On April Fools' Day, I got a phone call notifying me that I'd won the 2012 Ellen Meloy Fund's Desert Writers Award. To my relief and delight, this wasn't a practical joke, though it took me a while to believe it. Ellen Meloy is honest-to-desert-gods a hero of mine, a role model in a literary sense and more, from the riot and splendor of her words to the soaring spirit and life they reflect. Her wonder, her hilarity, her wildness: with her writing I feel less like I'm reading, more like I'm being read. She just gets it – the joy and the ache of being alive in a world both wild and tame - like few other writers I've come across.
Ever since I can remember I have lived alone, and quite well, inside my own head. The spare desert stirred the most luxuriant imaginings; shadow and color bore meaning, light a deliriously languid ecstasy that felt like being touched. Often there would come to me mysteries more intriguing than any lucidity - how, for instance, in a place with few or no human beings, one could begin to see the worth of what it means to be human. Solitude tempered an inquietude; it settled the taste of restlessness enough to allow me to slow down and take responsibility for my own well-being. Ironically, the attraction to this landscape also resembled an outlaw coupling, the wild anarchy of a love affair whose heated obsession betrayed and unraveled some other, weaker fidelity. I risked social and professional obligations, and my loved ones's patience, simply to submit to an involuntary hunger for light, rock, and air."
-Ellen Meloy, The Last Cheater's Waltz
I know that involuntary hunger well, though more recently I've indulged my appetite for light, rock, and air in alpine desert borderlands like Tajikistan - depicted above - rather than Meloy's beloved mesaland in Utah. But Utah was where it all began for me, at the age of 18. After growing up on a farm in rural Ontario, where the widest horizon framed a field of corn and the tallest summit was a haystack, the stark and tortured geology of the southwest hit me like a revelation. I was on a month-long Outward Bound course, a gawky scholarship student displaced from the Canadian backwoods, lugging a fifty-pound pack and struggling up a mountain for the first time. It was torture. It was sublime. So began my life beyond treeline.
Nothing but occasional daydreams could pry me from this place. This was where I set down my crazed years, fighting what I thought threatened every young woman: an intolerable and crushing onset of adult blandness.
-Ellen Meloy, Anthropology of Turquoise
Over a decade later I count myself lucky to have inhaled desert dust on all seven continents. Ever since that late-teen love affair with Utah, deserts and mountains have magnetized all my movements, and I spend as much time as possible among them, toting along my weight in books. As a writer, scientist, and adventurer, I am drawn again and again to immensities of rock and ice, places where land, and by extension language, conspire to sky. In my journeys to high latitudes and altitudes, and in the writing that follows, I try to explore wildness as both a state of place and a way of being, each fundamental to the vigor and solace of all life on Earth.
By sky, stone, and creatures, I am thoroughly, irrevocably, and delightfully dwarfed.
-Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone
When I first read Meloy's The Anthropology of Turquoise, a nonfiction finalist for the Pulitzer, it was 2009 and I was still a lab-locked grad student at MIT, pining for the wild as I squinted down a microscope at a petri dish (which is not to say that wilderness can't be found at all scales, from a mountain to a microbe; I just longed to explore it in dimensions that fit my own contours). During this particularly tame phase of my life, Ellen's words arrived like a gift, a rogue gust of desert wind spiked with sage. When I finished reading her book I had the overwhelming urge to write Ellen a letter, an expression of gratitude, really, for being who she was and writing what she did. So I looked her up on the internet, only to discover she'd died years before, in 2004. The sense of loss I felt in that moment was gutting; I can't imagine how devastated Ellen's family and friends were when she passed away, trading in the mesaland for even more ineffable deserts. That day, inspired by her example, I started wearing a turquoise ring - a gift from my aunt - that I still haven't taken off.
It is the stone of the desert. It is the color of yearning... It occurs almost exclusively in the geography of asceticism, in broken lands of bare rock and infrequent green. Set against the palette of desolation, a piece of turquoise is like a hole open to the sky. Turquoise is the wealth of the nomad, portable and protective. It is irrefutable proof of the proximity of heart to beauty. The intensely articulated blue seems, like desert light itself, beyond all wealth, even when you know that to breath light, the sweetest scent, the finest taste, is simply enough.
-Ellen Meloy, Anthropology of Turquoise
Since then I've read all four of Ellen's books - Raven's Exile
, The Last Cheater's Waltz
, The Anthropology of Turquoise
, and Eating Stone
– many times over. And now, as I bend my days around bringing the Cycling Silk
book to life, I am so honoured to be associated with her name through the Desert Writers Award
. I'll be writing with Ellen Meloy in heart and mind the whole time.
"For me it is simply instinct, and perhaps this is all that a person can try to put into each of her days: attention to the radiance, a rise to the full chase of beauty."
-Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise