Along the Way to All That Is
From the author of the enduring classic, The Solace of Open Spaces, here is a wondrous meditation on how water, light, wind, mountain, bird, and horse has shaped her life and understanding of a world besieged by a climate crisis. Amid species extinctions and disintegrating ice sheets, this stunning collection of memories, observations, and narratives is acute and lyrical, Whitmanesque in breadth, and as elegant as a Japanese tea house. “Sentience and sunderance,” she writes. “How we know what we know, how we lose it all.” As if to stave off impending loss, she embarks on strenuous adventures to Greenland, Africa, Kosovo, Japan, and an uninhabited Alaskan Island, always returning to her simple Wyoming cabin at the foot of the mountains and the trail that leads into the heart of them.
Reviews of Unsolaced
Perpetual motion fuels this episodic memoir about loss and getting lost. At the age of twenty-nine, after the death of her boyfriend, Ehrlich sets off for a “cowboying life” in Wyoming. She finds herself well suited to it, but, after nearly being killed by lightning, she heads abroad, travelling through Greenland by dogsled and spending tense nights camping in the grasslands of Zimbabwe. After years of living and working outdoors, she empathizes with those for whom climate change is an acute trauma: nomadic sea-ice hunters with no ice, shepherds tending cattle in drought-stricken lands. Her immersion in timeless, strenuous modes of life yields a message of profound fulfillment.
Briefly Noted Book Reviews
The New Yorker
‘What I have written is an odd kind of memoir, notable — if at all — for what has been left out.” There are no spoilers in the closing words to “Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is,” Gretel Ehrlich’s latest collection of interconnected essays. While Ehrlich may regard it as “odd,” the reader has no way of knowing what is missing. What remains is a lovingly observed account of the lives of people, animals and the landscapes that sustain them, spun together as deftly as a spider’s web, filled with purpose and urgency…
When Ehrlich was 29 she traveled from her home in New York City to Wyoming to shoot a documentary about shepherds. Her lover and creative partner was to have accompanied her, but he was diagnosed with cancer and died while she was away. Instead of attending his funeral, Ehrlich stayed in Wyoming, becoming both a rancher and a writer, traveling often but always returning to the place that had afforded her solace. In her 1985 memoir, “The Solace of Open Spaces,” Ehrlich wrote: “I couldn’t make myself leave. . . . The vitality of the people I was working with flushed out what had become a hallucinatory rawness inside me. . . . The arid country was a clean slate. Its absolute indifference steadied me.” Now in her 70s, Ehrlich provides a bookend to this early memoir in which the notion of place providing solace is suspended, expanded, queried.
Ehrlich’s ranching career ended in 1991 when she was hit by lightning. Returning to her parents’ home in California, she had to piece herself back together. When she recovered, she began to travel again. To Wyoming — of course — Hawaii, California, Zimbabwe, Greenland and Kosovo, and in her restless movement between extremes a new vision of open spaces emerges.
Ehrlich documents long friendships forged over many years in the far-flung places of the Earth. Climate change — which for most of us remains an awkward political abstract, one that sits uneasily with contemporary democracy’s need to measure the future in digestible four-year chunks — provides a visceral concrete backdrop to her narrative. Yet “Unsolaced” also challenges our contemporary preoccupation with looking to the future at the expense of living in the present. This constant rebalancing of contradictions defines Ehrlich’s narrative.
When Ehrlich was ranching, alone, she was surprised to find she could “tie the baling twine with a loop at the top to hang on the wagon’s stanchions while simultaneously keeping track of thoughts.” Her friend Malcolm Margolin reminded her: “Our responses to Earth are dug in deep and are old. We aren’t new to what we do and know. The old ways are embedded in us.” Inward and outward lives are enmeshed. This vision is comforting. Yet everything is in flux. When Ehrlich takes us away from Wyoming, the vision begins to fall apart.
Ehrlich recalls her first visit to Greenland in 1993: “In those days before the climate heated up, the ice came in mid-September and for nine months it was possible to travel and hunt on the frozen sea.” She describes a traditional Ice Age way of life, in which elite marine-mammal hunters wearing skins and riding dogsleds provided food, tools and clothing for their community using methods passed on for 5,000 years. By 2002 this way of life was disappearing, because the ice was melting. An anguished hunter from Qaanaaq said to Ehrlich: “What is it that I’m going to tell my children? Everything I know has to do with ice. Now I will have nothing to teach them.” Instead of living the hunting life on dogsleds “they were becoming electricians, cooks, helicopter pilots, nurses, or teachers.”
There was a time when the colonial Western reader would have seen this shift in vocation as “progress.” Ehrlich presents it as unmitigated catastrophe. Her friend Jens tells her: “We had everything here. . . . We could live any way we wanted, and we chose this. We like it this way, we can feed our families, and no one tells us how to live. Now I don’t know what’s going to happen. If the ice doesn’t come back, it will be a disaster.”
Ehrlich counterpoints the vision of a Greenland where dogsleds slip through melting ice with the tumultuous landscape of Zimbabwe, where the shifting climate is propelling mass extinctions. Where animals fail, people will fail, as both are dependent on the same dwindling resources. Paramilitary groups flourish in such an environment, redistributing by force that which is left. But there are other, more peaceable ways. Ehrlich begins her Zimbabwean narrative 15 years ago in the company of Allan Savory, then age 70, who taught regenerative farming at the Africa Center for Holistic Management, “an unlikely oasis of calm, self-sufficiency, and plenty in a country on the brink of famine, death from disease, drought, and political chaos because of an out-of-control dictator.”
The imperative to restore regenerative-farming methods exploded onto the European agricultural scene in 2020, though other factors — including disease and political chaos — have largely drowned the voices of its champions. Savory, ahead of his time, is an agricultural John the Baptist, his wilderness voice a balm to growers in Europe and America alienated by calls to adopt aggressive conservation techniques that rid the land of their habitat-destroying sheep and greenhouse-gas-emitting cattle. Savory advocates managed grazing. That is, keeping fewer animals and moving them often. The grasslands can then regenerate, and the earth is never packed so hard that the rain, when it comes, runs off the land instead of into it. A return to sustainable living. “Every blade of grass counts if we are to survive,” Ehrlich writes.
Ehrlich’s global nomadism and her linking of disparate ecologies conceal a carefully constructed thesis. The plains of Wyoming were formed when the glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age. Might Greenland one day resemble Wyoming? Is the destruction of humanity inevitable? Ehrlich is “trying to find a place to live where, as temperature increases, I will be able to find water, grow food, feed animals.” No longer seeking solace, her imperative has become survival. Laying out a map of the world, she sees immediately that her choices are limited: “Yet I have a choice,” she observes, aware, already, that many do not. As a species, our options are narrowing rapidly — yet for some of us they do still exist.
Ehrlich’s 1985 collection The Solace of Open Spaces has become a classic of American nature writing, a celebration of life in Wyoming and the American West at large. That’s enough reason on its own to be excited about her new work, a sort of “bookend” to Solace, this one focusing on observations chronicled and people met while traveling around a world latticed by climate change.
Managing Editor, Literary Hub
For Ehrlich, writing and life are inextricably intertwined as her adventures unsought and chosen, in-the-field investigations, spiritual quests, and penchant for wandering, wilderness, and solitude engender both drama and deep reflection. This gripping episodic memoir of ranch life and Arctic travels, visionaries and lovers, environmental destruction and loss is a callback, after a dozen titles, to her first book, The Solace of Open Spaces, and a selective reimmersion in the 35 intervening years. A Californian, Ehrlich staked her first cold-place claim in Wyoming, where she took up cowboying and discovered while living in close…
…proximity to animals the “whole-body sensorium is alive in each of us,” an awareness of the interdependence of species and every living being’s connection to the land that shapes this entire indelible remembrance. Ehrlich chronicles with enthralling precision the to-the-brink physicality of hard work and daring expeditions and the meditative states nature summons. She vividly recounts sojourns on a Channel Island off the California coast; in Greenland, where the ice and the extraordinary culture it generated are vanishing at heart-wrenching speed; Zimbabwe, where a restoration ecologist fights to preserve grasslands that protect against drought and starvation; and Kosovo, where she speaks with genocide survivors. Writing with fire and ice of beauty, risk, and devastation, Ehrlich shares wonder, wisdom, candor, and concern to soul-ringing effect.
Editor for Adult Books at Booklist
From the Arctic to Africa, an award-winning nature writer finds abundant evidence of a changing planet.
As a “bookend to The Solace of Open Spaces,” from 1984, Ehrlich, also a poet and novelist, offers an intimate, engaging memoir recounting her strenuous adventures—in remote Greenland, war-torn Africa, and the American West—where she has been confronted with dramatic effects of climate change. In the Arctic, sea ice has thinned drastically, putting all life—including humans—in peril. “Ice-adapted people have everything to teach us,”…
…writes the author: “they have a survivor’s toolbox of self-discipline, patience, and precision. They understand transience, chance, and change.” Sadly, since her first visit to Greenland in 1993, Ehrlich has seen that toolbox become ineffective against a warming environment. With the disappearance of snow and ice, “the planet cannot reflect the immense solar heat it receives back into space, and thus, keep the lower latitudes temperate,” causing more global heat to be generated. In Africa, sparse rainfall has resulted in degraded and desertified soil; at the African Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, the author learned about restorative strategies such as planned grazing and “putting airborne carbon into the ground.” In lush, evocative prose, Ehrlich details some breathtakingly perilous journeys, including trekking across a span of polar desolation, where she feared being stranded forever, and escaping from armed rebels in Zambia. Her personal life was no less dramatic: being struck by lightning, causing a brain injury that took three years to heal; deaths of family and friends; divorce; and bouts of deep loneliness. But her grieving is for the Earth. “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,” she writes. “It’s getting smaller, isn’t it,” she remarks to a friend. “All the places we can go to find solace.”
A vigorous plea for responsible environmental stewardship and a treat for all fans of nature writing.
Starred Kirkus Review
"Wyoming has found its Whitman."
"A stunning rumination on the life on Wyoming's High Plains...Ehrlich's gorgeous prose is as expansive as a Wyoming vista, as charged as a bolt of prairie lightning."
"Ehrlich's best prose belongs in a league with Annie Dillard and even Thoreau. The Solace of Open spaces releases the bracing air of the wilderness into the stuffy, heated confines of winter in civilization."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Thrilling...A stunning portrait of a people and the landscape that shaped them."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Ehrlich has taken a forbiddingly beautiful, haunting, and alien landscape and depicted it in equally beautiful and haunting prose."
—The Seattle Times
"No one who reads this wonderful book will ever forget these singular people or the austerities of the land they inhabit."
"A lyrical blend of travel, meditation and history, [and] a hymn to the Inuit people's rootedness in landscape and tradition."
—The Times Literary Supplement
New York Times Bestseller
“A dazzling work of art.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
"This eclectic chronicle of recovery offers excursions into neurobiology, cardiology, the lore and science of lightning, and the medical literature of lightning injury. . . . Evocative writing and lots of fascinating facts."
—The New York Times Book Review
Nominated for the
National Book Award
"A haunting elegy and story of renewal in a world torn apart by disaster. . . . Ehrlich writes beautifully, with a poet’s sensitivity.”
—The Daily Beast
"Ehrlich’s book adds flesh and soul and spirit to the bare bones of news reporting, filling the void left by the media and reminding us that real people live behind the headlines."
—New York Journal of Books
Gretel Ehrlich is one of the preeminent and most admired observers of the natural world and has spent her life in the American West as well circumpolar travel in the high Arctic. She is the author of eleven books of nonfiction including Unsolaced, The Solace of Open Spaces, Facing the Wave, In the Empire of Ice, The Future of Ice, This Cold Heaven, John Muir, Nature’s Visionary, Cowboy Island, Questions of Heaven, A Match to the Heart, and Islands, the Universe, Home.
She is also the author of four works of fiction: Heart Mountain, Drinking Dry Clouds, and A Blizzard Year, and the forthcoming Gin Chow’s Book of Predictions, plus three chapbooks of poetry: Arctic Heart, To Touch the Water, and Geode Rock Body.
Ehrlich’s books have received the PEN West Award for Nonfiction, the PEN New England Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Distinguished Prose, and a Whiting Award. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her book Facing the Wave was longlisted for a National Book Award in 2013.
Ehrlich received three National Geographic Expedition Grants for travel in the high Arctic. She was awarded a Robert Rauschenberg Residency in 2015 for a performance piece about climate change. She and the artist Mel Chin collaborated on theatre events for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Ehrlich and the theatre director Marth Clarke were awarded a Bellagio Fellowship in 1998. She has appeared on the PBS NewsHour, Ken Burn’s National Parks, and the Discovery Channel.
Her essays have appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic, National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, Orion, Aperture, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Shambala, Time, and Life, among many others. Her work has been included in many anthologies, including Best Essays of the Century, Best Essays of 1998, Best Spiritual Essays, Best Travel Essays, Hearth, The Nature Reader, and many others.
Ehrlich reported from Africa, the Arctic, and Kosovo for NPR’s Day to Day. She wrote and recorded a poem cycle for the London choreographer, Siobhan Davies. She was a founding member of David Buckland’s Cape Farewell and contributed to “The Ship” at the British Museum of Natural History. She and Neal Conan reported from Greenland for public radio’s “Burn: An Energy Journal.”
She is a resident of Wyoming, Montana, and Hawai’i.