Carrying on from Tuesday's post, the second book I've been re-reading this week as a means of coping with grief is The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich -- a collection of interlinked essays on life in the mountains of Wyoming, where the author settled after the death of the man she'd intended to marry. Ehrlich writes beautifully about land and solitude, about the turn of the seasons and the changes of life. In one essay she describes the waning months of the year in the high mountain country like this:
"The French call the autumn leaf feuille morte. When the leaves are finally corrupted by the frost they rain down into themselves until the tree, disowning itself, goes bald. All through the autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe, the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite.
"We feel what the Japanese call 'aware' -- an almost untranslatable word that means something like 'beauty tinged with sadness.' Some days we have to shoulder against a marauding melancholy. Dreams have a hallucinatory effect: in one, a man who is dying watches from inside a huge cocoon while stud colts run through deep mud, their balls bursting open, their seed spilling onto the black ground. My reading brings me this thought from the mad Zen priest Ikkyu: 'Remember that under the skin you fondle lie the bones, waiting to reveal themselves." But another day, I ride into the mountains. Against rimrock, tall aspens have the graceful bearing of giraffes, and another small grove, not yet turned, gives off a virginal limelight that transpierces everything heavy....
"Autumn teaches us that fruition is also death; that ripeness is a form of decay. The willows, having stood for so long near the water, begin to rust. Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons.
"Today the sky is a wafer. Place on my tongue, it is a wholeness that has already disintegrated; placed under the tongue, it makes my heart beat strongly enough to stretch myself over the winter brilliances to. Now I feel the tenderness to which this season rots. Its defenselessness can no longer be corrupted. Death is its purity, its sweet mud. The string of storms that came to Wyoming like elephants tied trunk to tail falters now and bleeds into stillness."
In another essay, Ehrlich writes of Wyoming's winter months:
"Winter looks like a fictional place, an elaborate simplicity, a Nabokovian invention of rarefied detail. Winds howl all night and day, pushing litters of storm fronts from the Beartooth to the Big Horn Mountains. When it lets up, the mountains disappear. The hayfield that runs east from my house ends up in a curl of clouds that have fallen like sails luffing from sky to ground. Snow returns across the field to me, and the cows, dusted with white, look like snowcapped continents drifting.
"The poet Seamus Heaney said that landscape is sacremental, to be read as text. Earth is instinct: perfect, irrational, semiotic. If I reading winter right, it is a scroll -- the white growing wider and wider like the sweep of an arm -- and from it we gain a peripheral vision, a capacity for what Nabokov calls 'those asides of spirit, those footnotes in the volume of life by which we know life and find it to be good.'
"Not unlike emotional transitions -- the loss of a friend of the beginning of new work -- the passage of seasons is often so belabored and quixotic as to deserve separate names so the year might be divided eight ways instead of four. This fall ducks flew across the sky in great 'V's as if that one letter were defecting from the alphabet, and when the songbirds climbed to the memorized pathways that route them to winter quarters, they lifted off in confusion, like paper scraps blown from my writing room."
Ehrlich relates but does not linger on the death that drove her from New York to Wyoming -- and yet loss and grief are the subtext of every essay in the collection. It's a book about ranching and sheep-herding, yes, but also about the challenge of creating a new life from the ashes of an old one. The narrative voice is clear-eyed and unsentimental; it is also reflective and poetic; and the skillful juxtaposition of both modes of writing is one of the reasons I love Ehrlich's work. As she writes in the book's Introduction:
"The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities of earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence have taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life."
Today's featured artist:
The imagery here is by the great animal photographer Tim Flach, who has "an interest in the way humans shape animals and shape their meaning while exploring the role of imagery in fostering an emotional connection." He is based in London.
The photographs come from Equus (2008), Flach's exquisitely beautiful book on the subject of the horse. His subsequent books are wonderful too: Dog Gods (2010), More Than Human (2012), Evolution (2013), Endangered (2017), Who Am I? (for children, 2019), and Birds (2021).
I urge you to have a look at his website, which not only shows you the breadth of his work but also has one of the best opening pages I've ever seeen....
The photographs above are from Equus by Tim Flach (Abrams, 2008); all rights reserved by the artist. The passages quoted above are from "A Storm, the Cornfield, and Elk," and "The Smooth Skull of Winter," essays published in The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (Viking Pengun, 1985); all rights reserved by the author. I also recommend her related books, A Match to the Heart (1994) and Unsolaced (2021).