Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Ellen Meloy: A Life of Meditation, Nature and Writing

Ellen Meloy combines the contemplative life of meditation with being fully engaged in nature:

I no longer want to know the names of things. I do not care if I am mute or it my tongue is useless for everything but the taste of salt. The verbal map is the wrong map. Is is a labyrinth to false treasure. This exotic, wholly liquid place lies outside words but well within the realm of the sensual. The colors come forth for their own sheer ecstasy.

This paradoxical comment comes at just about the half-way point in Ellen Meloy’s poetically adroit book, The Anthropology of Turquoise, a vast, exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) account of adventures in the cultural, scientific, and personal history not just of a stone, but of the color blue in its many global manifestations. On page 153 of the 322 pages of a book she subtitles “Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit,” after having named the physical dimensions of light, the parts of the eye, all the words for “turquoise,” the names and locations of the ancient mines, the saints and poets who sang its praises, the places in California where she grew up, the Southwestern mountains and rivers where she chose to dwell, and every fish and bird species she met —after all that, she says she has no further use for language. This is a treatise almost any page of which could exhaust a reader determined to track down and take possession of all that may be found on it, and yet she still has half way to go. Turning the page, one almost expects to find the remainder blank, because of what she has just said, but also because surely she’s used up her history by then.

Throughout time, without words, nature and the artist have best explained the interactions of light, color, and mind. I can look at a canyon shadow or a Byzantine mosaic and understand blue better than I understand a dissertation on the comparatively stubby quantum of electromagnetic radiation measured as 4 x 10-7 meters (blue light).

While the book describes a brilliant life brilliantly, and is overall a delight to read, it is very much a product of its time. While she never stopped noticing the intrusion of roads like the Central American Highway that disrupted thousands of miles of pristine jungle, or invasive farming or fishing practices that threatened long-standing, conservative agrarian methods, Meloy never did see past the threat and grasp the reality of global warming. Her response to feminism was a disappointingly familiar intention to escape individually from a predicament that twenty years later would produce the “Me, Too” movement. Maybe she meant “Anthropology” as a metaphor, which is the sort of casual presumption that causes many scientists to abjure the liberal arts. Meanwhile, Meloy seems to have read everything. She names and quotes dozens of writers, but there are no notes nor even a bibliography. Anyone who works in science knows the first thing one has to do, before being handed the keys to the lab, is learn to document data and sources. Anthropology, like Art History, is necessarily a verifiable discipline. In place of the science her title promises, Meloy proffers a free floating narrative that travels far and wide, but never gets very far beneath appearances.

It has come quickly, this crushing, industrial love of paradise. The pervert-free, less-trammeled, hundred-mile-view days were little more than two decades past, not so very long ago. Yet already my own history sounds like another country.

Each of Meloy’s fifteen chapters has a theme, often connected with her ongoing, unsystematic autobiography. An early chapter, “Swimming the Mojave,” examines the paradoxical presence of so many swimming pools in the desert Southwest, where the absence of water was long thought a charm against overpopulation. In Meloy’s day, the forest ranch that was home to her family for five generations and the river that ran through it had both disappeared under a man-made lake. Today, that lake is drying up and neither the ranch nor the river will rise again.

Southwestern tribes like the Navajo and Zuni wed turquoise to silver, to the trading post and reservation system, and to an Anglo economy that calved off some of their work from tradition into the realm of the tourist market, where, to paraphrase one ethnologist, design became the Indian’s idea of the trader’s idea of what the Anglo thought was an Indian’s idea of design.

Writing a natural history can take years of research and observation. A memoir, arguably, takes a lifetime. However she wrote it, The Anthropology of Turquoise must have taken Meloy years to accumulate and write. As she neared its completion, having passed the midpoint of her fifties, her thoughts turned from the celebration of nature to her own mortality:

And when I laugh, I begin to feel the dreaded creep of hysteria, lyricism edged with pain. Have I noticed that I might be laughing my head off at a funeral?

As I bury my face in the voluptuous innards of cliffrose petals on a remote mesa, a low-flying, kelp-colored military jet passes over with a roar so thunderous it nearly makes my ears bleed. Today is my birthday, and during its twenty-four hours nineteen species will become extinct.

Between the sheep and me, our prospects diverge radically: my mortality, their extinction.

I shall try to age with grace rather than sorrow.

Ellen Meloy finished this third book of essays in 2002. The next year it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The year after that, at home in Bluff, Utah, she died suddenly in her sleep. She was 58; if she had lived she would be 75 today. We will probably never know what would have followed The Anthropology of Turquoise. It would be pleasing to find the finest passage to remember her by, but there are too many. So, a random choice:

Between the ledge and the horizon flowed a sea of petrified sand dunes. There was little that was flat or straight, that did not break up into rolling swells of beige and terra-cotta rock. In the wells between the dunes the sand was deep coral, dotted with silver and green blackbrush, occasional stands of ephedra, and the snow-white petals of sweet-faced primrose. In the lee side of a tuft of broom snakeweed, protected from a sweeping wind, the sand still bore the divots of rain that fell a week—a month?—before, miniature craters stitched together by the drag marks of a whiptail lizard’s rather pompously long tail.


To celebrate our XX anniversary, 15 Bytes is looking to the past for inspiration. On the last Sunday of every month this year, we’ll be taking a look at a book, by a Utah author, that appeared before we did. If you have one you’d like to suggest, please use the comment section below.


Categories: Book Reviews | Literary Arts

2 replies »

  1. Ellen Maloy stayed with us at Wildflowers Bed and Breakfast when she left the desert and came to the city for a few days. She was on fire with purpose. The flaming red hair couldn’t have been more appropriate. We were both writing books about our retreat to nature—embrace of nature might be more accurate. She seemed inextinguishable so it was with shock and sorrow that we learned of her untimely passing. She was the real thing—was out there living in the desert with almost no amenities. So glad to see this tribute to her.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.