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Gretel Ehrlich

"I first traveled to Greenland in the late summer of 1993," This Cold Heaven begins, "not to write a book but to get above treeline." Still recovering from injuries suffered two years prior when she was struck by lightning (an experience Ehrlich wrote about in A Match to the Heart), the author discovered in the treeless polar north a substitute for the altitude doctors suggested she avoid.

Gretel EhrlichFor the next seven years, in isolated villages along the habitable edge of the largest continental ice sheet in the world, Ehrlich immersed herself in Greenlandic culture, traveling by dogsled with subsistence hunters and communing with locals in their homes. Interweaving her own experiences and encounters with those of Knud Rasmussen, the great Danish-Inuit explorer and ethnographer, in This Cold Heaven she introduces a culture by turns brutal and resplendent, alternately desolate and brimming with life; a fragile way of life whose survival is threatened by international politics, pollution, and modern conveniences as seemingly innocuous as a snowmobile.

As Donna Seaman of Booklist noted in a starred review, "By linking accounts of their lives with lyric descriptions of her own serendipitous and dramatic adventures, Ehrlich both celebrates the remarkable intimacy the Inuit have with the land and its animals and spirit, and chronicles the clangorous and toxic encroachment of consumer society on this pristine and precious realm."

Ehrlich explained here in our living room, "Greenland reminds me what human beings can really be if they're just left to live without the whole construct of politics and a market economy and global everything, and how beautifully those people can live to their potential in a simple way."

Dave: How did you distill seven years on and off in Greenland into one story? Did you have a vision at the beginning of how it might work?

Gretel Ehrlich: Oh, no. You would never do it if you realized how much work it was going to be. Plus, you never know what's going to happen. It's like making a documentary: the story presents itself as you're living it. Things that I thought would happen didn't, and of course other things did.

I didn't have any idea. I just took a lot of notes, and in between trips did a lot of reading - mostly Rasmussen, but also any other texts that were relevant.

I wrote it season by season. I wrote about the dark time all at once. Another time I'd write about being there in the summer. I didn't realize that all the people would keep weaving through, but Greenland functions like a small town - you keep seeing the same people over and over. Everyone seems to be related to everyone else. Inevitably, they wind through the narrative.

And it's such a recent history. They've only been modernized since the Cold War when Thule Air Force Base was opened, so the time when they were functioning in a less modern way is still in their memory. You feel as if you're living with a still-breathing history. To reach back to the legends or the descriptions of the ceremonial life, cannibalism and the rest...They'll say, "Oh, yes, my grandfather told me about the time when summer never came and it was winter all year round. People starved, and they ate their dogs, and they ate each other."

It wove itself together. I tried to keep all the people who became important in the story alive throughout - not by fictionalizing, but if I was there I'd make sure I'd go down to see these people and see what they were doing.

Dave: When did you decide that you were done? When your publisher said they needed the book?

Ehrlich: Pretty much. I could have gone back a few more times; I wanted to see if other things would happen. It's hard. It's not like writing a novel where suddenly the story resolves itself, and that process of resolution tells your fingers to stop, finally. Or the way certain passages came of a piece, then ended.

No, like any documentary of peoples' lives, the lives continue, so you could go on endlessly. Probably no one would be interested, but I would be, so it's really hard to know when you've finished.

Dave: Now that the book is complete, what do you make of it?

Ehrlich: It's a book that moves around a lot so it's not really any one thing. There are my usual insertions of poetry - cleverly disguised as prose! - and letters, quasi-love stories, ethnographic material, trips where there's movement through time and place. It seems more like a compendium of different kinds of things than my other books, and I like that. That's how it felt up there. It's not as neat as some of the other books.

Sometimes I'd do absolutely nothing for a month and feel, Well, I've just wasted that month! Then I'd get home and all kinds of things would come out of that time.

Dave: Toward the end, you seem to be acclimating a lot more. Some of the trips you're taking...all of them sound fairly hardcore, but particularly the ones in the second half of the book. You were out there. Cutting a seal open and eating the liver while blood spills onto the ice...

Ehrlich: We were out there. And I started feeling really comfortable. The people knew me; we'd been traveling together. I knew how to handle situations. I always knew where we were. It felt normal to be there. And my Greenlandic was getting a little better.

Dave: You lived in Wyoming for about fifteen years?

Ehrlich: Seventeen. I live there again now.

Dave: For five years I lived in Colorado, about forty-five minutes from Laramie. Even being that close we thought of Wyoming as "out there": endless open spaces, seventy miles between settlements with populations under fifty...but there's no comparison. How did you manage that transition, settling in Greenland without even knowing the language?

Ehrlich: Sometimes it was really lonely, even though I felt deeply befriended by many people there - and they're still friends; after September 11th they were the first people to call. But when I'd first moved to Wyoming I had to learn that culture, too. I knew that it took time. I had to be patient and try not to feel so lonely that I would leave.

In a way it was pretty easy. There are so few people there and it's easy to maneuver around. If you want to talk to the old people, they'd just say, "Okay"; getting a translator was the hardest thing. But the rest fell into place.

There was no illusion that I was some insider, but I kept going back, agreeing to join them in their daily lives, and all those obstacles just melted away.

Dave: What was most shocking about life there?

Ehrlich: The dark time, that's pretty different, as they say in Wyoming. That took a little adjusting to, especially coming from California. I could never live in Portland. It would drive me nuts.

Dave: It drives me nuts, the darkness. I was reading your book when we turned back the clocks, and I dread that so much, going home from work in the dark.

Ehrlich: I really dreaded it at first. I was terrified of it. They say that Arctic hysteria, in the old days, always occurred in that period just as the dark was coming on. Once it's there, everyone kind of evens out, and that was my experience, too.

I didn't get hysterical, but as we were flying into it...pretty soon, you're surrounded by darkness, and you know it's not going away. It just takes a few days and your body clock goes into longer and longer days - from a twenty-four hour day to a twenty-six hour day to a twenty-seven hour day. You keep eating later at night and getting up later in the morning. But once you let go of all the conventional ideas about time and calendars, when you should eat and shit and becomes some other world. There is an otherworldliness to the place.

Same in the light-time. There aren't any boundaries to anything. You just kind of drift. You couldn't experience that anywhere else. It pushes your circadian rhythm into some other mode. It's not just psychological, but physiological as well.

Dave: While you were working on this book, in the middle of the seven-year period, you wrote Questions of Heaven, about your trip to China.

Ehrlich: Quite a few other books, too!

Dave: But Questions of Heaven, especially, seems so interesting in contrast to This Cold Heaven. Everything about your experience in China seemed to exist in direct opposition to your life in Greenland. It was dirty and crowded; people were everywhere.

Ehrlich: China was more shocking to me, in every way, than Greenland could ever be. Greenland is rural and spare; I'm used to that.

I knew there would be lots of people in China; that was okay. What shocked me was the depths to which Mao and his people had stripped away everything that makes a human being human - and how that's carried now into the younger generations, stripped them of their sense of beauty, of the sort of spiritual raison d'etre that people need. Everywhere, I felt a barrenness. And it's not the people's fault. It's not that they don't have a persona, a bodhicitta inside them, but perhaps their vocabulary for expressing it or even accessing it had been stripped away. They just seemed lost. That was really shocking.

Dave: Did that help draw out the contrast in Greenland?

Ehrlich: It made me appreciate what I think of as sustainable civilizations - and of course that's what the Chinese had; they had perhaps the most glorious culture in the world.

Greenland reminds me what human beings can really be if they're just left to live without the whole construct of politics and a market economy and global everything; and how beautifully those people can live to their potential in a simple way.

Dave: Simon Winchester was here recently, and we got to talking about the idea of certain reference works as shortcuts to learning - thesauri are his example. I was reminded of that conversation during the passages in This Cold Heaven about those subsistence hunters, traveling without maps over the ice. They know the land precisely. Their lives depend on it.

Ehrlich: The subsistence hunters that I traveled with are so good at what they do. They do everything with an effortless perfection and a sense of wonder at their own world, an efficiency, a really vibrant efficiency, not one mandated by the industrial revolution but by the actual needs of a human being. That's really beautiful to see.

What I see everywhere else, the degradation of the human spirit, comes from a construct that was invented by a handful of people. It didn't grow out of the place.

Dave: And yet you live in America still. You must still like Wyoming, if you're back there.

I've recommended The Solace of Open Spaces to several friends over the years when I've given up trying to describe the land and culture there. It's so hard to describe Wyoming to people back east. A native of Massachusetts who imagines rural, untouched spaces thinks of Maine, or the Berkshires.

Ehrlich: Well, it's gorgeous. I like big, open, spare landscapes. There's lots of room. Nobody bothers you. People are quiet and funny. I feel as if I can think there. Nobody's trying to be anything that they're not, and they don't really care who you are, particularly.

I feel good there. I like the way it smells. But I like Paris and London, too. I love Japan.

I think people find what Edward Hoagland calls "your heart's home." I didn't move there because I read a book about it; I just ended up there, and I found it suited me.

I think it's good for people to just roam around. Stay where your car breaks down. Get on the damn bus, get off when you have to pee, then move there. That's good.

Dave: A Match to the Heart makes me think of that kind of serendipitous turn of events. In terms of profound, life-changing experiences, I would imagine that getting struck by lighting is about as significant as it gets.

How much does that affect you now? Is your heart better?

Ehrlich: Oh, yeah. This year was the tenth anniversary, and even this year I felt like I made another leap into better health.

Yes, it changed my life totally. I went from being an extremely active, rancher-writer, working too many hours every day doing manual work and writing, to being basically an invalid. They didn't think I would live very long, and if I did that I'd be shuffling down the beach a few yards every day then coming home and resting. So that was my prospect, which was a little humbling. But my cardiologist kept saying I'd be fine; it would take a long time, but I'd be writing books and roping calves again someday.

Dave: And here you were traveling by dogsled across open ice? It hasn't exactly stopped you.

Ehrlich: You can't stop. Even when I was really sick I tried to push myself. I'm not a driven person, but I tried to push myself just a little bit further than I was sure I could go, which might have meant just walking another hundred yards. I thought, Somehow it will make my body remember who I was before.

I also spent a lot of time doing nothing, lying on my back, listening to string quartets. In fact there are days when I'm really nostalgic for that time! It was wonderful rest.

Part of what I like about Inuit people is that if they feel like sleeping, they just lie down and sleep. People walk over them. They don't have conventional restrictions, those subsistence hunters. They act according to the demands of the body.

Dave: When the light comes, you explain, there is always someone outside in town, at all hours of the day. There's never a time, no matter the hour, when someone isn't outside doing something.

Ehrlich: Children are out, people are going off hunting. It's really neat. There's an seem to be able to live on much less sleep.

Dave: You became interested in Buddhism years before you were struck by lightning, right?

Ehrlich: Since 1969.

Dave: It does seem like such a fascinating thing to happen to a Buddhist writer. Here's a subject for the rest of my life. Did you know fairly soon after recovering that you'd want to write about it?

Ehrlich: My editor had to sort of talk me into it.

Dave: Why?

Ehrlich: I knew it would be painful reliving all of it over and over again, and it was. It was painful to go on tour. It was painful writing it, the whole process. Also, I had a sense of humor about it as soon as I could talk. The whole lightning, seemed ironic and funny.

Dave: Do you write poetry while working on fiction while working on essays - do you work on all forms at once?

Ehrlich: All of that. It just comes up, and I go with it. Sometimes I'm working on particular things because I have to make a living - an advance for a book that takes eight years to write doesn't quite last; a lot of things I had to do just to keep going. And going to the Arctic is really expensive. But I like going from one form to another. I don't think I could write just novels all my life, or just nonfiction. I'm writing a novel next.

Dave: Is it something you've been thinking about for a while? Maybe during those quiet moments up in the Arctic?

Ehrlich: All the little chips are floating around, like frost-fall when it's really cold. Like crystals in the air, beginning to congeal.

Dave: Do you read variously, too?

Ehrlich: I do. I read poetry every day. Lately I've been reading mostly translations by Red Pine [Bill Porter], who translates Chinese medieval poems. He also wrote a great book about going to visit hermits in the mountains of China.

I read everything. Yeats and Robert Lowell and Robert Stevenson. I love reading science. And I'm always trying to read what's coming out, like Naipaul's new book. I probably read more fiction than nonfiction at this point.

Dave: Are there trips and stories you have planned, places you still really want to write about or explore?

Ehrlich: Yeah, but I never really have a plan. I just see where life takes me. I've been going to Africa because I'm writing about somebody there, but one thing leads to another. Who knows? I want to go everywhere, but I also want to stay home. I'm building a new house.

It's just life. It really wouldn't matter if I didn't go anywhere. In a way it's all traveling. I have no encumbrances right now, so I have an opportunity to travel, but if the situation conspires to change that, that's fine, too. I'm so happy just walking along a creek and seeing how it all changes every day.

There's always books, you see. That's the world, the universe on your shelf. I can't live a life with plans. Tom McGuane always teases me about having more unused airplane tickets than anyone he's ever met. I liked the old days when you could walk into an airport, look at the board, and decide to Polynesia today! Plans can deaden things.

Gretel Ehrlich visited Powell's City of Books on November 9, 2001.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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