When someone reads through Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Spaces, they may go through what I would like to call a culture shock. Things are not done the way they are done in big cities. Herding and leading tons of animals across open tracts of land seems almost like they are from a thousand or so BC. The people seem almost nomadic, living and traveling through sometimes harsh conditions to get to the next place. But what is different between those in Wyoming and the nomadic people is that they do it usually alone, or with very few people. Originally travelling to Wyoming in 1976 to make a film, she really melded into the area and the people. She found calmness, comfort and peace in the open spaces. The book is packed with short essays about people, seasons, landscape and animals. Though at times there are parts of extreme solitude, her becoming a part of the landscape, there are also ones about the companions she made while working in Wyoming and helping out by doing various jobs. The real theme seen in these writings is the theme of beauty and comfort in something that seems so plain and empty. She writes about reaching out and really getting to know those who you once thought weren’t worthy to know, or seemed strange to your way of life. It is really about becoming one with yourself in any place, being able to find comfort in nothingness and everything at the same time.
We get the images of beauty and comfort in the seemingly empty landscape of Wyoming throughout the essays. In “Solace of Open Spaces” she gives us a sort of introductory lesson to what it is like living in Wyoming. She explains the seasons and how they spend their time. She refers to space and emptiness several times. “In all this open space, values crystallize quickly,” and “space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us” (11,14). Here she refers more so to comfort than beauty, explaining throughout the essay that this open area, this empty landscape where many people would think Nothing’s Here! holds more comfort and spiritual power because it heals the burdens in our souls and we can find out who we really are by becoming one with nature. In “The Smooth Skull of Winter” she points out the fact that even a season in Wyoming that seems unhelpful and not very appealing is actually only that way to people who look upon it with ignorance. They think too much about “the arctic air, patches of frostbite on noses, and skin blisters” (72). But, she sees a pristine quality from the snow on flushed cheeks, the small ponds frozen over, thoughts are bright, sharp and precise (74). If only people would see the beauty in this season on this landscape rather than complain about the lack of comfort, they’d be able to get a clearer picture of themselves and their place in the world by finding the beauty in clarity and brightness.
A topic that personally touched me was her really getting to know these very unique people who have lived the way they did for years. I loved the people she describes like Frank, who is “the opposite of the strapping, conservative western man.” He is not who people assume are out in Wyoming. She describes Frank as generous and amiable. But what really struck me was how he was so committed to digging irrigation systems rather than pumps or sprinklers. He says, “When I go to change my water at dawn and just before dark, it’s peaceful out there, away from everybody…How can we live without that?” (82). You wouldn’t expect Wyoming citizens to be deep or nature loving, just simpletons and cowboy-rednecks. This is truly deep because it not only implies he is at one with himself, but he is willing to work his butt off during the day just for that experience. Not like most people, he is not really concerned with convenience, but finding comfort in the area and his hard-working way of life. He is someone you would not expect to see in the area, but he has this amiable quality that you just want to have a friend like Frank.
But, my favorite message was becoming one with your surroundings and yourself anywhere, even if it seems as if you’d never be able to find comfort there. This message is so relevant because we have become people so obsessed with time, jobs, money, beauty, you name it, but we have forgotten parts of life which are worth enjoying. We’ve forgotten how to become one with ourselves, and don’t really get to say “Yea, everything is alright. It will all be okay.” No, we are to worried about where we are going, who we are seeing, what we are doing the next day that time becomes a primary concern rather than the self, and being one with the self through things like nature and other people. We can see this message within essays like “To Live in two worlds: Crow Fair and a Sun Dance.” The sun dance, a holy ceremony of the Plains tribes, was a dance that took a few days in July, and required the dancers (usually men) and some women to dance for hours each day. This was in honor of the sun and its cycles. It amazed me how long a day they spent dancing under the beating sun (she said at one point it was 99 degrees). I cannot imagine the amount of sunburn I would have gotten. Many people these days would think that to be a waste of time, but I understand why she put that in the book. She wanted to show people being one with yourself through nature is not about doing well in your job, but about taking the time to do something meditative, not worrying about the time you spend doing it, and not focusing on what it would do to you in the future. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin, and not worrying about the future, but being in the present moment. In “Friends, Foes and Working Animals” was about when Ehrlich moved back to Wyoming. She wrote, “the intimacy with what is animal in me has returned. To live and work on a ranch implicates me in new ways: I have blood on my hands and noises in my throat that aren’t human” (62). These mere two sentences could have been amplified beyond belief but she left it like this to get the point across. She had become something in Wyoming that she had not been in the city. She had found a new way of life. She had learned to embrace different sides of her and learned that she was a fuller person than she had thought. The return of these feelings evokes a mood of comfort, as she is able to have noises that aren’t human, aren’t confined by societal restrictions.
There are many more little topics scattered throughout but they all travel right back into the main themes. Ehrlich has found a special attachment to the landscape and people in Wyoming because it has taught her to be a peace with herself, life and living. It doesn’t matter to her if it seems empty, the people seem odd or she appears to be a simpleton who gave up a good city life. What people fail to realize is she has found where she and her soul can live in comfort everyday through a place, a people, and a way of life. She doesn’t necessarily encourage us to move there, but rather to find a place like that for us, to be open to new things, and to try and take it all in.