Ehrlich, Gretel 1946-
EHRLICH, Gretel 1946-
PERSONAL: Born January 1, 1946, in Santa Barbara, CA; daughter of Grant C. (a business consultant) and Gretchen Woerz Ehrlich; married Press Stephens. Education: Attended Bennington College, University of California at Los Angeles Film School, and New School for Social Research.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Pantheon Publicity, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer. Documentary filmmaker for Public Broadcasting System, 1967–76. Has also worked as a ranch hand and sheepherder.
AWARDS, HONORS: Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1986, for The Solace of Open Spaces; Whiting Writer's Award, Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship; National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
Geode/Rock Body, Capricorn Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1970.
To Touch the Water, edited by Tom Trusky, Ahsahta Press (Boise, ID), 1981.
Arctic Heart: A Poem Cycle, imagery by David Buckland, Capra Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1992.
Wyoming Stories (includes "Thursdays at Snuff's"; bound with City Tales, by Edward Hoagland), Capra Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1986.
Heart Mountain (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1988.
Drinking Dry Clouds: Stories from Wyoming (includes "Kai's Mother" and "Thursdays at Snuff's"), Capra Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1991, published with new foreword by Ehrlich, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2005.
A Blizzard Year: Timmy's Almanac of the Seasons (novel; for children), illustrated by Kate Kiesler, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1999.
Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1997.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2001.
The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2004.
The Solace of Open Spaces (essays; includes "About Men," "From a Sheepherder's Notebook," and "A Storm, the Cornfield, and Elk"), Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
Islands, the Universe, Home (essays; includes "Architecture," "The Bridge to Heaven," "The Fasting Heart," "Home Is How Many Places," and "Summer"), Viking Press (New York, NY), 1991.
A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck by Lightning (memoir), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994, Fourth Estate (London, England), 1995.
Yellowstone: Land of Fire & Ice (natural history), photographs by Willard and Kathy Clay, HarperCollins West (San Francisco, CA), 1995.
(Editor, selector, and contributor) Life in the Saddle: Writings and Photographs, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1995.
The Horse Whisperer: An Illustrated Companion to the Major Motion Picture, foreword by Robert Redford, photographs by Jay Dusard and others, Dell (New York, NY), 1998.
Cowboy Island: Farewell to a Ranching Legacy, edited by Nita Vail, introduction by Marla Daily, Santa Cruz Island Foundation (Santa Barbara, CA), 2000.
Autopsy, Public Broadcasting System, 1969.
By Pass, Public Broadcasting System, 1972.
Counting on Breath, Public Broadcasting System, 1976.
Lives, Public Broadcasting System, 1976.
Contributor to anthologies, including Legacy of Light, edited by Constance Sullivan (New York, NY), Knopf, 1987; Montana Spaces: Essays and Photographs in Celebration of Montana, edited by William Kittredge, Lyons & Burford (New York, NY), 1988; The Writer and Her Work: Women's Prose and Poetry about Nature, edited by Janet Sternburn, Norton (New York, NY), 1991; Patagonia: Notes from the Field, edited by Nora Gallagher, Chronicle (San Francisco, CA), 1999. Contributor to periodicals including Harper's Bazaar, New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Sierra, Life, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Audubon, Architectural Digest, Antaeus, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside, Shambhala Sun, New York Times Magazine, and Time.
ADAPTATIONS: An abridged version of The Solace of Open Spaces was recorded on audiocassette and released by Audio Press (Louisville, CO), 1988.
SIDELIGHTS: Acclaimed essayist and fiction writer Gretel Ehrlich took five years to write her first work of nonfiction, The Solace of Open Spaces, which began as a series of journal entries but evolved into a collection of twelve essays. In 1976 Ehrlich traveled from New York City to Wyoming to make a documentary film on sheepherders for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). She was by herself because her coworker and boyfriend, David, had just been informed that he was terminally ill. After she completed the film, Ehrlich learned that David had passed away, and in response to her anguish she began to travel. After two years of wandering, she found her way back to Shell, Wyoming, hoping to lose herself in solitude by learning the fine points of sheepherding. Ehrlich found a sense of contentedness in the landscape and was comforted by the manners of the people she found in the small community. "For the first time I was able to take up residence on earth with no alibis, no self-promoting schemes," she wrote in The Solace of Open Spaces.
The essay collection, which won the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award in 1986, evokes the beautiful Wyoming landscape and describes the isolation, forty-degrees-below-zero winters, and cabin fever experienced by the state's residents. Ehrlich details her life herding cattle and sheep; one essay argues against the American myth of rough, tough, silent cowboys. Critics praised Ehrlich's characterization of the people she finds in tiny Shell and her descriptions of the land itself. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Kristiana Gregory called the book "a tender, poetic salute to the West," and National Review contributor Paul Krza wrote, "The Solace of Open Spaces captures the essence of a huge, desolate, yet cozy place, where the notched-down and uncrowded pace of life easily compensates for the lack of nearness to the levers of power and the comfort of the urbanized landscape."
Ehrlich had written two volumes of poetry before The Solace of Open Spaces, and after her book's success she moved to prose fiction with the collection Wyoming Stories. The narratives in this volume serve as extended studies of the characters who would later populate her first novel, Heart Mountain, published in 1988. Heart Mountain is set during World War II, a time when the United States organized camps to hold Japanese Americans, who were considered possible threats to national security because of their Japanese ancestry. The Heart Mountain Relocation Camp is constructed near fictional Luster, Wyoming; it becomes the home of nearly 11,000 Japanese Americans overnight. Ehrlich tells the story of individuals trying to maintain the guise of humanity in the face of questionable practices, with a narrative that shifts among characters both inside and outside the camp. Linking the interned Japanese Americans and the Wyoming residents are two lovers: the painter and camp resident Mariko Okubo and rancher McKay Allison. The lives of both characters are difficult: aside from the trauma the camp induces, Mariko suffers abuse at the hands of her husband, and McKay experiences guilt because a leg injury renders him unable to serve in the war. Other relationships also pull on McKay: his housekeeper, Bobby Korematsu, is saddened because the country that is his home is now at war with the land of his ancestors; McKay's erratic love relationship with Madeleine Heaney, whose husband is being held as a prisoner of war, wearies him as he wavers between her and Mariko; and McKay's brother, who is unhappy with his brother's relationship with Mariko, goes off to fight in the war, further complicating their difficult relationship. The driving force of the narrative, however, remains the interaction between McKay and Mariko.
Heart Mountain received favorable reviews upon its publication. David Kishiyama, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called the novel "such a superb account of those dark war years it should be required reading for all Japanese-Americans." Twentieth-Century Western Writers contributor Marian Blue noted, "Rarely has World War II literature successfully reached into the rural West and created a microcosm; Ehrlich had done so. She brings the world chaos into focus; by the conclusion, we understand that there are no winners of a war, but only survivors left in various stages of healing."
Ehrlich returned to writing stories with the collection Drinking Dry Clouds: Stories from Wyoming. The volume combines the four stories that originally appeared in Wyoming Stories with an additional section, "After the War," which consists of ten new pieces. In "Thursdays at Snuff's," four people must take refuge in a bar during a power outage, and they tell each other their life stories to pass the time. "Kai's Mother," one of the new stories, relates a Japanese woman's struggle to reorganize her and her husband's life after having been held in an internment camp for four years. New York Times Book Review contributor Christopher Tilghman wrote, "Together, the people in Ms. Ehrlich's stories seem compelled to bear witness to their times, to their land and the lives they have lived upon it. Thus, as a sort of testament, Drinking Dry Clouds achieves a mournful lyricism and a surprising weight."
Ehrlich's second collection of essays, Islands, the Universe, Home, is again set in the Wyoming of The Solace of Open Spaces, but in this volume the author also travels to the Channel Islands of California and to Japan. These islands and a third, a retreat in the middle of a small lake on Ehrlich's ranch, are the islands named in the title, and the last, which Ehrlich calls Alcatraz, is where she retreats to observe the seasons and to ponder. Her essays explore subjects as diverse as forestry management, the poetic works of Dante, Japanese folklore, geology, and loneliness. In Tribune Books Victoria Jenkins praised Ehrlich's prose, identifying it as "dense with metaphor and simile, rich in observed detail and recorded emotion," and she concluded that the author "is at her best where she is most at home, and the most engaging of these essays are grounded in Wyoming—accounts of a heifer in trouble, training a horse, a wounded eagle, and always, the land and the weather in an infinity of permutations—subjects Ehrlich's eloquence and passion elevate to poetry."
Poetry still had an allure for the author. Arctic Heart: A Poem Cycle, created by Ehrlich in collaboration with choreographer Siobhan Davies, composer Jean Marc, and visual artist David Buckland, is a ballet that debuted in London, England, in 1991. She wrote it in a flurry of activity, immediately after returning to London from the Canadian Arctic, where she had visited with a friend studying the historical evolution of seals. "The imagery invokes a primitive literary Mystery," wrote David Axelrod in Western American Literature, "but little insight or revelation. The poet, it seems to me, is still too stunned by the extremity of her recent experience in the Arctic to meditate effectively on its significance, to convey its complexity, its sheer weirdness. There is too little of Ehrlich's usual attention to physical detail and its interconnecting metaphors. "In contrast, Belles Lettres critic Renee Hausmann Shea found in the poetry" an intriguing merging of worlds"—the modern world of the tent and scientific equipment of the researchers in the midst of an ancient world of frozen sea, lit by perpetual daylight.
Ehrlich's life has made its way into her nonfiction as well. A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck by Lightning is the true story of Ehrlich's near-death experience. While walking her dogs late one afternoon on her Wyoming ranch, out of a clear blue sky she was struck by a bolt of lightning, leaving her with "fernlike burns" over most of her skin and severely injuring her both physically and emotionally. A brain stem injury left her weak, dizzy, and subject to frequent bouts of unconsciousness. One of her beloved dogs was also injured by the lightning strike. Julia Glass stated in Tribune Books: "To depict such an incident lucidly, without melodrama, all its hallucinations and absurdities intact, is a feat accomplished only by writers, like Ehrlich, with an eye for details both worldly and occult." Susie Boyt, writing in the London Review of Books, commented, "A Match to the Heart is a tale of solitude. There is no one to share Ehrlich's ordeal intimately, to shoulder half the anxiety, half the danger…. Her solitude is almost never commented on; it is just a truth about her. When she does have intimate contact with people her aloneness is emphasised." Boyt further noted, "Something of the spirit of fire remains in her. In the months following the lightning strike the lobby of a hotel bursts into flames as she enters it, a plane catches fire in front of her on the runway, a forest fire starts up as her plane is landing, and although she documents all this bravely, it obviously troubles her."
Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist is the account of Ehrlich's May 1995 trip to China with the intent of climbing Emei Shan, one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains. Ehrlich explains, "The Chinese phrase for 'going on a pilgrimage,' ch'ao-shan chin-hsiang, actually means 'paying one's respect to the mountain.'" As for their significance, she quotes China scholar Charles Hartman: "The universe is a mountain whose summit is spiritual perfection…. The spiritual life is thus a journey to the summit of the mountain." Ultimately, though, she finds the sacred mountain has been defamed, now, as just another tourist trap. "After struggling up monkey-and bat-infested trails to reach this physical and spiritual goal, she discovers the once-venerable peak has been rendered tawdry and commercial by "three cheesy, Las Vegas-style hotels." Ehrlich concludes that "there are many false summits … and at the top there is only emptiness. The beginning and end are the same."
Questions of Heaven was not Ehrlich's only travel book. In the early 2000s, she published several others, which primarily focus on nature. Ehrlich began the research for what became This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland in 1993. While recovering from the injuries she suffered in the lightning strike described in A Match to the Heart, the author traveled to Greenland. She returned to Greenland each year for seven years to research This Cold Heaven while writing other books.
In This Cold Heaven the author describes the history, culture, and way of life in Greenland. She primarily focuses on the Inuit people. "Greenland reminds me what human beings can really be if they're just left to live without the whole construct of politics and a market economy and global everything; and how beautifully those people can live to their potential in a simple way," Ehrlich told Dave Welch of Powells.com. The author also includes descriptions of her own adventures and observations during her travel and information about who she met along the way. In addition, Ehrlich discusses what other explorers have learned. A particularly influential explorer for the author was Knud Rasmussen. She talks about what he experienced in Greenland when he explored the country in the early twentieth century. Critics took note of the harsh reality that Ehrlich experiences and thrives in. "Blending natural science, history, ethnology and a wealth of keen personal observations," Paul McHugh wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, "This Cold Heaven is a prose tapestry created by a talented writer who is also a fearless researcher—frequently putting her own well-being on the line in order to touch a truth."
Ehrlich's stylistic achievements also drew critical interest. For example, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted, "Stylistically, Ehrlich achieves an arctic clarity, pared down and translucent." While Jenny Diski, writing in the Guardian, took issue with Ehrlich's extensive use of poetic language, the critic found much to like. Diski commented, "When her poetry fails her and she simply describes a hunt or walk on the ice, there is great relief at being allowed a clear view of an extraordinary place and its immensely resourceful people."
Ehrlich's next book was influenced by her experiences in Greenland, too. The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold is both a travel book and a serious look at the cold and ice. Writing in E, Francesca Rheannon acknowledged that in Ehrlich's writing, "objective fact and subjective experience are woven together with lyrical descriptions of place, scientific information, and spiritual reflection." In the book, Ehrlich looks at cold weather and cold regions of the earth by traveling through the Americas, from Antarctica's tip near South America to the Arctic Circle, over a six-month period. She writes about what is changing in winter and ice, especially the melting of ice caps and small glaciers. Ehrlich also wonders what will happen to humankind if the polar ice caps erode and disappear. OnEarth contributor Laura Wright noted that "the book's greatest strength lies in Ehrlich's ability to elucidate our less obvious losses. "These losses included a link to our past through nature and the potential extinction of species.
In addition to travel books about nature, Ehrlich has written about nature in another way by publishing a biography of John Muir titled John Muir: Nature's Visionary. Muir was an early twentieth-century conservationist and the founder of the Sierra Club. Donna Seaman believed Ehrlich succeeded in her biography, asserting in Booklist that "Ehrlich beautifully captures Muir's essence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 212: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, Second Series, 1999, pp. 44-51; Volume 275: Twentieth-Century American Nature Writers: Prose, 2003, pp. 121-128.
Ehrlich, Gretel, A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck by Lightning, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.
Ehrlich, Gretel, The Solace of Open Spaces, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
Ehrlich, Gretel, Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1997.
Twentieth-Century Western Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, spring, 1993, Renee Hausmann Shea, review of Arctic Heart: A Poem Cycle, p. 251.
Booklist, January 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of John Muir: Nature's Visionary, p. 883; October 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, p. 378.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 27, 2002, "Warmth and Joy among the Heroes of the Frozen North," review of This Cold Heaven.
E, March-April, 2005, Francesca Rheannon, "Cold, Cold Heart," review of The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold, p. 63.
Guardian (London, England), February 16, 2002, Jenny Diski, "Saturday Review: A Bellyful of Auks: Greenland Leaves Jenny Diski Feeling Queasy," review of This Cold Heaven, p. 9.
Journal of Environmental Education, fall, 2001, Theodore S. May, review of John Muir, p. 40.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2001, review of This Cold Heaven, p. 186.
Library Journal, November 15, 2004, Wilda Williams, "Gretel Ehrlich," interview with Ehrlich, p. 84.
London Review of Books, July 6, 1995, Susie Boyt, review of A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck by Lightning, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 5, 1986, Kristiana Gregory, review of The Solace of Open Spaces, p. 6; October 30, 1988, David Kishiyama, review of Heart Mountain, p. 6.
National Geographic Adventure, November-December, 2001, Kalee Thompson, review of This Cold Heaven, p. 59.
National Review, July 4, 1986, Paul Krza, "Life in the Empty Quarter," review of The Solace of Open Spaces, pp. 42-44.
Natural Health, November 2004, Gail Hudson, "Gretel Ehrlich," interview with Ehrlich, p. 28.
New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1988, Garrett Hongo, review of Heart Mountain, p. 31; May 26, 1991, Christopher Tilghman, review of Drinking Dry Clouds: Stories from Wyoming, p. 6; May 18, 1997, Alexandra Hall, review of Questions of Heaven: The Chinese Journeys of an American Buddhist, p. 20.
OnEarth, winter, 2005, Laura Wright, review of The Future of Ice, p. 41.
Publishers Weekly, October 22, 2001, review of This Cold Heaven, p. 62.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 2002, Paul McHugh, "A Shivering Slice of Heaven: Gretel Ehrlich's Riveting Account of Arctic Life," review of This Cold Heaven, p. 4.
Sewanee Review, October, 1995, Pat C. Hoy II, "Facing about to Confront the Reaper," review of A Match to the Heart, pp. 640-645.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), Claire Messud, review of A Match to the Heart, March 17, 1995, p. 28.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 6, 1988, Charles L. Larson, review of Heart Mountain, p. 1; November 3, 1991, Victoria Jenkins, review of Islands, the Universe, Home, p. 7; July 10, 1994, Julia Glass, review of A Match to the Heart, p. 5.
Western American Literature fall, 1993, David Axelrod, review of Arctic Heart, pp. 275-276.
Women's Review of Books, November, 1994, Rosellen Brown, review of A Match to the Heart, p. 7.
Gretel Ehrlich Home Page, http://www.parkcentralwebs.com/GretelEhrlich (August 24, 2005).
Powells.com, http://www.powells.com/ (March 28, 2003), Dave Welch, interview with Gretel Ehrlich.