Book Review: Eating Stone by Ellen Meloy

“When you truly understand one thing – a hawk, a juniper tree, a rock – you will begin to understand everything.  To understand everything, to know the nature of a single living thing, the facts of a life other than my own, I chose desert bighorn sheep.” — Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone

eatingstoneEating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild is Ellen Meloy’s chronicle of her time spent observing desert bighorn sheep in the deserts of the American Southwest.  Desert bighorns, a subspecies of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), are smaller and paler in colour than their Rocky Mountain cousins.  They are also, in many parts of their range, in danger of disappearing.  The band of bighorns that Meloy spends most of her time observing from the region around her home (and which she names the “Blue Door Band”) was thought to have done just that – until they inexplicably returned.

Seeking a deep understanding of the desert bighorns, Meloy follows the Blue Door Band through the seasons, watching as they mate, raise their young, and die – and begin to rebuild their population.  She also travels throughout the Southwest and Mexico, including testing ranges of the US military that double as wildlife preserves, Baja California (where she never, in fact, sees a sheep), and cliffsides covered in bighorn petroglyphs that are thousands of years old.  She discovers the many threats that bighorns face, including predation by mountain lions, hunting by humans, and infectious diseases carried by domestic sheep, and wrestles with the difficulties of conservation.  The more animals such as bighorns are “managed” by humans, the less wild they become, she argues.  Even as she helps to relocate members of the Blue Door Band to a new habitat (so they can start a new band of sheep), she realizes that they are in a way becoming more feral than they are truly wild.  Meloy believes that wild animals have helped to shape and define our human identity, and we need interactions with them to remain fully human:

“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.  They give concrete expression to thoughts and images.  They carry the outside world to our inner one and back again.  They helped language flower into metaphor, symbol, and ritual.  We once sang and danced them, made music from their skin, sinew, and bone.  Their stories came off our tongues.  We ate them.  They ate us.”

Yet Meloy focuses more on describing her observations and her interactions with the sheep, their environment, and the other humans involved with their conservation than she does on building theories and arguments.  Eating Stone is humble, personal, and more poetry than science.  Meloy has a deep respect for the desert bighorns as individuals rather than simply as symbols of our human needs and desires.  She admits that there is much that we don’t know about these animals, and is not afraid of the mystery that lies perhaps at the heart of all of our relationships with wild animals.  I am in awe of her patience, her observing skills, and how she seems to be so at home in all of the landscapes she explores.

Meloy has diverse interests, and Eating Stone takes many side trips to meet a desert tortoise that lives in a friend’s backyard, read T.H. White, and visit a Hopi village, among others.  Her sense of humour makes the book more readable.  When describing a meditative walk along the river, pondering the meaning of life “in the usual existentialist coma”, Meloy wryly remarks that, “This kind of strolling reverie usually ends up with me walking face-first into a bush.”  She also carries a stuffed toy bighorn with her on her treks.

Meloy describes the desert bighorns as “the locals”, a species that is intimately tied to a specific environment and place, not able to easily move to a different location or adapt to a changing, increasingly human-influenced, landscape.  Individuals carry with them internal maps of the region where they live, maps that are passed down through generations.  I think that to some extent, Eating Stone may also be a “local.”  I think I could only fully understand this book if I walked through Meloy’s deserts myself, and perhaps even glimpsed the far-off shapes of desert bighorns clinging to a cliffside.  Although some species may be familiar, the desert is a very different place from the rolling grasslands of my home.  But without actually visiting the desert myself, I think Eating Stone may be as close as I can get for now to appreciating that harsh environment and the individuals (sheep, humans, and others) who live there.

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