Lessons from Fire and Ice
Wyoming writer Gretel Ehrlich on love, climate change and living through it.
One hundred feet from Gretel’s cabin near Cora, Wyo., with the Wind River Range in the background. Sam’s modest grave is to the left of the base of this rock. Photo By: David Swift
Walking through sage to her neighbors’ house (Jamie Burgess and Rita Donham), Ehrlich is greeted by border-collie mix Sapphire. Photo By: David Swift
Notes and research for Erhlich‘s next book on how a warming, vanishing Arctic affects indigenous people. Photo By: David Swift
Sam on the New Fork Lake, circa 2002, in the Wind River Range. Photo By: David Swift
An afternoon stroll up the two-track to her cabin, stretching the legs of neighbor thoroughbred, Chulita (”cute little one“). Photo By: David Swift
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GRETEL EHRLICH IS MOST COMFORTABLE ABOVE TREE LINE. “I hate the heat,” Ehrlich says, as she’s said for much of this 90-degree afternoon. We’re hiking the glacial moraine behind her to the western face of the 14,000-foot-high Wind River Range. And Wyoming cabin, flanked by a boulder-strewn meadow stretching though clouds rile and thunder booms, the temperature remains high. “We’re at 8,000 feet,” she says. “This is sub alpine. We’ve never had 98- to 100-degree heat up here.”
Ehrlich’s last two books, The Future of Ice and This Cold Heaven have examined the problems of climate change, and she’s at work on a third, Farthest North, for which she’s spent a year studying glaciers — from Alaska to Greenland to Western Siberia to the Eastern Canadian Arctic. “These kettle ponds,” she says, pointing, “were scoured out during the last ice age. Usually they fill up in spring with rain and snowmelt, and provide great water for wildlife and domestic animals — and also a habitat for birds and ducks. But they’re all dry. The big ones have never dried up.”
Rain sprinkles and thunder sounds, closer this time. In August, 1991, Ehrlich was struck by lightning on a hike at her former ranch near Shell. She barely survived, then spent years in recovery, during which she wrote a memoir of her experience, A Match to the Heart — a stunning examination of body, mind and nature, and how they are intertwined. “To be struck by lightning,” she wrote. “What a way to get enlightened.” It was not the first time she’d been hit, and after the second, objects began to combust around her: a hotel lobby, a plane, a forest. Ehrlich’s favorite dog, Sam (“a kelpie ... a herding dog”) had been with her, and though he survived until 2003, today is the anniversary of his death. Gaby, Sam’s sole-surviving relative, trots beside us. She is deaf and arthritis causes her to move stiffly. Yet she yaps at an antelope in the dry pond. Ehrlich smiles. “Those are your seal barks,” she says, ruffling Gaby’s fur.
For Ehrlich, and in various mythologies, dogs are “spirit helpers,” standing “for the guardian who carries the human spirit forward.” A favorite expression of hers is, “God is dog.” She elaborates: “I’m not a theist. There’s godliness, there’s divinity, the divine in every square inch, every atom. But to ascribe it to a single point or persona is missing how complex it all is.”
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Wonderful Article - thank you!
Posted By Patricia Zecevic on Sep 5, 2012
I loved this article on Ehrlich whom I discovered fairly recently - through an article stating that Robert Redford had recommended her book The Solace of Open Spaces to actors in the movie Horse Whisperer - so that they would get a feel for the real people and ranchers of the West. I loved it so much I ordered all her others and am in the middle of This Cold Heaven. I loved Toby Thompson's article because it's a wonderful portrait of the woman and her work. It really resonated with me and my experience of her books, and expressed in a way that helped me understand why I loved them and her whole/holistic attitude to life and love and nature.
I am a woman and I liked what he said about Gretel no longer being the young sexy cowgirl. This is real and in keeping with Ehrlich's down-to-earthiness; and what oozed out of his article was precisely a respectful and admiring portrait of a wise, mature, and beautiful woman who is in touch with herself and her environment in a way most of us aspire to and are deeply touched by.
Thank you for sharing so beautifully your personal experience of this very important writer and beautiful human being.
The Whole Journal
Posted By Cary on Sep 19, 2009
WoW!...I was so fortunate to find this magazine on the shelf at my grocery store in the Central Valley of California. How it got there I have no IDEA...but I am so happy that it did. Born and reared in Texas Cattle Country, this wonderful print shop of beauty caused me to be homesick, blessed and revived. Ultimately, I was called upon to actually share my treasure with others. Thank you so much for this wonderful publication. :-)