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September 23, 2007

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Melloy

Many write gorgeously about deserts and mountains, but few inject self-conscious weirdness, of the absurdist variety, into their lyricism. Ellen Meloy does. In Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, she describes her obsession with a band of desert bighorn sheep near her home in a small town on the Colorado Plateau and her wider explorations of the species in Baja California, on Navy bombing ranges, and around uranium-mining ghost towns. Readers can loll about in rhythmic, biblical prose, such as, "The late afternoon light comes from the bedrock, from within the mountains themselves, pouring amber from granite and dust, wicking up through the trunks and out the branches of the foxtail pines." Then Meloy exclaims, "The next time you buff up the Hummer with an auto-detailing cloth that came from the skin of a petite rupicaprid, bond with the ungulates that share with us a molecular past." Come again? Whence this aggression and language delirium? Why does she refrain from explaining?

Meloy welcomes the reader without pretension, so her bizarro sallies seem flirtatious. They tease, tantalize, and keep us alert even as they run the risk of annoying us. For my part, I enjoyed the jarring mysteries. It was like finding Dali touches in the corners of a grand Bierstadt landscape. For Meloy, the road along the Hoover dam becomes the "hair-thin rim of a giant potato chip." A diorama of bighorns in a museum "sounds as if its grinding up fresh loads of zirconium monkeys." She casts "a Giacometti shadow," invoking the uncanny yet familiar weirdness of those elongated statues. Like other nature writers, she exhorts us to wake up and pay attention, but she does so with these curious injunctions: "Admire the male midwife toad," "Master a hyena's laugh and use it when in the presence of politicians" and "Quit badgering your tax attorney." She observes a poodle's entrance into a small church in Baja California and then declares, "I am too snobby to share a church with a poodle."

There are plenty of reasons to adopt a self-consciously weird voice in nature writing. First, it relieves the monotony of reverence. Variation in tone can make it easier to engage the reader. Some purists like Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Loren Eiseley and John Muir refuse to dilute their awe. Why would a believer fart in church? They count on the perennial allure of the sacred, which should draw readers over and over as a lake draws swimmers on a hot day. Other writers like to vary their tone, and they often interject irreverent, informal, humorous bits of mischief. We see the picaresque vein in nature writing in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and in all of Edward Abbey's work as well as in recent books like David Gessner's Sick of Nature and Susan Zakin's anthology Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth, with its inflammatory introduction.

Really, though, this mischief has been around in the genre as an undercurrent at least since Thoreau. Could we even recognize Thoreau without the gruffness, the defiance, the edge of humor? He makes fun of "the ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions against the last day, not to betray too green an interest in their fates." He sees that "The head monkey in Paris puts on a traveler's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same." He recounts his eating habits, too, with slyness and glee. "In cold weather it was no small pleasure to bake several small loaves of [bread] at once, tending and turning them as carefully as an Egyptian his hatching eggs." He boasts, "I could make a very good molasses of pumpkin or beets," and adds a little singsong, "We can make liquor to sweeten our lips // of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips."

Meloy likens the scent of the purple mustard plant to "stale washcloths." She says of mountain lion control, "Whenever eater and eatee came within drooling distance of each other, someone pushed the bad-kitty button and zapped the cat." She describes the oryx, an African transplant into New Mexico, as "antelope as rather beefy drag queens." Her beloved bighorns are more likely to burp "a froggy-sounding bleat" than to execute a graceful leap. She approaches nature with an interest in its frank physicality, including the crass details of sheep life. She peers at a dead sheep's rumen and declares, "The fermentation vat. The desert eaten." She admires "lovely rumps and eyelashes as delicate as fishbones." She has an oddly proprietary affection for the profanity of nature, including genitalia. "'Let's see you get that cantaloupe off the ground,'" she says "to the chocolate ram as he rises."

Any writer of personal narrative needs to counter charges of egotism, and self-mocking helps deflect mockery. Lone-seeker nature writers in particular have a tendency toward self-congratulation. Meloy flaunts her weirdness in part to make fun of herself. True, she sometimes hints at Abbeyesque "desert-girl swagger." She boasts, "The main roads of Baja California have been upgraded from bad to less bad. We avoid them and drive the old tracks of rocks and ruts, throwing up plumes of white dust behind us. When these roads are too civilized, we drive the euphemisms." Still, she enjoys undercutting her boasts even more. She begins a sentence, "A slow-moving glassy mirror of winter light, the river holds all of my attention..." and then observes, "This kind of strolling reverie usually ends up with me walking face-first into a bush." She makes fun of the myth of the ideal naturalist who can "spot the copulation of deranged pygmy badgers from several hundred yards away."

Meloy's weirdness hints at a private sense of shame and defiance as well as quirkiness. Weirdness can work as a defense mechanism for the kind of post-hippy white intellectuals who often become nature writers (I know whereof I speak). Defiant, aggressively geeky humor can transform the alienation of the nerd and the misfit into pride, as the cult of Monty Python demonstrates. Meloy advertises her strangeness with lines like, "I feel like my normally abnormal self as I shift into a fifth-gear cruise through Navajo land." When Meloy stumbles into a brothel one day in search of a pay phone, she identifies with the prostitutes' marginality even as she laughs at her own awkwardness: "They glare at me as if I were about the twenty-eighth extraterrestrial to drop by that day, like when was it ever going to end, Nevada being a state that could really grow sick and tired of space aliens." She admires their "scornful pride" and imagines a sisterly cup of tea, a conference of outsiders.

Meloy's weirdness is most interesting, however, when it implies a weirdness beyond the personal. Like the aesthetic movements that praise weirdness, from Surrealism to the Theater of the Absurd to Dada, her work seeks to mirror the strangeness of the world and of the mind. Like the clowning of Shakespeare's fools, her weirdness dances between sense and nonsense, opacity and clairvoyance. The very randomness and uncertainty are the point. Her passion for the desert and the sheep leads her toward entropy. As she finds herself in intimate contact with the desert and the sheep, her response is flailing, voracious, bewildered. She wants "to rise up and bite the desert to bits." She wants to zero in on one thing but wants everything too. She pants, "A single Russian olive tree holds some of the [bluebirds] among its dried gold leaves, a Persian miniature I shall paint as soon as I study Persian miniatures for about ten years." It delights her when the exuberance of being and desire erupts the sheep too, in a rare deviation from survival mode. She observes them springing up in the air for no apparent reason and writes, "Toast pops spread throughout the band like a chain reaction... Here I am, broiling my brain amid a bunch of existentialist Caprini."

Partway through the book, Meloy complains of an undiagnosed neurological abnormality which has reduced her vocabulary and her memory. She sees her brain as a sort of natural history museum "curated by a pack of unruly imps... Imps in the language and memory sectors are gray-haired and decrept, shuffling along in orthopedic huaraches, wreaking havoc, turning the contents of my cranium into moon cheese." If she has lost words and stories, however, we certainly can't tell. We can tell that the condition reactivates her sense of helplessness and awe about the unpredictability of the brain.

Like Virginia Woolf, Meloy finds meaning in "moments of being." She seeks "the occasions when jolts from the universe fly open. This jolt, in this desert with these animals, is a belonging so overwhelming, it can put deep cracks in your heart." At the moment when she finally belongs, when she comes home, the experience breaks her. The wilderness makes her whole as it accepts her discontinuities. Perhaps this is the meaning of the subtitle, "Imagination and the loss of the wild." Wilderness embodies and welcomes chaos, the chaos that gives rise to imagination and spirit. In the wild, Meloy feels at home in the wildness of her mind.

Ellen Meloy

Additional Links:
The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers offers an annual scholarship
Tributes to Ellen Meloy and links to her radio interviews and commentaries
Verlyn Klinkenborg's article on Ellen Meloy in the New York Times


TR Ryan said...

To me Ellen Meloy is the unsung hero of nature writing. I won't even finish Eating Stone because I don't want it to end. I also know she died suddenly just before she finished the book and by not getting to the end -- I feel like she is still alive driving across the Mojave looking for swimming pools and pictographs and big horn scat and new books to write with amazing perspective. The book takes forever to get through anyway because I am constantly rereading her perfect sentences and paragraphs. Eating Stone is one of the most refreshing reads I have had in years. I discovered and fell in love with Meloy in the Anthropology of Turquoise. Thanks for reviewing it!


I was not aware that she died before finishing the book. that adds an interesting insight to the book and makes it that much more special.