Gretel Ehrlich is a novelist, playwright, poet, travel writer, filmmaker, environmental activist, news correspondent, biographer, memoirist, and essayist. She is best known for her narrative essays that explore the relationship between human cultures and their environments, specifically in landscapes that are commonly perceived as remote and barren. Ehrlich devoted herself to writing full time in 1978, the year she wrote “The Solace of Open Spaces,” an essay that appeared first in the Atlantic Monthly and later as part of a collection published under the same title. Ehrlich’s exploration of the connection between the psychic and physical landscape of Wyoming jump-started a career dedicated to what she terms the “ecology of culture.” Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Harper’s, National Geographic Magazine, Time, and The New York Times Magazine, among many others. She has been anthologized regularly since the late 1980’s, including in the Best American Essays series.
In “The Solace of Open Spaces,” as with all of her essays in the collection, Ehrlich reveals herself as a lyrical essayist. She does not shy away from poetic language and allows herself to devote paragraphs to vivid, immediate descriptions of her surroundings, while at the same time looking unflinchingly the history and culture of the state of Wyoming.
“The Solace of Open Spaces” was written in the wake of a great personal trauma – the death of her partner and collaborator – and the language and storytelling devices that Ehrlich employs are evocative of those found in trauma victims, language described by clinician Judith Herman as “emotional, contradictory, and fragmented.” While Ehrlich pieces together a narrative, it is sewn of many parts, full of notes and sidebars.
Essay’s Immediate Context
It was not by chance that Gretel Ehrlich moved to Wyoming and began writing about the way space in the self may be echoed by that of the surrounding landscape. Ehrlich and her partner filmed a PBS documentary on sheep herding in Wyoming in 1976. The essay was written a few years later, when she returned to recuperate from his loss, a subject that echoes throughout the piece without being alluded to specifically.
The article was first published in the May 1981 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine, founded in 1857 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell. During the 1970s, however, the magazine experienced financial difficulties and was acquired by Boston real estate tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman in March of 1980, causing a sea change in the tone and content of the magazine. When Ehrlich’s piece was published, The Atlantic was just starting to become accustomed to this new order.
The essay “The Solace of Open Spaces” began as a letter to a friend of Ehrlich’s who lived in Hawaii, evolved into the landmark essay that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and then was expanded into a book that became one of the most significant essay collections of 1985 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her the Harold D. Vurcell Award for Distinguished Prose.
The essay was the first piece Ehrlich published on the importance of natural space, but her connection to nature writing and the environmental movement has become her legacy. In recent years, Ehrlich has explored the Arctic Circle and Greenland and has written extensively about the environmental concerns relating to these spaces, especially climate change.
Ehrlich, Gretel. “In Wyoming’s Winter, You’re ‘Froze in,’ ‘Froze up,’ ‘Froze Out.’” New York Times 25 Dec. 1981: 23. Web. 14 March 2011.
_____. The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.
_____. “The Solace of Open Spaces.” The Atlantic. May 1985. Web. 14 March 2011.
_____. The Solace of Open Spaces. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
_____. Gretel Ehrlich. Web. 14 March 2011.
Finn, Charles. “Gretel Ehrlich to Judge Obsidian Prize.” High Desert Journal October 2010. Web. 15 March 2011.
Moore, Judith. “What a Mountain Is.” Time 1 Dec. 1985. Web. 14 March 2011.
Oboum, Megan. “Audre Lorde: Trauma Theory and Liberal Multiculturalism.” MELUS 30.3 (2005): 219-245. Web. 14 March 2011.
“Press: Sea Change.” Time 6 Oct. 1980. Web. 14 March 2011.
Thompson, Toby. “Lessons from Fire and Ice.” Big Sky Journal Fall 2008. Web. 15 March 2011.
Text and images: Jess Novak