In 1976 Ehrlich travelled from her home in New York to Wyoming, the least populous of all US states, to shoot a film on sheep herders. While she was there, her partner David died. What started out as a work trip became the beginning of a new life, and a long and deep attachment to a place.
Originally published in 1985, it was republished by Daunt Books in 2019 with a wonderful introduction by Amy Liptrot, and it is obvious why. It is extraordinary.
The landscape is extreme with its open spaces, high mountains and bitter, winter winds. This brutal environment results in kindly adaptive people who value not toughness, as we are led to believe by the cowboy stereotype but toughing it out. And Ehrlich does not tough it out, she thrives. Sheep herding across the Wyoming badlands, riding up the sides of mountains, being struck by lightning and eventually developing a tender, sometimes humorous relationship with the quirky people of Wyoming and the beautiful, harsh landscape.
The Solace of Open Spaces meanders between the definitions of essay, nature writing and travel writing, never truly sticking to one, to its utmost benefit.
Ehrlich’s thoughtful observational style allows for rich descriptions that could verge on tedious and overwritten, yet never do. This is the sort of landscape that warrants, nae deserves a slow, well considered linguistic painting. It is transcendent, drawing you in with the intention of complete immersion.
In much the same way as Gwen Moffatt or Nan Shepherd, Gretel Ehrlich carries the literary trailblazer for the female narrative in the outdoors, taking the risks and writing a beautiful book that brings the past to life and resonates in the present.
I feel as though I am doing an injustice to write much more about the greatness of the book, which really, can only be gleaned by reading it yourself.
Reviewed by Kelsey Ward