her song for mountain sheep and for all of life in this wondrous, breakable world. 
—Nora Gallagher, author of Practicing Resurrection and Things Seen and Unseen 

If you are lucky enough to glimpse the bighorn sheep, invisible and nearly invisible along the ledges and against the rocky hillsides, and if you are watching from a very great distance, you may see her, a lanky wind-whipped woman, moving among the herd, touching flanks, taking notes. And when we have lost the bighorn sheep forever—through destruction of habitat and other thieves—they will still reside here, as shimmering holograms in Ellen Meloy's moving story of the Blue Door Band. 
—Jo Ann Beard, author of The Boys of My Youth

Through the lens of mountain sheep, Ellen Meloy looked on the earth and saw that it was good. About her fellow humans, she was less pleased, yet compassionate and wry. There's fire in this prose, the energy of a writer in love with language and with our stony, watery planet.
—Scott Russell Sanders, author of Hunting for Hope

In telling the story of a lost flock of mountain sheep, Meloy leads us through that 'spellbound threshold between humanity and the rest of nature.' There, in the radiance of her patient, enthralling observation, we encounter the mortality of the natural world, that increasingly familiar place where 'deep landscape falls farther and farther away, always at the point of loss.
—Honor Moore, author of Red Shoes

Kirkus Review/ August 1, 2005 

Meloy, who died in 2004, reveals how wild animals, encountered in wild settings, impart beauty and meaning to our lives. The late laureate of the Colorado Plateau, Meloy (The Anthropology of Turquoise, 2002, etc.) here embarks on a quest to commune with desert bighorn sheep in the many habitats that support them.

But this is no more about sheep alone than Peter Matthiessen's is about snow leopards or Herman Melville's about whales, for Meloy is hot on the trail of what it is that happens when humans lose their connections with nature, and she offers gentle instructions for reconnecting: "The Canada geese will adjust for you the changing length of daylight as winter deepens. They begin and end days along the river, and that is all you need to know about time."

Sometimes her quest takes her close to her home in southeastern Utah, where those desert rivers flow; at other times she ventures farther afield, to California and Arizona, to see how bighorn fare in nearby climes. Unusually for American naturalists, she also wanders down to Baja California, visiting places like the Cuesta del Infiernillo, a desert canyon switchbacked by a highway with "vehicle carcasses stacked at the foot of the cliffs like dead Japanese beetles"-perfect sheep country, in other words.

When she is not observing that the human brain weighs less than a pot roast or that boojum trees resemble upside-down electrocuted carrots, Meloy pays exquisitely close attention to the contours of the desert and the behaviors of the animals that inhabit it, marveling at the myriad ways those creatures have found to survive. Underlying her prose is a current of cheer and optimism; the world may be a screwy place, she hints, but we can learn to treat it better.

A lovely parting gift.


EATING STONE WAS NOMINATED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FOR NONFICTION: On January 14, 2006, the Board of the National Book Critics Circle selected the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards for the publishing year 2005 in the categories of fiction, general nonfiction, biography, autobiography, criticism and poetry.

The winners were announced on March 3, 2006, at the organization's 32nd annual awards ceremony. Ellen Meloy was recognized as a finalist in the General Nonfiction category.

The National Book Critics Circle is the country's leading organization of book critics and book review editors, with some 500 members. It was founded in 1974 to honor book criticism in all media, and to create a means for critics, reviewers and their editors to communicate with one another about their profession.

The NBCC website is bookcritics.org.

"Read Ellen Meloy's Eating Stone and you'll want to run out to buy every other book she wrote before her sudden and unexpected death in November, 2004. The artist and writer's books have won several literary awards, and time will likely show her to have been one of our finest natural-history writers. Her knowledge of the natural world is deep, and her prose breathtakingly beautiful and often startling. Here she leads us through the history of desert sheep from the Pleistocene onward, their predators, behaviour, and the points where their lives intersect with those of humans as evidenced in prehistoric petroglyphs and tribal myths." -- Annie Proulx in The Globe and Mail

"Meloy, like the best naturalists, is a keen observer of the landscape and the habitat it provides . . . She is concerned with the impact of the loss of the wild on humans' ability to exist, once wondering if losing species will 'leave us brain damaged.'" --Publishers Weekly 

 Eating Stone is included on Outside Magazine reviewer Bruce Barcott's list of favorite books for 2005. Read or listen to his reviews on the NPR website (featured on Living on Earth).

"Meloy pays exquisitely close attention to the contours of the desert and the behaviors of the animals that inhabit it, marveling at the myriad ways those creatures have found to survive. . . A lovely parting gift." (Read full review)—Kirkus Reviews


  • Amazon - Publisher's Weekly and Booklist reviews

  • OnEarth Magazine - Review by Florence Williams

  • Patagonia - Field Reports (Fall 2005 catalog) - excerpt (Ellen used to write copy for Patagonia catalogues)

  • New York Times (10/15/05)- "A Vibrant Thinker on the Trail of Bighorn Sheep," by Claudia La Rocco.

  • High Country News (10/29/05) - "Meloy's last message: from bighorn country," by Stephen J. Lyons.