On a recent car trip from the southeast corner of the continental United States to its northwestern corner, I drove across Wyoming's startling landscape. It's where Gretel Ehrlich originally went to seek "the solace of open spaces," the title of her first collection of essays, written after the death of her partner.
As I traversed hundreds of miles of high plateau and mesas that were only occasionally interrupted by small freeway-adjacent towns, Ehrlich's description of Wyoming as a place where you lose the distinction between "background and foreground" played in my mind.
A similar sense informs a reading of her latest work, "Unsolaced," a memoir in which a lack of chronology — more a collection of beautifully rendered memory fragments — disrupts any notion that "background" experiences provide a progression in Ehrlich's life. Instead, she writes of the "quantum decoherence" that interested her much more than a planned life.
In "Unsolaced," Ehrlich coins a neologism to describe the impermanence of consolation after loss. Which does not mean that we are meant to be unhappy all of our lives: She argues that "loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness, and despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life."
Global climate change means that landscapes we thought were forever are impermanent, while the pandemic makes clear that control over our human environment is equally illusory. And yet, out of this instability, the kinetoscope-like structure of Ehrlich's memoir offers views of a rich and full life.
Chapters move between the varied environments Ehrlich has inhabited. In Greenland, human conceptions of time are meaningless in a geology that has remained unchanged for millions of years. In the far north of Greenland, no changes have been made by humans, and the only movements of rocks are the result of glaciers. Leaving there, Ehrlich notes that "It wasn't silence but absence descending as I stepped back. No grief, nothing tender, only this hall of light and rock."
She intersperses chapters set in Zimbabwe, California's Channel Islands, Kosovo, Japan, Greenland, Alaska and Wyoming. Ehrlich brings a keen awareness of place, the uniqueness of each setting, while also understanding their interconnectedness as part of the larger planet.
But it's also clear that Ehrlich's experiences in Wyoming as a rancher have made an impact on what she sees. Several times, Ehrlich argues that the loss of grasslands has been disastrous and that "timed grazing" (which she details) is restorative after the degradations caused by bad range practices and agriculture.
Along with her positive view of ranching, Ehrlich presents cowboy ethics as consisting of "hard work, modesty, humor, and a deep etiquette," a romanticized view in which issues of race and gender and who has access to the land are never really discussed. In a few sections, paternalism creeps into her language when discussing other cultures.
But while some of Ehrlich's observations of humans feel awkward, her language when describing the natural world is poetic. The "calligraphic shadow" on a hillside, or the fog that "elbows in" or rain that "wash[es] away what had not yet begun," create visceral responses in the reader. Ehrlich reminds us of what is at stake as we confront the climate crisis. "We are an endangered species and live under a dying sun, yet we keep gulping down the nectar of natural beauty as if it had no end."
Lorraine Berry lives in Oregon and tweets @BerryFLW.
Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is
By: Gretel Ehrlich.
Publisher: Pantheon Books, 256 pages, $26.95.