2012 Award Recipient: KATE HARRIS


BLUFF, UT – The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers has chosen Kate Harris of Vancouver, BC, as the recipient of the seventh annual Desert Writers Award. A grant of $3,000 will support work on her upcoming book, Cycling Silk, which encapsulates a ten-month-long bicycle trip through ten countries that lie along the ancient “Silk Road” of Marco Polo fame. This trek was accomplished late last year in the company of another female cyclist. The two of them, Harris writes, traveled 10,000 kilometers of alpine desert ecosystems between Turkey and India, or in her words, “From the Caucasus to the Karakoran mountains, and on the Ustyurt, Pamir, and Tibetan plateaus in between.”

The central theme of the book revolves around borders, “the boundaries that atlases depict and armies enforce,” she said. Harris and her cycling partner “spent months in each region learning the lay of the land, tracking migratory species like Marco Polo sheep and Saiga antelope across their transboundary ranges, and interviewing local people, wildlife biologists, and government officials—all to better understand how borders impact the integrity of wild species and spaces.” 

As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, Kate earned a Master’s in the history of science, focusing on exploration and geopolitics in contested mountain borderlands. Earlier she studied biology as a Morehead scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill, and later earned another Master's in geobiology at MIT. Her “Silk Road” project grows from that earlier work but is in no sense planned as an academic treatise. 

She states: "I am writing a literary nonfiction book that aims to bring the Silk Road’s stunning, complicated borderlands to vivid life in minds and hearts. For this is wilderness conservation’s most crucial project: making people fall in love with wild places, making deserts and mountains more than merely backdrop. Fusing conservation field research with creative nonfiction, and natural history with adventure, this book will throw the contours of the Silk Road’s desert places into sharp relief, and in the process, inspire people everywhere to think beyond borders." 

Harris applied twice before and was a finalist in 2011. Selection Committee Chair Don Snow said, “This year’s application is by far her best. It is apparent that her book proposal has progressed, and her writing has become sharper, warmer, and more focused.” 

A group of four Meloy Fund board members comprised the 2012 Award Committee.  Panel members were deeply impressed with her work. Ann Walka of Flagstaff, Arizona, noted how well Harris pulled together “a tapestry of many threads,” taking note of the work of “other, earlier explorers of high mountains and plateau deserts and weaving those stories into her own.”

Jake Lodato of Malaga, Washington, said Harris’ project is timely, “focused as it is on geographies that would have been alien to American readers ten years ago but are now, because of major world events, on the minds of all who pay attention to the news.”

Crystine Miller of Eugene, Oregon, applauded the strong scientific foundations that undergird the writing.  “I’m so impressed at how this writer can inform without any interruption or break in the beautiful lyricism of the work.”

The selection committee agreed that among this year’s applicants, “Cycling Silk” was most reminiscent of Ellen Meloy’s work, in its personality, daring, and imaginative scope.

Upon receiving the award, Harris said, "Ellen Meloy writes of wild things—herself included—with such dazzle, wit, and wonder. From the astonishing poetry of her words to the soaring, exploring life and spirit they reflect, she is a role model of mine in more than simply a literary sense. I am so honoured to be associated with her legacy through this award."

The Ellen Meloy Fund gave its first award of $1,000 in 2006. As the fund has grown, the board has increased the grant award. With news that a $100,000 goal had been reached in 2011, the award went to $3,000 this year.

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 Burrows Association Medal for 2007. An earlier work, The Anthropology of Turquoise, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. 

a fool for turquoise - Kate Harris shares what the Desert Writers Award means to her.

Visit kateharris.ca to learn more about Cycling Silk.