"The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding."
Gretel Ehrlich was raised in California and studied film at the UCLA film school. In 1976 she traveled to Wyoming to make a documentary on sheepherders and loved it so much she ended up moving there where she became a sheep rancher. She wrote about her experiences in The Solace of Open Spaces. The titular essay is collected in The Best American Essays of the Century. After reading this one essay, which is really just a taste of what life must be like--the people, the work, the weather (which plays such an important role in people's lives really), I'm curious about what else she had to say about her life in Wyoming. I'll be adding The Solace of Open Spaces to my wishlist.
Ehrlich, who is also a poet, writes with a filmmaker's eye. Her writing is lush and detailed and she can make you see with her words just how beautiful is Wyoming, a place so solitary you can travel miles and miles without seeing another soul. It's also a harsh country where winter lasts six months and the temperature drops 30 or even 40 degrees below zero.
"The landscape hardens into a dungeon of space. During the winter, while I was riding to find a new calf, my jeans froze to the saddle, and in the silence the such cold creates I felt like the first person on earth, or the last."
Wyoming is an open country with endless vistas. Ranches may take up hundreds of acres and cross state lines, and animals outnumber people. The seasons change drastically and impact the sense of isolation people feel there. But neighborliness is a longstanding tradition and with so few people in the state and families take a friendly interest in each other.
Ehrlich hadn't planned on staying when she came to Wyoming, but she says she couldn't make herself leave. She worked many days and long hours helping shear, brand and delouse sheep.
"I suspect that my original motive for coming here was to 'lose myself' in new and unpopulated territory. Instead of producing the numbness I thought I wanted, life on the sheep ranch woke me up. The vitality of the people I was working with flushed out what had become a hallucinatory rawness inside me. I threw away my clothes and bought new ones; I cut my hair. The arid country was a clean state. Its absolute indifference steadied me."
It's obvious in Ehrlich's writing that Wyoming is a land she loves and that she has a respect for the people who live hard lives under often difficult circumstances. They are independent in their views as they are so used to running their own "empires of land and livestock". Ehrlich also has a love and respect for the solitude of the wide open spaces of the land.
"Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us."
Wyoming must have had for Ehrlich that healing power. It's lovely to think about when I look out my window and see houses and people all around me. I wouldn't mind some of those wide open spaces and a little of the solitude as well.