2013 Award Recipient: SARAH STEWART JOHNSON


The relentless red deserts of Mars resonate with meaning. They are places where no one has ever gone, and where no one alive today may ever go. How do we make sense of their silent wilderness? In my mind, the canon of desert literature is incomplete without them. … I hope [this project] will help readers appreciate this stark, compelling landscape, and to expand their understanding of what the desert is and where it can be found.

In short, using scenes from both Mars and from similarly harsh environments on Earth, the book will provide a meditation on, and a vivid description of, the stunning resiliency of life: how it can adapt to an environment, wedge into a crevasse, and hang on against all odds. 
—Sarah Stewart Johnson

BLUFF, UT – The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers has awarded Sarah Stewart Johnson of Cambridge, Mass., a $3,000 grant to support research and writing for Pale Red Dot, a work of creative nonfiction that will explore the connections between deserts on Earth and the environments of nearby planets. Her project will take her to the Yilgarn Craton on the edge of the Nullabor Plain in Western Australia, a billion-year-old geologic formation that “mirrors what Mars once was.”

Johnson’s childhood home was in Kentucky. As a college freshman she joined a research team "headed into the heart of the Mojave" to test a prototype of the Mars Rover.  Since then her Mars research has taken her to deserts "all over the world, from the Patagonian Steppe to the polar deserts of Antarctica to the salt flats of Western Australia." Between field campaigns in the Mojave, she once stayed “in a tent at the base of the Granite Mountains for over a month writing for hours each day in a small yellow book.” 

 “It is through writing” she says, “that I’ve found the most success in reconciling the great mysteries around me.”

Upon receiving the award, Johnson says, "Ellen Meloy was drawn to the desert's immense, trembling landscape, and her rigorous and courageous exploration of its far reaches drew us with her.  To be given an award in her name is such a gift.  I can only aspire to write so beautifully.”

Awards Committee member Ann Walka described Johnson’s work as providing “an exhilarating perspective on desert literacy proposed by a writer who has the depth of experience, intellectual rigor, and lyrical sensibility to take us to two fantastic, barely known landscapes.  I love both the strangeness and the scope of the proposal and the grace and wisdom in her writing.” 

Don Snow, chair of the Meloy Fund Awards Committee, noted how Johnson’s proposal stretches the boundaries of how deserts may be defined.  “Her scientific imagination has led her to make some truly fascinating analogies,” he says.  “In light of the rapid spread of deserts in the era of anthropogenic climate change, it may behoove all of us to confront the image of what may be the ultimate desert, the planet Mars.  Committee members were utterly intrigued with Sarah’s plan to use the Yilgarn Craton as a Martian analog.” 

Johnson holds a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from MIT; a M.Sc. in Biology from the University of Oxford; a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford and a B.A. in Mathematics and Environmental Studies from Washington University in St. Louis.  Along with fellowships from NASA, the White House, Harvard University, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Johnson has received numerous awards and scholarships.

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

Sarah Stewart Johnson, EAPS PhD, gives rein to curiosity - MIT News