Ehrlich, Gretel. The Solace of Open Spaces. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1985. 131 pp.
Reviewed by Sasha DePew.
Gretel Ehrlich is something of a unique author. Having been a filmmaker previous to her writing career, she knows how to stimulate the senses of the reader by visually painting a picture of the rugged and beautiful Wyoming countryside in her book The Solace of Open Spaces. One example is the vivid way in which she portrays the storms, or better tornadoes, that “lay their elephant trunks out in the sage until they find houses, then slurp everything up and leave” (7). She also uses words such as “viperous” and “blood” to refer to the land as though it is a living, breathing thing, though not human, but wild, free, and dangerous.
Ehrlich gives readers an intimate look into Wyoming and gives the state a historical and personal meaning that the author has discovered. Ehrlich makes the countryside feel as untamed as it was the day Euro-American pioneers first set foot in it yet emphasizes that its wildness is due to the fact that people have learned to work with the land in order to live and survive in it. And yet, the author suggests that even the Wyoming landscape has changed: Ehrlich gives an understanding of the loss of wilderness in the United States, where she makes the distinction between what is available to people now as opposed to what was available many years ago: the difference between “wilderness” and “wildness.”
While describing the landscape’s wild beauty, she also explores the meaning and effects of the loss of loved ones for her self-discovery. The author describes the loss of her partner and lover David; this loss is a fact that underlies the narrative in subtle ways. Ehrlich opens her Wyoming tale with an intriguing statement: “It’s May and I’ve just awakened from a nap, curled against sagebrush the way my dog taught me to sleep” (1). She introduces the land and the way of life through this one statement, drawing readers in. Readers become curious as to what she is going to lead up to in the next few sentences, even the next few chapters. What is learned is that the narrator is sleeping on the ground like her dog taught her. She is also a sheep driver. What is the importance of this as we read the story? Perhaps Ehrlich is accentuating her well rounded nature, or perhaps, it is an expressive way to discover and let out her inner self: The Solace of Open Spaces is a collection of essays of Ehrlich’s first-hand experience in the land of cowboys, horseback riding, and cattle driving.
The tale starts with Ehrlich talking about being out in the country side, making readers think she has always lived in Wyoming, but later readers come to find that she has been there merely for four years. In the early years she was there to film a movie and became enthralled with the untamed natural beauty of the world of Wyoming. She is strong and convincing in her descriptions of how the seasons and weather move not only the animals but also the people in the land. Perhaps, though, this movement of animals in the land is not as important as the lack of human movement away from the Wyoming land like Ehrlich and the numerous people she describes in the text. I think that this is what is important in her personal essays. She is highlighting the facts of the movement of elk when the fall air starts to blow in and of the sheep running across the land during storms, but she very frankly states that she had meant to leave the state four years ago after her business was finished there but something held her there, kept her from leaving. This seems to be true for every person in the novel. People could leave but something holds them there. She states that she stayed even when her beloved David passed away, choosing to go to a local funeral as opposed to leaving the state to go to David’s funeral. I believe that Ehrlich is showing the pull that wilderness has on us, but also how much it limits the human being to a mere fight for survival. The perfection of that land is essential to our souls and keeps us rooted to our pasts even though the land contains many dangers. Ehrlich’s Wyoming countryside, then, is both scary and invigorating.
What I found to be most moving is the fact that Ehrlich went from being a money-making film maker to a sheep driving cowboy. She chose the harder way of life as opposed to the high paying Hollywood job. I think this is important because it shows just how much an untamed land can change and alter a person, how it can bring to life the amazing ties that people have to the land when they only endeavor to look a little deeper into what makes something so beautiful.
Gretel Ehrlich’s collection of essays describing her life and work in Wyoming is something to be noted as nothing short of wonderful. The beauty of the land and its impact on a person are what she tells about. At the same time, though, in a round-about way, she makes a stand for saving what is left of the rugged, beautiful, and wild West that is slowly being taken away and destroyed by incoming populations. Wyoming also achieves symbolic character when Ehrlich opens her audience’s eyes to the beauty that is not only in Wyoming but also in other remote areas of the country, making them love it as much as she has come to love it and making them want to preserve what is left of what she calls “wildness.”