In his introduction to Ellen Meloy’s Seasons: Desert Sketches, Doug Fabrizio, the host of KUER’s RadioWest, describes Meloy as “sassy and wise,” her writing as “funny and beautiful and almost always surprising.” Before Meloy’s untimely death in 2004, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Whiting Award winner made regular trips to Salt Lake City from her home in Bluff, Utah to read aloud short essays for a public radio program. Transcribed and collected here for the first time in print, Meloy’s nonfiction sparkles, taunts, and ensnares the reader with her incisive humor and stunning depictions of desert landscapes and wildlife.
Meloy’s influence looms large over the environmental and literary communities across the American West. In her more biting takedowns of oblivious tourists, dishonorable politicians, and hipster bumper stickers, her writing is inescapably reminiscent of Edward Abbey, though her appeals to the reader are less misanthropic. She strikes, instead, a compelling balance of astonishment and wit. Amy Irvine’s Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, another recent Torrey House Press release, is certainly of the same ilk, alongside other great writers of the rural West like Annie Proulx — whose terrific foreword to Seasons gives us some of the collection’s highlights — and James Galvin, poet of the high prairie. Similarly rooted in the iconic landscape around her, Meloy first worked as an artist and curator before moving on to a life of writing and river guiding. The book’s lyric sketches are accompanied by some of Meloy’s own black-and-white drawings, little desert shards seen up close and through her careful eye.
Though Seasons looks primarily at the natural world in proximity, it also affords us small glimpses into Meloy’s everyday life. The first essay, after all, is fittingly titled, “I Stapled My Hair to the Roof.” One of the real joys of reading the collection, aside from the simple pleasure afforded by her beautifully descriptive language, is her spectacular humor. She wins me over with her charming self-deprecation, at one point referring to herself — “the only person in North America” who doesn’t own a gun — as a “token, squishy, white dough ball of liberalism.” Her gift for irony and her critical eye often come together in moments of a distinct gotcha brand of hilarity. In “Animal News,” she begins one paragraph, “Westerners live closer to wildlife than most people.” I nod and underline the sentence, recalling instances of tourists approaching moose for selfies and even putting a baby bison in the back of their rental car in Yellowstone. “I would never do such a thing,” I revel in believing. Meloy continues, “When we see an elk we know if it is right side up. We know the difference between a coyote and a poodle.” Well, she got me. But there’s so much delight here — Right side up! A poodle! I’m tickled by the absurdity, and I find myself laughing at my own hubris.
These kinds of moves are precisely how Meloy earns her more exhortative moments, like in “West Virginia,” when she gives advice on how to approach any new place:
Don’t carry a map to the mall, carry a bird book. If there are neither birds nor books you’ve learned a telling feature of the place. Find a toehold. Slow down. Pay attention. Go deep. Ask why people call their landscape home, what they love or fear, what is blessed, what is destroyed.
Even whatever’s feared or destroyed does not escape Meloy’s watch; it still has value here. To that point, one essay in Seasons is all about her local dump. As she heads toward the landfill to do some scavenging, I can almost see her turn on her heel with a mischievous wink to add, “If your Tevas melt, it’s probably not a good day to scavenge.” Another vivid delight.
Meloy also wins me over every time her weirdly specific knowledge pops up in strategic, factual deposits, such as “in the Middle Ages, people believed that goose embryos developed inside mussels;” or there being no word in the Navajo (Diné) language for freckles; or how the moose’s awkward anatomy means it “must spread their feet outward or get down on their knees to eat ground vegetation.” The natural world is not solely noble and sacred; in fact, it’s just as goofy and nonsensical as we are.
What is perhaps most surprising about returning to these essays from the late ‘90s is how politically and culturally relevant they still are. In “Sick of Election,” Meloy laments:
What has become of the honorable and decent public servant? You won’t find one in either political party, so kill your television.
Snagged on a reef of intolerance and self-interest, we look for heroes in the wrong places.
Her aforementioned takedown of a hipster bumper sticker that reads “I’d rather be hunting and gathering” drives a steak knife into the heart of the urban liberal ethos. Meloy calls the belief that “we can live off the land and eat food close to the source” an “illusion.” I, for one, am too busy laughing at the irony to feel bullied. Sure, I want to be closer to wildlife, to the source, to the land Meloy lived and breathed every day. Getting there always involves a few missteps, like stapling one’s hair to the roof or kissing a toxic toad or scraping an old sticker off my bumper, but Seasons is here to put a voice to the delight of it all.
For fans of Meloy’s work, reading Seasons is a no-brainer. But even if you’re new to her legacy, like I was, expect to be charmed and awed all the same. Ellen Meloy’s deep curiosity for the world around her is the example Seasons gives us for a way forward — a way that’s more open to compassion, joy, humor, and each other. Ultimately, Meloy’s hope in these essays was to be increasingly a part of the red desert world she called home. In the last piece of the collection, she writes, “I cannot exist in Canyon Country unless I take it into myself and discover it on my very breath. All longing converges on a single piece of geography, my red rock desert home.”
Here the late Ellen Meloy still is, Canyon Country on her breath transcribed to the page for us, too, to take in.
Seasons: Desert Sketches
Torrey House Press