True Solace is Finding None

Book review: The Solace of Open Spaces, by Gretel Ehrlich

“I came here four years ago. I had not planned to stay, but I couldn’t make myself leave.”

Achingly beautiful, emotionally charged prose essays with a distinctly lyrical style, written by a young woman as she initially pursues a work project on the ranches of the Wyoming plains, then can’t seem to find a reason to leave, as she processes grief in this wild, open landscape.

In the late 1970s, Gretel Ehrlich was first sent to Wyoming on a project along with the man she loved, a she puts it. Shortly before they were set to go, he learned that he was terminally ill. Ehrlich decides to continue with the project, and the resulting essays that she wrote about her time there, and her return to work as a sheepherder after wanderings elsewhere, are tinged with a melancholy that makes clear their descent from this loss. After her love’s funeral, she writes simply but devastatingly: Then a wheel of emptiness turned inside me and churned there for a long time. I think so many of her thoughts and observations will speak to readers, like this one did to me.

But her stories are also upliftingly hopeful, maybe even surprisingly so. There’s something calming and relaxing about her tone, describing from an outsider’s perspective the nature and culture around her, her good-naturedness, willingness to move out of her comfort zone (she was a New Yorker, after all), and her sense of humor. As a writer, Ehrlich has a gift for metaphor and simile, which she uses to great effect especially in describing the scenery of this place that’s actually quite insular, in so many beautiful passages that I had pages and pages of highlights when I was finished. Like this:

In the Great Plains the vistas look like music, like Kyries of grass, but Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect – tumbled and twisted, ribboned with faded, deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into a pure light.

She has a knack for storytelling in addition to the richly evocative descriptions, and for tying what she observes in the microcosm of the Plains world into a greater picture of the rest of the world. I was struck by one such observation:

From the clayey soil of northern Wyoming is mined bentonite, which is used as a filler in candy, gum, and lipstick. We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build up against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.

She mentions that Wyoming isn’t a big tourist destination, and the population density is low, with wide swathes of the state uninhabited and open for cattle ranching and sheepherding.  If a person isn’t raised there, there’s not a huge chance of seeing, much less knowing, the place. But Ehrlich pulls so much from what she calls the “planet of Wyoming”, for an outsider she really throws herself in, seemingly without any pride, just humility and a willingness to learn and be taught.

And she paints such an evocative picture of the characters there: ranchers, sheepherders, cowboys and cowgirls, immigrants, others like her who got lost at some point in life and find their way here. It’s delightfully eye-opening to have such a descriptive glimpse into this corner of the country. One of my favorite of such descriptions: Her itinerant life read like the Old Testament: tragedy, revenge, and an on-going feeling of homelessness.” That one sentence says so very much.

“True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.” Ehrlich wrote that in a letter to a friend, reflecting on her return to Wyoming. And despite some of the sadness she describes so poignantly as she experienced an unimaginably difficult life event, I constantly felt a strange sense of solace reading these essays. I could imagine so clearly what she was seeing, the range of emotions she was feeling, and I loved seeing this place and these events through her eyes. Reading it was a meaningful experience, I only regret that I never came across this book sooner.

Originally published in 1985, Open Road Integrated Media released a new ebook edition yesterday.

The Solace of Open Spaces: Essays
by Gretel Ehrlich

originally published 1985 by Viking, new ebook edition published by Open Road Integrated Media on February 21, 2017

I received an advance copy from the publisher in exchange for review.

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