Features / Fiction / In Their Own Words / Nonfiction

IN HER OWN WORDS: Ellen Meloy

In Monday’s feature, Jane Hammons wrote movingly of the work of naturalist and nonfiction writer Ellen Meloy. The quotes below reveal what makes Meloy’s writing about nature, landscapes, history, and wilderness so stirring—her palpable love of place.

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“When the sun sets, the desert drains its dusk colors into the sea.

The water around the island turns from a silky sheen of aquamarine to burnished silver the color of the cuff bracelet of Navajo silver around my wrist, silver made lustrous by the warmth of flesh. In mere seconds, the sea leaches the silver and deepens to vermilion. Its beauty stirs the imagination, and I wonder if the last refuge of all that is truly wild lies not on earth but in light.” —Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild (2005)


“The complex human eye harvests light. It perceives seven to ten million colors through a synaptic flash: one-tenth of a second from retina to brain. Homo sapiens gangs up to 70 percent of its sense receptors solely for vision, to anticipate danger and recognize reward, but also—more so—for beauty.” —The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (2003)


“I hope to make pictures like I walk in the desert—under a spell, an instinct of motion, a kind of knowing that is essentially indirect and sideways.” —The Anthropology of Turquoise


“For most of the year, though, I was loyal to the [bighorn herd], preternaturally attentive—how could anyone not be?—and shamelessly anthropomorphic. I wanted the bighorns to adopt me, a kind of reverse Bo Peep arrangement. Me, their lost human. Their pet. The primate among herbivores. The bovids’ equivalent of a wolf boy.

Being with these wild animals was like prayer, a meditation that ranged from dopey to dreamy to absorption so profound, it stopped my blood. Their habits and motions formed a liturgy that mapped the prayer, liturgy as ‘the sanctification of time,’ a place where I was willing to wait in stillness, to count on nature’s rhythms to calm my messy ones.” —Eating Stone


“I grew accustomed to their strange eyes, with horizontal irises, the sheep look that says, ‘Come closer, so I can chew off your buttons.’ If you look for big horn sheep, you won’t find them. Even hard-rock patience usually ends in disappointment. Big horns are so elusive in these canyons, so invisible, it is as though they live inside seams of time. Yet in the coming weeks, I will see the same band often. Our paths will cross without my seeking them. I simply fall into their seam of remoteness and serenity.” —from “Big Horn Sheep,” a “radio essay” for the University of Utah’s KUER Radio


“The mind needs wild animals. The body needs the trek that takes it looking for them.” —Eating Stone


“Perhaps the sight of natural predation—wolves bringing down an elk and eating it with the teeth they were born with, triggers the uneasy revelation that humans are animals. Perhaps we pick on other creatures because we know we can be quite beastly ourselves. The ways of wild food are so remote from our minds that we forget that we too are part of the feast. We’re the executioner; sometimes we’re the entrée—just ask a grizzly bear or a shark. Less and less we are the witness. So estranged are we from wild animals on their own terms we insist they live on ours, or be gone. We may stalk our prey in the aisles of Safeway, we may wear pants at the dinner table, but we kill to live. By making wolves into demons and bears into bonfires, we make ourselves into gods. We forget we are mammals. This is a dangerous amnesia.” —from “Animal Anxieties,” a KUER radio essay


“Genealogy is a forced march through stories. Yet everyone loves stories, and that is one reason we seek knowledge of our own blood kin. . . .

So keen is this fascination with ancestry, genealogy has become an industry. Family reunions choke the social calendar. Europe crawls with ancestor-seeking Americans. Your mother or your spouse or your neighbors are too busy to talk to you because they are on the Internet running ‘heritage quests.’ We have climbed so far back into our family trees, we stand inches away from the roots where the primates dominate.” —The Anthropology of Turquoise


“Gaze out from the mesa, and you . . . will see eternity, a desert that like no other place exudes the timelessness of nature as the final arbiter. Scrape off our century, and you will find its usurper, pressed into a nugget of inorganic matter, the single greatest threat to the continuity of life.” —The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest


“The true heart of a place does not come in a week’s vacation. To know it well, as Mary Austin wrote, one must ‘wait its occasions’—follow full seasons and cycles, a retreating snowpack, a six year drought, a ponderosa pine eating up a porch. Wild mountains offer a promise of undomesticated life, even in so over domesticated a place as California. . . . Memory . . . can still ignite a consuming longing for those Sierra days of witless youth and enflamed senses. I still carry the land so deep in my bones that I cannot bear to go back.” —The Anthropology of Turquoise

Click here to read Jane Hammond’s feature piece on Ellen Meloy.

Bloom Post End

Author photo credit: Mark Meloy

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