Book review: ‘The Anthropology of Turquoise,’ by Ellen Meloy
September 4, 2016
There are some things so universal that they persist across centuries, even as nations have risen and fallen and generations have come and gone. The human response to the power of color is ubiquitous, and emotions can be reflected in every shade of the rainbow. For some, the flood of feelings evoked by certain colors can be described best as an ache, an inexplicable longing in the heart. The happiness a color can bring can induce a sort of vertigo, a sensation that can catch you unawares, tilting your world sideways.
Author and naturalist Ellen Meloy certainly felt that delicious ache, and lucky for readers she recorded her thoughts and impressions in a captivating collection of essays before she passed away in 2004. "The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, reads like poetry from start to finish. Sometimes, it is akin to slam poetry, clipped and fast-paced, with little in the form of connecting sinew, while at other times, the prose is lyrical and evocative, the rhapsodic ponderings of a deeply creative and spiritual individual.
Colors all but drip from the pages, like Jackson Pollack splatters of lustfully thrown pigments. Pinks are "vain," green is "hungry," and the myriad tones of blue evoke "devotion." But for Meloy, it is the allure of turquoise, "the color of yearning," that weaves itself throughout the narrative. "Set against a palette of desolation, a piece of turquoise is like a hole open to the sky."
That desolate color scheme of the American Southwest comprised the root of Meloy's fascination with colors, and the desert is a repeated point of reference throughout much of her book. For anyone who has experienced the unique light of Utah or Arizona, the recognition of the scenes Meloy evokes with her skillful writing will be immediate, as she serves up a virtual feast of "Place."
She compares the Colorado River Basin to a sumptuous meal, where gazing upon the glories of the desert is like swallowing delectable, nourishing morsels — "gnaw the bony ribs of Shiprock, spoon up the sun-ripened tomato-Red House Cliffs, and ice your tongue with the San Francisco Peaks' pale sherbet."
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Like Augustus Gloop's gluttonous dive into the chocolate river in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Meloy clearly swamps her senses in the glory of the pastel horizons and hollows of the desert, calling herself claustrophobic when away from a sight-line of all that is, to her, holy — "instinct holy," rather than "preachy holy," as she calls it.
In tandem with the holiness of color, she reveres nature throughout her essays, with much of the book serving as homage to the beauty that is all around us. Her writing makes one want to head out and gaze into a puddle, searching out the reflected colors of the sky, for tilting one's perspective expands perceptions and opens the mind.
She writes of driving from the concrete jungle of the Los Angeles of her childhood, through the neon palaces of Los Vegas, until she is in her beloved desert, shedding her skin like a dusty lizard. She describes stretching out on her stomach in the ochre dust, breathing in the stillness, "to observe whatever sauntered through the first two inches immediately above Earth."
Not only does Meloy's writing drip with rainbows of color; she acknowledges the artful dance between all of the senses when out in nature. "I closed my eyes and pulled the world down to sound, only sound, as if by listening to these vibrations I was listening to the thick, sultry air itself." At times, while reading "The Anthropology of Turquoise," one wants to close one's own eyes and contemplate her words and metaphors, her lustful reverence of color, light, nature and all things "holy."