2017 Award Recipient: MICHAEL BRANCH
BLUFF, UT – The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers has chosen Michael Branch of Reno, Nevada, as the recipient of the twelfth annual Desert Writers Award. A grant of $5,000 will support work on his book-in-progress, Jackalope!: The Complete Natural and Cultural History.
Branch is a professor in the University of Nevada-Reno’s esteemed Literature and Environment Program. He has published five books and more than two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. He is co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. Branch holds a Bachelors degree from the College of William and Mary and a PhD in English from the University of Virginia.
“I have long sought to understand and share the work of environmental writers from Emerson, Thoreau and Muir to Ed Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams and Rick Bass,” Branch wrote. “I deeply admire and often teach the work of Ellen Meloy, whose books regularly appear as required reading in my courses on Literary Nonfiction, Environmental Literature, and the Literature of the American West.”
While Branch long ago established a substantial record of scholarly publications, in recent years he has turned toward creative nonfiction. “Writing place-based literary nonfiction has been the most exciting, rewarding, challenging work I’ve ever done,” Branch wrote. “It is the work I will continue to develop and improve for the rest of my life.”
Jackalope! will be Branch’s fourth book of literary nonfiction. As he explained, “The book will focus on the horned rabbit that is legendary in the folklore of the American West. Although the celebrated jackalope appears in various forms, it is most often depicted as a hybrid of the black-tailed jackrabbit and the pronghorn antelope. I will use humor to embrace this mythic western figure as a place-based icon which is as important to western identity as the sagebrush or the mustang.”
A little-known fact among fanciers of the West’s mythical jackalope is that figures of horned rabbits appear across world cultures, and there is a scientific foundation underlying all of them. According to Branch, “Horned rabbits are actual creatures in which the ‘horn’ is a keratinous carcinoma, a growth caused by infection associated with the Shope papilloma virus. Discovered around 1930 but not genetically sequenced until 1984, this virus provided oncologists the first mammalian model of virus-induced cancer.”
The discovery, Branch noted, has led to advances in anti-viral therapies, especially those associated with cervical, vaginal and anal cancers.
As Branch points out, however, Jackalope! will not be a “science book.” Underlying both the humor and the serious natural history elements of the project is a deeper motive. Said Branch, “I aspire to a literary approach that employs both lyricism and deep, place-based awareness to explore how stories inspired by the remarkable landscapes of the desert West express a deep human fascination with wildness, hybridity, magic, and the connection of human imagination to desert animals and desert places.”
Don Snow, chairman of the Ellen Meloy Fund Awards Committee, said, “Of the hundreds of applications I’ve seen over my years serving on the board, Mike Branch’s Jackalope! may be the one most in tune with Ellen Meloy. Ellen had an extraordinary ability to wrap works of serious environmental intention in shells of hilarious writing. There is no question in my mind that many readers who might be turned off by ordinary natural history writing may be very happy to crack a book like Jackalope! This kind of project can only help speed desert literacy by attracting new readers.”
Awards Committee member Kate Harris said, “In this boldly original history of the legendary horned rabbit that calls the American West home, Jackalope! takes a lighthearted but searching look at the links between myth, science, wildness, and modern medicine. Readers who appreciate storytelling with a well-honed sense of the absurd will enjoy going down this rabbit hole.”
Branch has published his essays and creative nonfiction articles in several magazines and literary journals, including Utne Reader, Orion, Slate and Whole Terrain. Several of his works have been recognized as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays and The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Branch’s most recent book, Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness, was published in 2016 by Shambhala Editions / Roost Books. His 2001 scholarly work, John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa, received a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
A group of six Meloy Fund board members comprised the 2017 Awards Committee. They included Don Snow and Jake Lodato, both from Washington State, Ann Walka of Flagstaff, Arizona, Jullianne Ballou of Austin, Texas, Ryann Savino of Moab, Utah, and former Meloy Award winner Kate Harris of Atlin, British Columbia.
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.