2014 Award Recipient: ADELHEID FISCHER
The Old English root of the word care is cearu, which means to guard or watch, "to trouble oneself." For desert writers, cearu is to trouble oneself in the service of wonder. It’s to brave the Utah slickrock on a hot day in late July to make the acquaintance of a tiny mite that lives nowhere else in the world but in the desert potholes of the Colorado Plateau. In return for your taking the trouble, you get this: the chance to keep company with folks like those in Ellen Meloy’s ever-expanding circle—writers, readers, desert lovers—who will join hands with you, drop to their knees and bless the day they first tasted desert dirt. —Adelheid Fischer
This year's $3,000 grant will support Adelheid Fischer's work-in-progress, The Ecology of Grief. The author of dozens of magazine articles and essays, Fischer began writing on natural history and environmental subjects in the early-1990s when she was living in Minnesota.
She is the co-author of two books, Valley of Grass: Tallgrass Prairie and Parkland of the Red River Region which won the 1999 Minnesota Book Award for nature writing. With co-author Chel Anderson, a Minnesota ecologist, she has recently completed work on North Shore: An Ecology of Place, a book on Lake Superior forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.
Fischer relocated to Phoenix in 1998 where she serves as manager of InnovationSpace, a product-development program at Arizona State University. She leads the program's biomimicry initiative, which introduces students to the use of biology as a means of sustainable innovation in design, business and engineering.
“Our student teams in design, business and engineering have learned to use biomimicry as a means of sustainable innovation in new product development,” Fischer said. “They study the ways in which nature solves its challenges as inspiration for creating sustainable solutions to similar human problems.”
Since moving to Phoenix, the deserts of the American Southwest have become the focus of Fischer’s writing. Her most recent work-in-progress, The Ecology of Grief, is, in her words, “a creative nonfiction book that examines catastrophic loss and change in desert systems, from ancient megafaunal extinctions to the shrubification of high-elevation grasslands.”
The event that set The Ecology of Grief into motion was the sudden death of Fischer’s husband in 2005.
“This book is not intended to be just another hand-wringing work on the effects of climate change,” said Don Snow, chairman of the Ellen Meloy Fund Awards Committee. He explains, “What Heidi Fischer is doing here is exploring two kinds of grieving which are thought to occupy separate universes of emotion: grieving for the death of a loved one, and mourning the loss of valued places and ecologies. It’s conceived to be an excellent natural history book, but also a deeply moving work that will connect the personal with the ecological."
The book will focus largely on Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains and other desert mountain ranges known as the “sky islands.”
“The Sky Islands are home to a wide range of endemic species,” said Fischer, “but they also are a crossroads for organisms from other regions. Plant and animal species that travel the spine of the Rockies from the north mingle with more southerly species from Mexico’s Sierra Madres.”
Despite their great biodiversity and ecological significance, the desert sky islands have received little attention from nature writers. As Awards Committee member Jake Lodato said, “That was one of the main reasons why we took such an interest in Heidi Fischer’s project. The mountains she loves are really not very well-known, but they are fascinating places.”
A group of five Meloy Fund board members comprised the 2014 Award Committee. Along with Snow and Lodato, both from Washington State, panel members included Ann Walka from Flagstaff, AZ, Jullianne Ballou from Littlerock, AR, and last year’s Meloy Award winner Sarah Stewart Johnson from Cambridge, MA.
Snow cited the intensity of Fischer’s writing as the main thing that drew him to favor Fischer’s proposal, one of fifty-six in this year’s competition. He cited the following passage as an example:
“I’m interested in probing the language and intellectual frameworks that disturbance ecologists use to describe the process of radical change in nature. In their work, I have sought to identify powerful concepts and metaphors that nonscientists like me might borrow to understand similarly profound disturbances in human lives, most notably for me, the sudden loss of my spouse of 24 years. The goal of my research is to examine the blasted ecologies of desert mountain and grassland systems—and the ecosystem of my own life—and to discover ways in which their evolutionary trajectories might be nudged in directions that trend toward greater fullness and wholeness.”
2014 Desert Writers Award Finalists:
Tara FitzGerald of Brooklyn, New York
Melissa Sevigny of Ames, Iowa
Deborah Taffa of Glendale, Minnesota.
The Ellen Meloy Fund supports writers whose work reflects the spirit and passion for the desert embodied in Meloy’s writing and in her commitment to a “deep map of place.” Before her untimely death in 2004, Meloy published four books, numerous articles, and radio commentaries. Her last book, Eating Stone, won the John Burroughs Association Medal for 2007. An earlier work, The Anthropology of Turquoise, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.