The Solace of Open Spaces

From The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich:

After breakfast there are autumn chores to finish. We grease head gates on irrigation ditches, roll up tarp dams, pull horseshoes, and truck horses to their winter pasture. The harvest moon gives way to the hunter’s moon. Elk, deer, and moose hunters repopulate the mountains now that the livestock is gone. One young hunting guide has already been hurt. While he was alone at camp, his horse kicked him in the spleen. Immobilized, he scratched an SOS with the sharp point of a bullet on a piece of leather he cut from his chaps. “Hurt bad. In pain. Bring doctor with painkiller,” it read. Then he tied the note to the horse’s halter and threw rocks at the horse until it trotted out of camp. When the horse wandered into a ranch yard down the mountain, the note was quickly discovered and a doctor was helicoptered to camp. Amid orgiastic gunfire, sometimes lives are saved.

I’m a huge Gretel Ehrlich fan, and I loved this book. It will go on the shelf with a handful of others that will never be culled and will be re-read again and again. There are almost as many dog-eared pages to mark passages I want to revisit as there are pages that are not so marked. The characters in these essays are unforgettable, the landscape unimaginable. For this kind of lyrical, humanistic nature writing, there are few that do it as well, let alone better.

Cliff, the auctioneer, a small, skin-and-bones man who ran the big lambing shed, was her boyfriend at the time. He’d center a cigarette between his chapped lips, then roll it from one side of his mouth to the other, humming country tunes as he gave shots and suckled weak lambs. Fancying himself a songwriter, he read Billboard during coffee breaks and every morning when I arrived at the sheds he’d look me squarely in the eyes and say, “Gretel, when you’re looking at me you’re looking at country.” The next year he quit the sheep business to raise pigs.

Read the book as a companion piece to the movie Sweetgrass; a great one-two punch, for sure.


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