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The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), by Gretel EhrlichI recently discovered Gretel Ehrlich, not that she isn’t well known by others. The discovery merely reflects my ignorance...and yet, I get great joy from finding new food—someone whose words I immediately want to absorb. I found the book in a used book store. The title alone intrigued me—one who thinks that soul nurturing places, solitude and silence are the final luxuries. And her essays are about Wyoming, my neighbor state and our least populated one—to me, a feature, not a bug. Also, two of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard and Edward Abbey, who I’ve re-read multiple times, gave her high praise. I expect to read more of Ehrlich.In the preface, she tells us that she “suffered a tragedy and made a drastic geographical and cultural move fairly baggageless,” but she wasn’t losing her grip. She added:What I had lost (at least for a while) was my appetite for the life I had left: city surroundings, old friends, familiar comforts. It had occurred to me that comfort was only a disguise for discomfort, reference points, a disguise for what will always change...For the first time I was able to take up residence on earth with no alibis, no self-promoting schemes.In her first essay, she writes of John, a sheep man who put her to work—extended hours of it, which she says woke her up:The arid country was a clean slate. Its absolute indifference steadied me...Because ranch work is a physical, and these days, economic strain, being ‘at home on the range’ is a matter of vigor, self-reliance, and common sense. A person’s life is not a series of dramatic events for which he or she is applauded or exiled but a slow accumulation of days, seasons, years, fleshed out by the generational weight of one’s family and anchored by a land-bound sense of place.Later, she quotes someone but can’t remember who, “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are only consequences.” Yep, “absolute indifference.” And even later, “There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality an invigoration...Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are....”She says:The solitude in which westerners live makes them quiet...Sentence structure is shortened. Descriptive words are dropped, even verbs...What’s behind this laconic style is shyness. There is no vocabulary for the subject of feelings. It’s not a hangdog shyness, or anything coy— always there’s a robust spirit in evidence behind the restraint...The silence is profound. Instead of talking, we seem to share one eye. Keenly observed, the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.As the book continues, she writes of Wyoming’s history, the changes caused by fences and isolationist conservative people who believe that “honesty is stronger medicine than sympathy, which may console but often conceals.” She also tells us about hermits, madness, cabin fever, extended drunks, suicide, sheepherders as “outsiders,” and people so ornery that they’d “rather starve than agree on anything.”She says, “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.” She writes of some very strong women and the effects of brutal “smooth-skulled winters.”Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures...The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.She explains all this, and tells us about men, something other than the romanticized Marlboro man version: “If he’s ‘strong and silent’ it’s because there’s probably no one to talk to.” There is an effect of “geographical vastness,” on “emotional evolution” but also a “true vulnerability in evidence...”Ehrlich delves into the unsentimental relationship with animals—they must produce. And:Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at the time, not who we’ve been or how are bank accounts describe us. What’s obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us...we’re transparent to them and thus exposed—we’re finally ourselves.She writes about water, or the lack thereof: “We can drown it it or else stay buoyant, quench our thirst, stay alive.” And she tells us about “farmer’s work” of irrigation vs. ranching. She gets married, buys a ranch, tells us about the National Finals Rodeo, then held in Oklahoma City. (It’s now in Las Vegas.) She writes about her attendance the “Crow Fair” and a “Sun Dance” and ends the book as poetically as she began it—beautifully written, insightful—a wonderful book.

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