n his 1894 book, The Mountains of California, John Muir devoted an awe-filled chapter to bighorn sheep. It seems there was much left unsaid. More than a century later, Ellen Meloy, one of America's finest conservation writers, turned her eye -- or rather, both eyes, wide open -- to the agile, social ungulates. While Muir was able to wax romantic about the creatures and their hardiness, the story has become rather more complex in recent years -- unfortunately so, writes Meloy. Eating Stone, her last book before her untimely death in 2004, is largely devoted to the animals' tragic near demise.
Meloy, with her pleasant mix of goofiness and passion, is a more-than-able successor to the eccentric who roamed the Sierra Nevada on foot and climbed Douglas firs in order to feel the wind. Attracted almost as much to the biologists who devote their lives to sheep as to the animals themselves, Meloy weaves together interviews and natural history with her own imperfect attempts to commune with and understand the animals in the field. "I wanted the bighorns to adopt me, a kind of reverse Bo Peep arrangement," she writes, referring to a band of Nelson's desert bighorns near her home in southern Utah that consumes much of her attention.
The band declined so precipitously in the middle of the last century -- following loss of habitat, hunting and poaching, and bouts of pneumonia spread by domestic sheep -- that they were considered extinct. Then, on a canyon rim in 1983 in full view of a passing boater, a ewe and her lamb suddenly appeared, "driven by thousands of years of resolute procreation."
But Meloy's thesis is more profound than a disquisition on the plight of the bighorns, whose populations are endangered throughout the Southwest. When we allow -- even facilitate -- the disappearance of entire subspecies of wild animals, when we isolate ourselves physically from their habitat, as well as from the knowledge of their quirks and essence, she argues, then we also attenuate the metaphors and imagination that grow from that knowledge. "Homo sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own world, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely," she writes.
These are weighty ideas, and Meloy could easily have fallen into the language of sanctimony and bore-you-stiff prose. She largely skirts these pitfalls. Like the behavior of the animals she observes, her writing is by turns quiet and comfortable, then electrifying and dramatic. Her passion is inspiring, her metaphors clever and idiosyncratic. She describes the skittish sheep as standing around like "mildly bored ballerinas" and their improbable rock footholds as "barely larger than my lower lip." Without apology, she turns on the purple prose when she gets particularly riled up, either by the bighorns' mighty existential struggle or by man's indifference to it.
Meloy is at her strongest when she turns the topic to herself. We see her in many shades of vulnerability, crankiness, and embarrassment, as when, in a private and humorous protest against the march of suburbanization, she plasters herself against the chain-link fence of a gated resort near Palm Springs, California. In another passage, she steals away in her pajamas to a pasture near her home to stealthily scare Canada geese off their roost before unsportsmanlike hunters can get to them. There she goes again, we think.
Most movingly, especially given this talented writer's death from heart failure last November at the age of 58, she describes moments of her own senescence. At times she feels her mind losing its edge, and she has sudden, inexplicable compulsions to straighten laundry hanging on the line or to count pieces of fruit. Writing about her inner quirks is an effective platform from which to examine the effects of a denatured world on the human brain and psyche. "The human mind is the child of primate evolution and our complex fluid interactions with environment and one another. Animals have enriched this social intelligence," she writes. "These mountains, that desert, coincidentally the homelands of the wild animals that have kept me in thrall all year, are responsible for my nature and its consequences."
Over the course of her year in the field, Meloy grew particularly attached to one individual, an aging ewe known as Number 067. This creature is "the very last native desert bighorn sheep in the Chihuahuan Desert." She was joined by some transplants from other bands in a complicated, but apparently successful, recovery program. As Meloy was finishing the book, she learned that 067 had died, but not before giving birth to a lamb. If, as the author writes, "humans are creatures in search of exaltation," then in Eating Stone, Meloy has found it in that moment. Generously, she has shared a bit of it with the rest of us.
-- Florence Williams