Gretel Ehrlich’s world is one of solitude and wonder, pain and beauty, and these elements give life to her stunning prose. Ever since her acclaimed debut, The Solace of Open Spaces, she has illuminated the particular qualities of nature and the self with graceful precision.
In Islands, the Universe, Home, Ehrlich expands her explorations, traveling to the remote reaches of the earth and deep into her soul. She tells of a voyage of discovery in northern Japan, where she finds her “bridge to heaven.” She captures a “light moving down a mountain slope.” She sees a ruined city in the face of a fire-scarred mountain. Above all, she recalls what a painter once told her about art when she was twelve years old, as she sat for her portrait: “You have to mix death into everything. Then you have to mix life into that.”
In this unforgettable collection, Ehrlich mixes life and death, real and sacred, to offer a stunning vision of our world that is both achingly familiar and miraculously strange. According to National Book Award–winning author Andrea Barrett, these essays are “as spare and beautiful as the landscape from which they’ve grown. . . . Each one is a pilgrimage into the secrets of the heart.”
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Islands, the Universe, Home
By Gretel Ehrlich
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Gretel Ehrlich
All rights reserved.
LOOKING FOR A LOST DOG
The most valuable thoughts which I entertain are anything but what I thought. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.
I started off this morning looking for a lost dog. He's a red heeler, blotched brown and white, and I tell people he looks like a big saddle shoe. Born at Christmas on a thirty-below-zero night, he's tough, though his right front leg is crooked where it froze to the ground.
It's the old needle-in-the-haystack routine: small dog — huge landscape and rugged terrain. I go one way, my husband the other. I walk and I listen. While moving cows once, the dog fell in a hole and disappeared. We heard him whining but couldn't see where he had gone. I crouched down, put my ear to the ground, and crawled toward the whines.
It's no wonder human beings are so narcissistic. The way our ears are constructed, we can hear only what is right next to us or else the internal monologue inside. I've taken to cupping my hands behind my ears — mulelike — and pricking them all the way forward or back to hear what's happened or what's ahead.
"Life is polyphonic," a Hungarian friend in her eighties said. She was a child prodigy from Budapest who had soloed on the violin in Paris and Berlin by the time she was twelve. "Childishly, I once thought hearing had mostly to do with music. Now that I'm too old to play the fiddle, I know it has to do with the great suspiration of life everywhere."
But back to the dog. I'm walking and looking and listening for him, though there is no trail, no clue, no direction to the search. Whimsically, I head north toward the falls. They're set in a deep gorge where Precambrian rock piles up to ten thousand feet on either side. A raven creaks overhead, flies into the cleft, glides toward a panel of white water splashing over a ledge, and comes out cawing.
To find what is lost is an art in some cultures. The Navajos employ "hand tremblers"— usually women — who go into a trance and "see" where the lost article or person is located. When I asked one such diviner what it was like when she was in trance, she said, "Lots of noise but noise that's hard to hear."
Near the falls the ground flattens out into a high-altitude valley before the mountain rises vertically. The falls roar, but they are overgrown with spruce, pine, and willow, and the closer I get, the harder it is to see them. Perhaps that is how it will be in my search for the dog.
We're worried about Frenchy, because last summer he was bitten three times by rattlesnakes. After the first bite he walked toward me, reeled, and collapsed. His eyes rolled back, and he drooled. I could see the two holes where the fangs went in. They looked like little eyes spying on me. I was sure the dog was dying. He lay in my arms for a long time, while I crooned to him. My last rites, however, seemed to have had the opposite effect: he perked up suddenly, then gave me a funny look as if to say, "Shut up, you fool." I drove him twenty miles to the vet's house. By the time we arrived, he resembled a monster. His nose and neck had swollen as though a football had been sewn under the skin.
I walk and walk. Past the falls, through a pass, toward a larger, rowdier creek. The sky goes black. In the distance, snow on the Owl Creek Mountains glares. A blue ocean seems to stretch between, and the black sky hangs over like a frown.
A string of cottonwoods whose tender leaves are the color of limes pulls me downstream. I come to the meadow with the abandoned apple orchard. Its trees have lost most of their blossoms; I feel as if I had caught them undressed.
The sun comes back, and the wind. It brings no dog, but ducks slide overhead. An Eskimo from Barrow told me the reason spring has such fierce winds is so the birds coming north will have something to fly on.
To find what is lost; to lose what is found. Several times I've thought I was losing my mind. Of course, minds aren't literally misplaced; on the contrary, we live too much in them. We listen gullibly, then feel severed because of the mind's clever tyrannies. As with viewing the falls, we can lose sight of what is too close, and the struggle between impulse and reason, passion and logic, occurs as we saunter from distant to close-up views.
The feet move; the mind wanders. In his essay on walking, Thoreau said, "The saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea."
Today I'm filled with longings — for what I'm not, for all the other lives I can't lead, for what is impossible, for people I love who can't be in my life. Passions of all sorts struggle soundlessly, or else, like the falls, they are all noise but can't be seen.
Now I'm following a game trail up a sidehill. It's a mosaic of tracks — elk and deer, rabbit and bird. If city dwellers could imprint cement as they walked, it would look this way: tracks overlap, go backward and forward like the peregrine saunterings of the mind.
I see a dog track, or is it a coyote's? I get down on my hands and knees to sniff out a scent. What am I doing? I entertain preposterous expectations of myself as when I landed in Tokyo, where I felt so at home I thought I would break into fluent Japanese. Now I sniff the ground and smell only dirt. If I tried and tried, would the instinct regenerate inside me?
The tracks veer off the trail and disappear. Descending into a dry wash whose elegant tortured junipers resemble bonsai, I trip on a sagebrush root, and look. Deep in the center, there is a bird's nest. Instead of eggs, a locust stares up at me.
Some days I think this one place isn't enough. That's when nothing is enough, when I want to live multiple lives and have the know-how and guts to love without limits. Those days, like today, I walk with a purpose but no destination. Only then do I see, at least momentarily, that most everything is here. To my left a towering cottonwood is lunatic with bird song. Under it, I'm a listening post while its great, gray trunk — like a baton — heaves its green symphony into the air.
I walk and walk, from the falls, over Grouse Hill, to the dry wash. Today it is enough to make a shadow.CHAPTER 2
We have a nine-acre lake on our ranch and a warm spring that feeds it all winter. By mid-March the lake ice begins to melt where the spring feeds in, and every year the same pair of mallards come ahead of the others and wait. Though there is very little open water, they seem content. They glide back and forth through a thin estuary, brushing watercress with their elegant, folded wings, then tip end-up to eat and, after, clamber onto the lip of ice that retreats, hardens forward, and retreats again.
Mornings, a transparent pane of ice lies over the melt-water. I peer through and see some kind of waterbug — perhaps a leech — paddling like a sea turtle between green ladders of lakeweed. Cattails and sweet grass from the previous summer are bone dry, marked with black mold spots, and bend like elbows into the ice. They are swords that cut away the hard tenancy of winter. At the wide end, a mat of dead water plants has rolled back into a thick, impregnable breakwater. Near it, bubbles trapped under the ice are lenses focused straight up to catch the coming season.
It's spring again, and I wasn't finished with winter. That's what I said at the end of summer too. I stood on the ten-foot-high haystack and yelled, "No!" as the first snow fell. We had been up since four in the morning, picking the last bales of hay from the oat field by hand, slipping under the weight of them in the mud, and by the time we finished the stack, six inches of snow had fallen.
It's spring, but I was still cataloguing the different kinds of snow: snow that falls dry but is rained on; snow that melts down into hard crusts; wind-driven snow that looks blue; powder snow on hard pack on powder — a Linzer torte of snow. I look up. The troposphere is the five-mile-wide sleeve of air out of which all our weather shakes. A bank of clouds drives in from the south. Where in it, I wonder, does a snowflake take on its thumbprint uniqueness? Inside the cloud, where schools of flakes like schools of fish are flung this way and that? What gives the snowflake its needle, plate, column, branching shapes — the battering wind or the dust particles around which water vapor clings?
Near town the river ice breaks up and lies stacked in industrial-sized hunks on the banks — big as railway cars — and is flecked black by wheeling hurricanes of plowed top-soil. That's how I feel when winter breaks up inside me: heavy, upended, inert against the flow of a new season. I had thought about ice during the cold months too. How it is movement betrayed, water seized in the moment of falling. In November, ice thickened over the lake like a cataract and from the air looked like a Cyclops: one bad eye. Under its milky spans over irrigation ditches, the sound of water running south was muffled. One solitary spire of ice hung noiselessly against dark rock at the falls, as if mocking or mirroring the broomtail comet on the horizon. Then, in February, I tried for words not about ice but words hacked from it — the ice at the end of the mind, so to speak — and failed.
Those were winter things, and now it is spring, though one name can't describe what, in Wyoming, is a three-part affair: false spring, the vernal equinox, and the spring in June, when flowers come and the grass grows.
Spring means restlessness. The physicist I've been talking to all winter says if I look more widely, deeply, and microscopically all at once, I might see how springlike the whole cosmos is. What I see as order and stillness, the robust, time-bound determinacy of my life, is really a mirage suspended above chaos. "There's a lot of random jiggling going on everywhere," he tells me. Winter's tight sky hovers. Under it, hayfields are green, then white, then green growing under white. The confinement I've felt since November resembles the confinement of subatomic particles, I'm told. A natural velocity finally shows itself. Particles move and become waves.
Sap rises in trees and in me, and the hard knot of perseverance I cultivated to meet winter dissipates; I walk away from the obsidian of bitter nights. Now snow comes wet and heavy, but the air it traverses feels light. I sleep less and dream not of human entanglements but of animals I've never seen: a caterpillar fat as a man's thumb, made of linked silver tubes, has two heads — one human, one a butterfly's.
Last spring at this time I was coming out of a bout with pneumonia. I went to bed on January 1 and didn't get up until the end of February. Winter was a cocoon in which my gagging, basso cough shook the dark figures at the end of my bed. Had I read too much Hemingway? Or was I dying? I'd lie on my stomach and look out. Nothing close-up interested me. All engagements of mind — the circumlocutions of love interests and internal gossip — appeared false. Only my body was true. And my body was trying to close down, go out the window without me.
I saw things out there. Our ranch faces south down a long treeless valley whose vanishing point is two gray hills folded one in front of the other like two hands, beyond which is space, cerulean air, pleated clouds, and red mesas standing up like breaching whales in a valley three thousand feet below. Afternoons, our young horses played, rearing up on back legs and pawing oh so carefully at each other, reaching around, ears flat back, nipping manes and withers. One of those times their falsetto squeals looped across the pasture and hung, but when I tried to intone their sounds of delight, I found my lungs had no air.
It was thirty-five below zero that night. Our plumbing froze and because I was very weak my husband had to bundle me up and help me to the outhouse. Nothing close at hand seemed to register with me: neither the cold nor the semicoziness of an uninsulated house. But the stars were lurid. For a while I thought I saw dead horses, eating one another's manes and tails, spinning above my head in the ice fall.
Scientists talk animatedly about how insignificant we humans are when placed against the time scale of geology and the cosmos. I had heard it a hundred times but never felt it truly. Back in bed, I felt the black room was a screen through which parts of my body traveled, leaving the rest behind. I thought I was a sun flying over a barge whose iron holds soaked me up until I became rust, floating on a bright river. A ferocious loneliness took hold of me. That night a luscious, creamy fog rolled in like a roll of fat hugging me, but it was snow.
Recuperation is like, spring: dormancy and vitality collide. In any year I'm like a bear, a partial hibernator. During January thaws I stick my nose out and peruse the frozen desolation as if reading a book whose language I don't know. In March I'm ramshackle, weak in the knees, giddy, dazzled by broken-backed clouds, the passing of Halley's comet, the on-and-off strobe of sun. Like a sheepherder, I x out each calendar day as if time were a forest through which I could clear-cut a way to the future. The physicist straightens me out on this point too. The notion of "time passing," like a train through a landscape, is an illusion, he says. I hold the Big Ben clock taken from a dead sheepherder's wagon. The clock measures intervals of time, not the speed of time, and the calendar is a scaffolding we hang as if time were rushing water we could harness. Time-bound, I hinge myself to a linear bias — cause and effect all laid out in a neat row.
Julius Caesar had a sense of humor about time. The Roman calendar with its kalends, nones, and ides — counting days — changed according to who was in power. Caesar serendipitously added days, changed the names of certain months, and when he was through, the calendar was so skewed, January fell in autumn.
Einsteinian time is too big for even Julius Caesar to have touched. It stretches and shrinks and dilates. Indecipherable from space, time is not one thing but an infinity of space-times, overlapping and interfering. There is no future that is not now, no past that is not now. Time includes every moment.
It's the Ides of March today.
I've walked to a hill a mile from the house. It's not really a hill but a mountain slope that heaves up, turns sideways, and comes straight down to a foot-wide creek. Everything I can see from here used to be a flatland covered with shallow water. "Used to be" means several hundred million years ago, and the land itself was not really "here" at all but part of a continent floating near Bermuda. On top is a fin of rock, a marine deposition from Jurassic times created by small waves moving in and out from the shore.
I've come here for peace and quiet and to see what's going on in this secluded valley away from ranch work and sorting corrals, but what I get is a slap on the ass by a prehistoric wave, gains and losses in altitude and aridity, outcrops of mud composed of rotting volcanic ash which fell continuously for ten thousand years, a hundred million years ago. The soils are a geologic flag — red, white, green, and gray. On one side of the hill, mountain mahogany gives off a scent like orange blossoms; on the other, colonies of sagebrush root wide in ground the color of Spanish roof tiles. And it still looks like the ocean to me. "How much truth can a man stand, sitting by the ocean, all that perpetual motion ...," Mose Allison, the jazz singer, sings.
The wind picks up and blusters. Its fat underbelly scrapes uneven ground, twisting toward me like taffy, slips up over the mountain and showers out across the Great Plains. The sea smell it carried all the way from Seattle has long since been absorbed by pink gruss — the rotting granite that spills down the slopes of the Rockies. Somewhere over the Midwest the wind slows, tangling in the hair of hardwood forests, and finally drops into the corridors of cities, past Manhattan's World Trade Center, ripping free again as it skims the Atlantic's green swell.
Spring jitterbugs inside me. Spring is wind, symphonic and billowing. A dark cloud pops like a blood blister, spraying red hail down. The sky widens, breaking itself. Wind concusses. It is a cloth that sails so birds have something to fly on.
A message reports to my brain, but I can't believe my eyes. The sheet of wind had a hole in it: an eagle just fell out of the sky as if down the chute of a troubled airplane. Landed, falling. Is there a leg broken? The sides of this narrow valley, a seashore 170,000 years ago, now lift like a medic's litter to catch up this bird.
Hopping, she flaps seven feet of wing and sways near a dead fawn whose carcass had recently been feasted upon. When I approached, all I could see of the animal was a rib cage rubbed red with fine tissue and the decapitated head lying peacefully against sagebrush, eyes closed.
Excerpted from Islands, the Universe, Home by Gretel Ehrlich. Copyright © 1991 Gretel Ehrlich. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Looking for a Lost Dog
- The Source of a River
- This Autumn Morning
- The Bridge to Heaven
- Home Is How Many Places
- The Fasting Heart
- About the Author