Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is
By Gretel Ehrlich. Pantheon Books, 2021. 237 pages. $26.95.
It’s been 37 years since “The Solace of Open Spaces,” Gretel Ehrlich’s well-known and loved classic book about her life in Wyoming, was published. After a dozen more books of lyrical writing about her life, travel, and inquiry into the fate of the world, she’s returned with what she calls a “bookend” to that early book.
The essays in “Unsolaced,” some incorporating material from previous books and essays, form a sober recollection and reflection, not just of the author’s Wyoming years, but in response to her travels in Greenland, Africa, Kosovo, Japan, California and Alaska and the fragility of life on our planet. Throughout, Ehrlich, now in her 70s, struggles with the idea of finding solace in wide-open nature or anywhere at all, and redefines for herself the meanings of loss, love and uncertainty.
What Ehrlich does best here and in her work generally is to take readers to the places she loves in lyrical, evocative prose. She clearly attaches to northern regions and is particularly attentive to their details. Here she is, camping by a lake in Greenland: “Pans of ice made of bunched crystals floated by. Pale green on top, the clear sides looked like see-through rows of teeth. When the sun came, the bunched stalks disintegrated: deconstructed chandeliers. I heard music ... candle-ice tinkling. The whole lake chimed.”
Although the subtext of the entire book is the climate crisis, which has upended so much of life around the globe, Ehrlich seldom speaks to it directly, instead simply embedding its observations and effects into her narratives.
For example, several chapters devoted to Greenland document the serious environmental and cultural changes she’s witnessed over the years. While her 2001 book, “This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland,” tracked her fascination with the high Arctic and her travels by dogsled and skiff with subsistence hunters through the 1990s, in “Unsolaced” she describes more recent visits and the effects of warming on the land, ocean, and ice-dependent people.
One of these sections tells of returning to Greenland in 2004, to spend more time with the same hunters she’d befriended earlier. When weak ice and open water threatened the hunting party, she noted, “Those scary moments stood for climate uncertainty everywhere and the anguish we felt about the world’s refusal to respond.”
Three years after that, she observed, “Sea ice that was normally ten feet thick in the winter and spring was now only seven or ten inches thick,” and “One by one the threads of traditional lifeways were being pulled out as the ice conditions worsened, and signs of cultural collapse had begun to show.” In 2012, on one more return trip, a hunter complained to her, “They want us to become fishermen now. How can we become something we are not?”
Another Greenland chapter details a month-long trek she took with a small group of “seasoned northern travelers” across a peninsula on the northwest coast. As they set out with their enormous packs, the leader tells them, “Only glaciers have walked here” and “… no human has ever set foot.” The landscape of disintegrating glaciers and raging rivers was tremendously challenging, and Ehrlich very quickly ran short of food. Still, she never faltered in presenting the beauty of what she found there. “All night the fjord held sun like a silver knife.”
Elsewhere in the book, she documents her time with a friend in a very different part of the world — on a Zimbabwe game ranch where the friend was demonstrating the environmental benefits of “planned grazing.” She hoped there to learn how degraded and desertified land might be restored, techniques she might apply to the American West. Zimbabwe was embroiled in unrest and violence at the time, with the government evicting both white and Black farmers from their land. At one point she and her host were pursued by men with shotguns, and she had to jump from a truck and cut fence wire to make their escape.
Late in the book, Ehrlich visits Alaska’s Cooper Island, “the summertime perch for ornithologist George Divoky since the early 1980s,” where the biologist’s long-term study of black guillemots “has become an unrivaled index of abrupt climate change.” There, where Arctic ice used to crowd the island, she found waves crashing onto gravel, polar bears scavenging, and the starving birds in sharp decline. Divoky tells her, “My study of the guillemots has become a study of how extinction happens.”
Curiously, for all her “unsolace” related to threatened ecosystems and species, Ehrlich only takes her concerns so far. She doesn’t seem to question her own contributions, as the owner of three homes and a frequent traveler to exotic places. Neither does she ever actually name the problem of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities. Instead, she identifies as “root causes” of climate change what are actually symptoms — loss of albedo (the reflective surface of ice and snow) and desertification.
Still, the sharp-eyed witnessing by a writer who’s been paying attention to the natural world for a lifetime should both inspire and caution readers. “Unsolaced” presents us with a record, similar on a different scale to Divoky’s guillemot study, of what’s gravely at risk without a change in human behavior.