Authors: Gretel Ehrlich

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American essayist, short-story writer, novelist, and poet

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Solace of Open Spaces, 1985

Islands, the Universe, Home, 1991

A Match to the Heart, 1994

Yellowstone: Land of Fire and Ice, 1995

Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist, 1997

Cowboy Island: Farewell to a Ranching Legacy, 2000 (Nita Vail, editor)

John Muir: Nature’s Visionary, 2000 (biography)

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, 2001

Long Fiction:

Heart Mountain, 1988

Short Fiction:

Wyoming Stories, 1986 (bound with City Tales by Edward Hoagland)

Drinking Dry Clouds: Stories from Wyoming, 1991

Poetry:

Geode / Rock Body, 1970

To Touch the Water, 1981

Arctic Heart: A Poem Cycle, 1992

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

A Blizzard Year: Timmy’s Almanac of the Seasons, 1999

Biography

Though Gretel Ehrlich (AYR-lihk) was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, she has since 1976 made her home–spiritually and physically–in Wyoming. She attended Bennington College, the University of California, the Los Angeles Film School, and the New School for Social Research, but her writings also clearly indicate that she learned from the natural landscape to which she was drawn. She created a home for herself in Shell, Wyoming, dividing her time between writing, ranching, and sheepherding. Ehrlich writes in a variety of genres but seems most at home in her essays in which she offers new ways to grasp the interconnectedness of the landscape and people of the western United States.{$I[AN]9810001928}{$I[A]Ehrlich, Gretel}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Ehrlich, Gretel}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Ehrlich, Gretel}{$I[tim]1946;Ehrlich, Gretel}

Ehrlich won the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1986, for The Solace of Open Spaces, and the Whiting Writers’ Award, Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, in 1987. Her best work binds a natural process, often an event in the western weather or a dominant feature of a natural landscape, with a corresponding human emotion or shift in human perception. She encourages readers not merely to “see” these natural processes as mirrors of the human condition but rather to use them to focus on their own thinking about the necessity of living in landscapes (physical or emotional, urban or rural, eastern or western)–landscapes that can shift in a moment from harsh confrontation to joyful support.

Ehrlich’s first nonfiction collection, The Solace of Open Spaces, contains twelve essays that began as journal entries Ehrlich made during the filming of a Public Broadcasting Service documentary on Wyoming sheepherding. During the project, Ehrlich learned that her lover (and partner in the documentary) had a terminal illness. Returning to the isolation of Shell after his death, she wrote, “Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. . . . We might also learn how to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins.” Ehrlich blends the landscape of northern Wyoming with the healing properties of silence, emptiness, and simplicity in a way that is reminiscent of the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

The primary subject of her 1988 novel, Heart Mountain, is the experience of Japanese Americans interned during World War II at the internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. She manages to convey the horror of a foreign war even as she barely mentions the war itself. This war, in a way similar to the “space” Ehrlich writes about in The Solace of Open Spaces, dominates through its very absence.

In A Match to the Heart, Ehrlich describes how her wakefulness and her very life were put to an extreme test: Walking with her dogs immediately before an August thunderstorm in the Wyoming mountains, she was struck by lightning and nearly killed. Waking from the strike itself, she first thinks about her dogs, then tries to remember the correct Buddhist instruction regarding dying. What follows in this intensely autobiographical book is less an account of the lightning strike itself than of the difficulty Ehrlich encountered in finding sympathetic medical professionals capable of helping her return to a sense of normality and a restored sense of self. A Match to the Heart finally returns, solidly, to the power of space itself as Ehrlich recalls the themes that invigorate her best writing.

Ehrlich continued to be most noted for her nature essays, which began to encompass more diverse geographies. Ehrlich wrote Questions of Heaven after taking a type of pilgrimage to China. During the seven years after the lightning strike, Ehrlich journeyed through Greenland on several occassions. Her insights and understandings gained during these visits are explored in This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland.

Ehrlich’s best writing evokes the spirit of a traditional Zen koan: The enhanced perceptions of those who remain awakened in an empty natural landscape entirely fill the emptiness in that space.

BibliographyKaza, Stephanie. “Gretel Ehrlich.” In American Nature Writers. Vol. 1 in The Scribner Writers Series. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996. A good introductory essay, which provides biographical information, a discussion of her important works up to Yellowstone: Land of Fire and Ice, and analysis placing her within the context of American nature writers.Morris, Gregory L. Gretel Ehrlich. No. 150 in the Boise State University Western Writers series, edited by James H. Maguire and Tara Penry. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2001. The first comprehensive study on Ehrlich. Includes bibliographical references.Nelson, Barney. “Gretel Ehrlich.” In Twentieth-Century American Western Writers. 2d series. Vol. 212 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Richard H. Cracroft. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999. A solid essay providing biographical information and addressing Ehrlich’s work through Questions from Heaven.
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