Nature, Buddhism, and Philosophy from Gretel Ehrlich

Book review: Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich (Amazon / Book Depository)

“Some days I think this one place isn’t enough. That’s when nothing is enough, when I want to live multiple lives and have the know-how and guts to love without limits. Those days, like today, I walk with a purpose but no destination. Only then do I see, at least momentarily, that most everything is here. To my left a towering cottonwood is lunatic with bird song. Under it, I’m a listening post while its great, gray trunk—like a baton—heaves its green symphony into the air. I walk and walk, from the falls, over Grouse Hill, to the dry wash. Today it is enough to make a shadow.”

I fell in love with Gretel Ehrlich’s sublime writing in The Solace of Open Spacesher artful account of losing her partner and throwing herself into working on a ranch in Wyoming, meditating on life, loss, grief and everything in between, underneath the wide open skies of the plains.

It was a remarkable, moving, and gorgeously written book, exquisite in every way. Because I’d loved it so much, I’d saved this essay collection, thinking it’d be something special that I didn’t want to be over quickly like my first experience reading her. My expectations were certainly high, but I think this would’ve fallen flat for me even if they weren’t.

What I love about Ehrlich’s writing and style is still there, but the nature-writing aspect here is much heavier, and it slides into territory of that genre I don’t particularly enjoy: heavy on metaphor, metaphysical without being particularly meaningful, and getting lost in description that never ends up telling much.

Ehrlich is dedicated to appreciating and celebrating the present, something certainly worthwhile and that feels joyful when reading her, and it’s not without a certain sadness either. She’s the epitome of feeling your feelings, whatever they are.

Ehrlich is undeniably a gifted writer with a strong command of language, and when her storytelling is rich, it’s simply the richest. But when it’s something too esoteric or a thread I can’t or don’t particularly want to follow, it becomes a chore to get through.

One piece, “The Bridge to Heaven,” details her trip to Japan on a kind of find-yourself quest. Ehrlich is a Buddhist, and wisps of these ideas and eastern spiritualism and its history float through her travelogue. It’s not bad writing, but neither is it the kind I find myself able to absorb well or connect with.

As with Open Spaces, there’s a lingering melancholy in these stories, but it’s far from unwelcome and it’s not oppressive. It speaks to what winter feels like, at some point, for all of us, I think. “That’s how I feel when winter breaks up inside me: heavy, upended, inert against the flow of a new season.”

Today I’m filled with longings—for what I’m not, for all the other lives I can’t lead, for what is impossible, for people I love who can’t be in my life. Passions of all sorts struggle soundlessly, or else, like the falls, they are all noise but can’t be seen.

Ehrlich has a style she repeats that makes this almost like a highly polished stream-of-consciousness at times: She chooses a moment, or a feeling, or a video-camera-like scene, and tells what it is somewhat plainly, just what’s happening. Then she lets that moment be the guide, leading on to the next thought or observation or connection in a hazy, meandering way, winding and ending up where it may. It’s like stream of consciousness, but different somehow, it’s more controlled and even academic. She’s a voracious reader and student, likening her thoughts and observations to philosophy, history, physics, biology. This is wonderfully on display as she narrates her hallucinations and thoughts during a bout of pneumonia.

Some favorite lines:

“Sap rises in trees and in me, and the hard knot of perseverance I cultivated to meet winter dissipates.”

“By what thin strands of luck we stay alive and know in which direction our feet are pointing! The snow continues. I keep thinking of the Crow word for loneliness, which translates literally as “I can’t see myself.” Perhaps the word was composed during a blizzard. Every morning my husband harnesses his team of black Percherons, and we make our way down what appears to have been a road—now mounded with drifts—to feed the cows. It’s a twelve-mile round trip. The dogs, running ahead, vanish under the snow, then leap straight up into the air as if to say, “I’m still here.”

I don’t think this is Ehrlich’s best work, but it feels deeply personal and meditative, like writing that she needed to get out of her, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of work. I would recommend reading her to anyone, but perhaps not to start with this one unless you’re particularly fond of nature writing with a philosophical, scientific bent.

Islands, the Universe, Home: Essays
by Gretel Ehrlich
published 1991

Amazon / Book Depository

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6 thoughts on “Nature, Buddhism, and Philosophy from Gretel Ehrlich

  1. “heavy on metaphor, metaphysical without being particularly meaningful”<- this reminds me of your comment on my review of The Sun is Also a Compass. It seems connected to the way people sometimes ascribe cliched meaning to their time in nature and it's something that really bothers me in nature writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It bothers me so much too! It was especially odd here because the first book of hers I read didn’t read like that at all. Maybe because these were essays and less formed around a more solid central topic like that one was. I love finding nature writing that avoids that, I definitely need to try The Sun is a Compass!

      Liked by 1 person

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