Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Tentacled Splendor of Nature: An interview with Gretel Ehrlich

Maybe it's because we're both from Wyoming, maybe it's because she lives so close to the land that her very words are perfumed with the loam of soil, maybe it's because I admire anyone who can be struck by lightning and not only live to tell about it but do it so eloquently* ("Before electricity carved its blue path toward me, before the negative charge shot down from cloud to ground...I could not hear because I was already dead"), but I've always been drawn to Gretel Ehrlich and her books, especially The Solace of Open Spaces.  So, when Michelle Gluch wrote asking if I'd be interested in posting an interview she recently conducted with Ehrlich, I didn't hesitate to say "Yes!"  Here's their conversation from Nov. 2, 2011:

Michelle Gluch:  One of things I admire most about your writing is your ability to take the reader along with you to these beautiful places.  Wyoming and Greenland hold a special place in your heart, but are there any other landscapes you would like to share with us?

Gretel Ehrlich:  Those are sort of my heart songs.  Wyoming is my real heart song and I’ve spent so much time in Greenland that it is just a part of my retina.  When most people see green, they feel comfortable; when I see snow and ice or an iceberg, I feel at home.  I like everywhere I am because every place has its own magical quality.  I mean every place outside of cities.  I like cities, too; but in the wilder world there’s birds everywhere, there’s all kinds of living things everywhere, and also the tentacled splendors of all sorts of trees and plants and microclimates.  So I’ve tried to absorb whole ecosystems wherever I am, and I’ve traveled in quite a few places: all over Japan, western China, Ladoch, Tibet, the tip of South America, and places in Europe and Scandinavia.  But I also find [that feeling] in some little gravel bar in a river someplace, or an island.  There are some little islands in Yellowstone Lake where I’ve been able to stay for a few days—every place has its own magic.  I just try to stay open to every place.

Nature is clearly a defining element in your life.  Was it always this way for you?

I’m afraid so.  Growing up, we had dogs and horses (I was raised on a horse farm).  My sister’s favorite story about me is about the time when she went out on a date and, after she came home, went into to my room to see if I was asleep.  The dog was in the bed with its head on the pillow and the covers all tucked in; I was asleep on the floor.  That pretty much describes how I feel about everything.  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I had trouble with people, but I prefer to think of it in a more constructive way.  I just feel that limiting dialogue with just one’s own species is really provincial.  So I’ve tried to expand my dialogue with everything.  I hope people don’t think I’m crazy.  I mean dialogue in a real way—not just talking to yourself—but really seeing everything as living and having its place in the natural hierarchy of things that we are co-resident with.

I like that word “co-resident.”

Yeah, instead of “I own this piece of property and I own everything on it,” I try to see it in a more open way.  It’s very nourishing when you do that.  I think “nourishing” is the operative word.  I just try to be outside every day, no matter what the weather.  It’s so complex, and so immensely beautiful.  I feel the beauty of the world really saves me from my own torments and habits and neurosis and doubts and self-hate.

So nature is your healer.


Whenever your name is mentioned, the response is always “Ehrlich, the nature writer?”  Do you consider yourself a nature writer?   How do you feel about being labeled in that way?

You know it’s fine with me.  It’s better than being called a travel writer because as I always point out—if you get up to go to the bathroom you’ve traveled.  We all wander around and look at things.  But of course, humans are a part of nature, so if I choose to write a novel that involves human characters as well as dogs and horses and wildlife and birds and trees and rivers, then that’s part of nature, too.  I try to appreciate how we’re all kind of organized together and how we influence and learn from each other.

It seems to me you have an extremely adventurous spirit—traveling the world, often alone.  I call this “feeding your fire.”  Which do you enjoy more—the adventures or the writing?

Writing is always hard but if you’re driven to do it, you just do it.  Traveling alone can be funny and wonderful and also harrowing. I have friends who have been all sorts of dangerous, difficult places; but I go to places where there is an opening for me.  Sometimes I have to go first to find that out.  There is no agenda.  It just happens.  I travel completely instinctively.  I don’t have anything organized in my mind.

You just go where the story takes you?

I just see something and I go.  It doesn’t always work out.  The first time I went to Greenland alone, the Inuit subsistence hunters said, “Oh, we thought you had money problems, boyfriend problems.  Are you going to commit suicide?”  The second time I went they just watched me a lot, as well as the third and fourth and fifth and tenth and fifteenth times.  But by then I was just a member of their extended family.

You became an insider.

Yeah, in a way.  You’re never really an insider.  As a writer, I’m not sure you’re even an insider in your own culture because you kind of have to stand outside to see where you are.  You know I had some adventures while traveling, but I don’t seek adventure per se.  It just sometimes happens.  Lately I’ve been writing about the tsunami survivors in northeastern Japan, and while it’s not such a physical adventure to go there, it’s a much more emotional adventure.  It’s a landscape so altered, so devastated, it’s kind of mind-boggling.  So, there are all kinds of adventures.

Your writing includes a lot of interior thought.  Can you tell me about your process?  Do you keep a journal while on these adventures?

I take constant notes.  I probably have thousands of notebooks.  There is no way you can remember everything.  I think it’s so important to get a sense of the real texture and nuance and grit of a place.  What does it look like today?  Every hour is different, and every minute is different, and certainly every month, and every season, and every continent, and every hemisphere.  I just got an email and a bunch of wonderful photographs from my friends in northwestern Greenland because on the 24th of October the sun went down for the last time until late February.  Every year they send me pictures on that day when there is still a little light in the sky.  It’s such a different world from what we have in the middle latitudes of North America.  So you have to kind of put your nose into these places in every way and really experience all these changes that happen in order to write about them.  In order to do that—unless you are some kind of strange genius—you need to be taking notes or the particulars will escape you quickly.

What things do you think are most important when writing about place or what advice do you give your writing student in regards to place?

When I had my ranch up in Wyoming, I would go on the same little walk around the lake, every day, at the same time of day.  I would see the changes within a continuum, but at the same time I was seeing the “whole” place: the Wyoming sky, the change of seasons, and dealing with livestock.  It is learning to be alert on every level.  It’s like looking at a cloudy sky, where there are layers after layers of clouds.  To understand what each layer means, and to understand what it all means together, and what movement through the sky means, and what the atmosphere is made of, you have to be curious and digressive in your writing.  You have to do tremendous amounts of fact reading, research reading, on one tiny topic, to write about clouds.  Then you have to think about and observe cloud formations—even if you are writing some tiny bit, you need to know to understand the whole thing, the whole picture.  From that, you can take what is resonant or alludes to in a metaphorical way, like internal cloud layers or internal weathers.

It sounds like you’re telling us to be open to not only a lot of research and hard work, but ourselves, and to new experience, and to where the story takes us.

You never know where the story is going to take you, but that is part of the fun, otherwise you’d get bored.  I never plot it out.  I just see where a day of writing takes me.  Of course if I am writing a book, I know what it’s about and I have my material amassed, but I don’t know how it’s going to lay down on the page.  But that's part of the fun; every day must have its own surprise.  The most important thing for everybody, for all of us, is to read deeply and widely.  If you're a non-fiction writer—particularly as an American writer—you need to start with Thoreau and Emerson then read everything that has been written since then.  And go back further to Montaigne, to people in Europe, to Asia.  Those are your teachers, those wonderful books, as well as the current ones coming out daily.  Resolve to read only the best.  There's not enough time to read junk.  I'm a terrible snob about what I read.  If you’re not a writer and you read all sorts of things, all right.  But, if you’re a writer and if you’re going to dedicate your life to it, then you have a lot of hard work and reading in front of you.

You’re a very prolific writer.  Do you have a favorite piece?

Oh, I don’t know, I like them all.  I like my book about when I first went to Greenland, before the climate crisis started destroying the ice there, called This Cold Heaven.  I worked on that book for many years.  I’d just write whenever I went there, in every season.  I traveled up the coast and I finally made it up to the top—the inhabited top part—of Greenland, and I had the luxury of time to sort of marinate.  So, that is one of my favorite books.

Is your favorite piece the same as your most successful piece?

No, just the opposite.  That book won the Pen Thoreau Award years and years after it was published, and that made me very happy.  But The Solace of Open Spaces has been my most successful book, as well as A Match to the Heart which is about being struck by lightning.  I’ve been writing so long, they each represent an era in terms of my writing and my life.  It’s hard to pick one.

What advice would you give to new and emerging writers?

Read a lot.  Take notes.  And wander around with a sense of curiosity and discovery and humor.  See what happens to you.  Don’t start out with an idea that is really firm then try to stick things in.  Start in a more raw place and see what kind of letters fall on your skin and go from there.

Michelle Gluch is an author with more than fifty Idaho-based stories, articles, and photographs published in print and on the Internet.  Her writings are rich with details of her home in Southwestern Idaho.  Michelle holds a BA in English with a writing emphasis, and is currently a graduate student studying Composition and Rhetoric, at Boise State University.

*In A Match to the Heart


  1. Once I discovered Gretel Ehrlich, I couldn't stop reading. Thank you for posting the interview! I also have lots of respect for Michelle Gluch. I know her as Chelle. She's a dear friend.

  2. wonderful interview and introduction to a new-to-me writer... her books sound marvelous

  3. Great questions, David, and great answers from Gretel. Thanks for sharing this. I'll tweet the link.

  4. Absolutely loved this and can't wait to add some Ehrlich to my library. Thanks, David.

  5. I'm glad you all like the interview. But, really, the thanks should be going to Chelle Gluch for the wonderful conversation. I'm just the middle man here.

  6. Thanks for Michelle for a wonderful interview with an amazing writer. It's a privilege to read a more intimate conversation with Ehrlich after having been inspired by her writing for so long!

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