In the afterword of Unsolaced, Gretel Ehrlich writes that she began writing it in 2017 “as a bookend to The Solace of Open Spaces,” her memoir originally published in 1984. She’s written several memoirs since then, including the essay collection Islands, The Universe, Home; This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, about her travels in a country that’s become a bellwether in climate change; and A Match to the Heart, about her experience being struck by lightning.
In this new book, she returns to the big topics of her life that this previous nonfiction has covered: the loss of her life partner that led to her residing in Wyoming while working through grief, the aftereffects of that lightning strike (she writes here, hauntingly, that the “match” the incident lit still burns), and her extensive travels in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Greenland, observing changes in the people and land over years.
These changes lead to the main uniting theme throughout Unsolaced — Ehrlich’s observations on climate change and the current dire state of the natural world. She allows the people in these affected locales, like the native population, generations of hunters and fishermen in Greenland, to express what the changes mean to them (“We don’t know how to call this recent weather. It is foreign to us and has no name.”) And of course it all leads to human behavior towards nature and each other.
We humans have made a world where common sense, compassion, and care for one another and the planet has become too much of a rarity.
Open Spaces is exquisite for how Ehrlich sifts through the waves of grief that come in the wake of her partner’s death. She stayed in Wyoming and worked on ranches, a life of cowboying that suited her. It’s one of my favorite books with some of the most beautiful writing and lines I’ve read so often I memorized them. Unsolaced feels, to me, less of an ending to that book than it does a sort of survey of all of Ehrlich’s dips into memoir throughout her extraordinary life, aided by her gifts for observation, empathy, and description. It’s not categorized as an essay collection, but the chapters feel more loosely connected than a linear, traditional memoir.
I try to count the split-end strands of lost friendships spliced to new loves, betrayals and failures, houses built, lived in, and sold, as if nothing could possibly be held close or hold me motionless, as if there were no door I couldn’t exit, no door that would let me in.
Much of the early portion tells about her time cowboying in Wyoming and the people she connected with there. As much as I loved her previous book in the same setting, I loved this part least. There’s just a lot about cows. But when her writing hits its peaks, describing nature and its meaning to those living in it and how it’s all changing, it’s unrivaled.
What has been forgotten, gone unnoticed? Stacked notebooks don’t begin to frame it all, yet I page through them omnivorously, trying to catch a glimpse of myself and others, and the places we’ve lived in. How do we know anything? How do we lose it so easily?
I’ve moved too much — something like twenty-eight times since I came of age — and I can’t always anchor my spirit. But why would I want to? Anchor it to what? I’ve loved each place deeply. I try to imagine the comfort of sameness — those friends who live in the houses where they were born or to which they returned, and imagine too the discomfort it must arouse, the sense of confinement.
In addition to questions like this, about being nomadic or unmoored and unable to change it, there’s a gorgeous, moving thread throughout about loss — namely, how easy it is to lose everything. I found this a perfect book to read in that strange end/beginning of a year time, especially the year we’ve just had, when I think everyone was reminded how terrifyingly close we can be, at any time, to losing it all.
But instead of being scary, even considering all that Ehrlich herself has lost, and the emphasis she places on our precarious position right now in terms of global warming, there’s a lot of comfort to be found in her words. She lost a lot, but it drew what was important into sharp focus. She’s made it through everything, changed but renewed. And although she notes that places in the natural world to seek solace are growing fewer, they’re still there, especially if you put in the work on yourself.
Where does solace reside when you have lost it all?
A lot here has echoes that feel especially strong framed by the past year. I was struck by lines quoted from a Greenlandic elder, Mamarut Simiaq: “The sun goes down for four months of the year and you can only see when there’s a full moon. I like it best when life is so strong it conquers the dark.” [emphasis mine]
During a chance meeting, the naturalist E.O. Wilson advised me to give up thinking we are doomed. “It’s our chance to practice altruism,” he said. I looked doubtful but he continued. “We have to wear suits of armor like World War II soldiers and just keep going. We have to get used to the changes in the landscape and step over the dead bodies. We have to discipline our behavior and not get stuck in tribal and religious restrictions. We have to work altruistically and cooperatively and make a new world.”
Wiser, more prescient words couldn’t be spoken right now. Although some stories here are stronger than others, the overarching messages are powerful and beautifully conveyed. Ehrlich’s nature writing is the genre at its best: lyrical, mysterious, personal and universal at once.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.