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The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

solaceThe observation that sticks with me most from this slim, beautiful book is: it’s interesting how poetic nature writing never grows old for me, even though in some ways Ehrlich’s work here is not particularly new. She is unique, like every one of us snowflakes – I don’t mean to call her derivative; read on – but she definitely follows in a tradition; and what I’m trying to say is, I am always ready for another literary descendant of Thoreau, Leopold and Abbey. Especially when she’s a woman and offers a little different take in that respect.

Gretel Ehrlich is decidedly special, for all that I’ve compared her to the greats that she has followed. For one thing, her writing is exquisite, like perfect drops of water with points of light shining on them. Her story is her own, too. She was a filmmaker in New York City who traveled to Wyoming in 1976 to shoot a film, and also to escape the way in which her life was falling apart: the man she loves, her business partner, had just been given only a few months to live. She hangs around sheep ranches until she becomes one of them, a sheepherder, a ranch hand, a rancher. She visits with the dying man, keeps in touch, in pain, and then he dies far away while she’s preparing to fly home to see him. So her time in Wyoming, in the wild, on the frontier, with animals and laconic men, is a time of mourning and healing, as in Mountains of Light, or somewhat as in Fire Season.

Ehrlich’s wild is not Ed Abbey’s, or Phil Connors’, or Derrick Jensen’s, or Aldo Leopold’s wild; hers is populated by humans, nonnative stock animals and plant species, and irrigation. But it is far wilder than New York City, and far wilder than most of our country then and certainly most if not all of it now. It retained a wildness, including a human wildness. I love her descriptions of the human and animal personalities she comes to know. I also love her discussion of what it is to be a cowboy (or cowgirl, of which there are also several stunning examples).

But the best part has got to be her writing. And as I’m inclined to do in such cases, I’m trying to write less myself and share more of her lovely thoughts and phrases.

Disfigurement is synonymous with the whole idea of a frontier. As soon as we lay our hands on it, the freedom we thought it represented is quickly gone.

The old conundrum. We love it; we want to save and preserve and conserve it so we can enjoy it; but every act of enjoying is a failure of preservation. If we all lived in the wild it would be gone. (Which we’re headed towards, anyway.)

True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.

As the title indicates, Erhlich is seeking solace – in the mourning of her lost partner, but also in the need for change more generally, I think.

Because she is the granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I imagined she possessed unusual reserves of hardiness. But she protested. “I don’t do a very good job of it,” she said modestly. “I get in these hoarding moods and get mad at myself for all the stupid things I do. Then I pick up this old kaleidoscope and give it a whirl. See, it’s impossible to keep just one thing in view. It gives way to other things and they’re all beautiful.”

Isn’t that lovely? It’s always changing, and always beautiful. (Can’t say I’m not partial to an Emerson allusion, either.)

Winter scarified me. Under each cheekbone I thought I could feel claw marks and scar tissue.

Great imagery here, about the harshness of the world out there, in a Wyoming winter.

The seasons are a Jacob’s ladder climbed by migrating elk and deer. Our ranch is one of their resting places. If I was leery about being an owner, a possessor of land, now I have to understand the ways in which the place possesses me. Mowing hayfields feels like mowing myself. I wake up mornings expecting to find my hair shorn. The pastures bend into me; the water I ushered over hard ground becomes one drink of grass. Later in the year, feeding the bales of hay we’ve put up is a regurgitative act: thrown down from a high stack on chill days they break open in front of the horses like loaves of hot bread.

Derrick Jensen would like that. Ever since I read him (and before; but especially since), I’ve been thinking about the concept of land ownership, so this struck a chord.

And finally –

Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons.

Could a person ask for more than this? Leaves as verbs. Gretel Ehrlich, you have won me over.


Rating: 9 cowboys.

6 Responses

  1. wooah some great quotes, i’ve got to look this book up.

  2. […] am going to write this review much like I did yesterday’s, heavy on the quotations because this writer is such a […]

  3. […] whom I’ve loved, and also those I haven’t yet discovered (and note the reference to Gretel Ehrlich, of whom I’d never heard until recently). She is mentioned as one of those writers who […]

  4. […] & Dillard blurbs: on the back of the book (among others). Gretel Ehrlich is one of those I had never heard of til I had, and now I see her everywhere. Dillard is one […]

  5. […] The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich (nonfiction) […]

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