Gretel Ehrlich: Struck by Nature

“Cover yourself with the living world. It becomes part of your love life.” Gretel Ehrlich writes about nature with passion and awareness, but twice her love affair with nature turned deadly. Stephen Foehr talks to the author of A Match to the Heart.

Stephen Foehr
28 September 2018
Photo by Dan Aragón.

The afternoon thunderstorm that tumbled over the Bighorn Mountains looked harmless to Gretel Ehrlich’s practiced eye. Eight years of herding cattle and sheep in the Wyoming high country had given her a measure of weather sense. Sam and Yaki, the two dogs with her on the hike, cowered at the distant thunderclaps. She assured them nothing would happen as long as they were with her.

Then lightning struck. Her body was hurled through the air, propelled by the violent contractions of her muscles. She landed hard on her left side; she was lucky that the blow of hitting the ground caused her heart to start again. She regained consciousness in a pool of blood, suffering a concussion, broken ribs, maybe a broken jaw, and a cut above one eye. When feeling came back into her legs, she lurched a quarter mile to her ranch house and phoned for help.

She had been lightning-struck before, nearly eight years earlier. “It felt as though sequins had been poured down my legs, then an electrical charge thumped me at the base of my skull as if I’d been mugged. Afterward the crown of my head itched and the bottom of my feet arched up and burned,” she wrote in The Solace of Open Spaces.

The second time she was hit, the lightning burned out her sympathetic nerve system. The smooth muscles of her blood vessels were stripped of their vascular tone by the jolt of electricity. Her arteries lost their ability to constrict, so blood pooled in her legs. Her heart couldn’t pump sufficient blood up to her brain. Fainting spells plagued her, near-death emergency room fainting spells that required hospitalization.

In her bestselling book about the experience, A Match to the Heart, Ehrlich gives the medical explanation for why her body malfunctions. Her body lost its ability to increase the heart’s rate, because the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems had been knocked out of sync, t he two systems usually counterbalance each other: the parasympathetic nerves send a message to the brain to secrete an inhibitory chemical that slows the heart down when the heart rate and blood pressure get too high. The sympathetic system does the opposite; it speeds things up. Her sympathetic system had been fried, allowing the parasympathetic vagus nerve to take over and have its way, slowing down the heart.

Her explanation: “I surrendered to lightning. What a way to get enlightened.”

Not that Ehrlich claims to be enlightened, dismissing such a preposterous idea with a hearty laugh. But the accident forced her to slow down, to become intimate with time. In Wyoming, she rose at dawn and did ranch chores until dusk, or later. She still rises at dawn but now takes her dogs for a walk, often on the Pacific beach below her land north of Santa Barbara. Then she writes. “I try to stay quiet and see what happens. I keep piles of blank paper on tables everywhere. I just write stuff down,” she said from her home in California.

The “stuff” she wrote to describe regaining consciousness after being nearly killed by lightning is typical of her lyrical style and precise attention to detail. From A Match to the Heart:

“A single heartbeat stirs gray water. Blue trickles in, just a tiny stream. Then a long silence.

“Another heartbeat. This one is louder, as if amplified. Sound takes a shape; it is a snowplow moving grayness aside like a heavy snowdrift. I can’t tell if I’m moving, but more blue water flows in. Seaweed begins to undulate, then a wide kelp forest rises from the ocean floor. A fish swims past and looks at me. Another heartbeat drives through dead water, and another, until I am surrounded by blue.”

In the afternoons, she listens to music, walks the hills, and thinks about rolling naked on the dirt road.

“The practice of writing is the practice of investigating one’s consciousness,” she remarked during one of our rambling conversations.

“It’s all path.”

Recently, she has been investigating two issues:

What is one’s relationship to the defilement of the natural world and how to heal that defilement? What is the relationship of consciousness to the natural world and how do we derive truth from natural fact?

“These are the key points I address in my work,” she said. “They are both the subject and the object, the question and the answer.” For Ehrlich, the defilement is not confined to physical degradation. It is a matter of an ethical and moral stance in relationship to the land, and in that, a relationship to the self. The defilement is that of an abusive lover.

“Whether you actually do anything bad, like wreck a piece of land or throw garbage out the window, if you don’t understand where you are, and be in some active relationship to it, then that is neglect,” Ehrlich said, while sitting in the kitchen of her log cabin.

“If you don’t learn to quiet your mind, and then to see, and from the seeing leam to love a place, then you’re living in a state of defilement.”

How to heal the defilement? Despair is part of healing, and love and joy and sadness.

“You have to feel the despair as deeply as you might feel any relationship with a human or anything,” Ehrlich explained. “Feeling the despair deeply is necessary to drive yourself into action. Otherwise, we’d all be in a serendipity, what-the-hell mode. It has to be a love affair with real grace, a sense of quality between yourself and the community of plants, animals, the climate, rocks, everything. When you develop a friendship with yourself and the world, then the despair is transformed into care.”

The defilement and despair comes from not recognizing that plants and animals, like humans, have self-awareness, intelligence, strategies for life, emotions, dreams, thoughts, hopes and fears, according to Ehrlich. Witnessing the defilement of nature is like watching yourself commit murder.

She admits that despair shadows her life; it’s a professional hazard. “All of us so- called nature writers— Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Peter Matthiessen—talk ad nauseam about the despair of seeing nature defiled. But that despair is necessary. It is the despair of finally seeing yourself. You laugh and cry at the same time. Barry Lopez says that it is the beauty of the place that keeps him from committing suicide.”

Ehrlich has discovered that by experiencing despair she also experiences a great appetite for life. Despair should create more openness. And that openness is how a person helps to heal the defilement of nature. That healing starts in your own back yard.

“In this world of vast suffering, you have to cultivate your own field first and work out from there,” Ehrlich said. “The development of peace and tolerance and acceptance has to start in your own heart. The little forays of regression we all indulge in are warning signs that we could better work on cultivating peace.”

A dynamic tension exists between humans and the natural. It is a cord of connection, but we keep . cutting the cord. To keep her hand on, and ear to, the cord, Ehrlich goes into the natural world, lays her heart on a rock and lets things pummel her: eagle feathers, sea shells, horses, smiles, heavy empty spaces, snow storms, people. She wants her heart cracked open, made raw, so she can see acutely.

By peering through the cracks of illusions, of masks, of broken hearts, of the seasons, Ehrlich gains insights into whatever she is investigating, be it a laconic sheep- herder’s shyness or the illusions of her own self.

“In the Bardo Thodol, known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, bar means ‘between’; and do, ‘a landmark that stands between two things’; joined together, bardo means gap,” she wrote in A Match to the Heart.

“It refers to that wandering state between life and death, confusion and enlightenment, neurosis and sanity. The past has just occurred, and the future has not yet happened. In the bardo of the human realm we experience the body as illusory. Our relationship to our own existence and nonexistence is lukewarm. The whole world is a hiatus; the gap is not just a widening in the road before the next bend, it is where the road falls off the cliff.”

Reminded of the passage, she said, “The gap is the place where things happen. It is the openness.”

Down on the beach where she walks her dogs, Ehrlich pointed to a small, fragile mudstone tattooed with intricate designs made by tiny holes.

“This is what I mean by a truth derived from natural fact. I see that design as implicit in the natural world,” she said, with a touch of wonderment in her voice. “The sense of design I bring to my writing is something I’ve literally ingested from everything around me.”

What she writes is not always presented on the printed page. Currently, she is writing an opera but doesn’t know exactly what it’s going to be about. “Martha Clarke and I were hired by the American Ballet Theater but as soon as we presented our idea, we got fired. We thought that was a good sign,” she laughed.

A screenplay she wrote, based on her novel Heart Mountain, may be revived soon. The novel is set during World War II in a Wyoming internment camp for American citizens of Japanese descent. Robert Redford bought the rights three years ago for a film he intended to star in and direct. The Japanese financing fell through when recession hit Japan, but now there’s interest again.

By happenstance, her observations of the Canadian High Arctic became a ballet, “Arctic Heart.” She had arrived at a London rehearsal studio directly from the Arctic carrying her fur coat and arctic gear, and promptly fell asleep on the floor. When she woke, the choreographer, Siobhan Davies, asked, “Why don’t you write something new for us.”

Ehrlich wrote a poem a day based on her impressions of the Arctic. Davies turned the words into dance. Ehrlich recorded the poems, and the composer wove them into his score. The ballet has toured Europe, Mexico, South America and Asia.

Ehrlich, 48, once aspired to be a dancer and choreographer. As a student at Bennington, she studied dance and gave the career a shot in New York. “When I realized it meant a lifetime of poverty, sweat and living in New York, I decided it wasn’t for me,” she recalled, with a characteristic laugh.

She doesn’t have a dancer’s body, except for feet with high arches and pretty toes. She is not petite like a dancer but a bit stout and has strong hands—a body better suited for range work. She occasionally helps to drive cattle on the ranch where she now lives, a hangover from her Wyoming days.

She learned to ride as a young girl in Santa Barbara, where she was born. Even then she showed artistic inclinations, and a fascination with the Far East, particularly Japan and China. At 14, unhappily sequestered away in boarding school, she read D. T. Suzuki’s Manual of Zen Buddhism.

“From then on, 1 considered myself a Buddhist. But 1 didn’t understand there was a practice connected to it,” she said with a laugh. “Then, back in the fifties, there wasn’t any Buddhism in America. Eventually I heard about Gary Snyder and learned that Zen centers were opening in California. I began practicing, but it took me quite a long time to get there.”

She has made many trips to Japan over the years. On the last trip, she and a companion walked all the sacred mountains of northern Honshu. They basically followed the Shinto pilgrimage route and stayed in pilgrimage huts along the trails.

Japan also appears in her paintings. While in college she took up the brush and, at one point, apprenticed to painters, learning to mix powder colors into paint and the basics of technique. Then she quit. Following her encounter with the Great Bolt, all these years later, she has again begun to make her seeing visual, swabbing calligraphic-style strokes of colored ink across as many as 100 sheets a day. “I can’t draw,” she admits. “Painting and writing complement each other. The writing is about the art of seeing,” she said, gazing out the kitchen window and down a wide canyon leading to the ocean, its ridges covered with dark green chaparral and blond, sun-cured grass. “The art of seeing is just surrendering to something outside yourself. That is what I am trying to do with my work— so it may encourage other people to see.”

“Keenly observed, the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient,” she wrote in The Solace of Open Spaces.

Here is how Ehrlich sees Wyoming in The Solace of Open Spaces: “In the Great Plains the vistas look like music, like Kyries of grass, but Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect—rumpled and twisted, ribboned with faded, deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into a pure light.”

Ehrlich credits the sitting practice of meditation for helping her see life. “It influences me in every sense but particularly in the senses of being still and seeing. The sitting practice looks like you’re doing nothing, which, of course, you are. Which is the same as doing everything. Stillness and motion are the flip side of the same thing.

“If you quiet your mind, then you actually get to see what else there is around you besides yourself. You start to see that there is a life outside of yourself, even with inanimate objects. The vividness of it is wild.”

She makes the act of seeing an intimate act, part of her love life. One of the rewards of being in love with life is seeing what’s there and being part of that. “If you start inhabiting your life, then you start developing an intimacy with yourself. Then that extends outward everywhere. A tenderness develops toward yourself and all else once you start stripping things away.

“It’s really like the act of taking off your clothes and pressing yourself against a dirt road,” Ehrlich said. “It’s total surrender. If you roll around on a dirt road naked, you get covered with dirt. You cover yourself with the living world. It becomes part of your love life. Let yourself be pummeled by rain and hail and lightning. Go someplace and just be there and see what you can see. The more you see, the more you see.

“We have to let our hearts be broken so badly that we are totally open. That’s what we have to do in everything: in our love life, in our creative and work life. That is developing the rawness and openness so we can actually feel both the shit and the beauty.”

Ehrlich’s heart has been broken more than once. David, a Welshman she was engaged to marry, died of cancer as they were working together on a film project about cowboys in Wyoming. (She attended the UCLA Film School.) After he died, she moved to Wyoming, where she met Press at a John Wayne film festival and married him. Recently, she was divorced.

“It’s hard for me because there is so much personal pain involved, since I’m not single by choice,” she said. “1 feel that, at this point in my life, being single is boring and dreary. This living alone is not all that unpleasant. It’s OK, but I’ve more to give to the world than this. But you live with whatever you have at the moment, even though it’s not necessarily what you want.”
Living the days “with whatever” requires a toughness. “To be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly free,” she wrote in The Solace of Open Spaces. That is her motto for daily life. It is a toughness without aggression, a toughness that comes from discipline to do what is needed.

“It makes you care enough to discipline either yourself or the situation around you,” she said. “Ray Hunt, who trains horses, is a beautiful example of toughness that doesn’t come out of fear or aggression or a desire for power. At the moment a horse gets out of control, loses its own self-discipline, he meets it at the height of its insanity. He really jerks hard on the horse to bring it back to the safety of him. He’s hard on the horse, but he never does anything that would make the horse think humans could ever dominate it.”
To be fragile is the openness of not dominating every situation with your desires, willfulness, ideas or preconceptions, she explained. “Just let yourself be torn apart by the beauty or sadness of the situation.”

Such receptiveness will tenderize you. “In the Taoist tradition, if you are in a position of receptivity, active or passive, you automatically develop a tenderness toward the world. You can’t help but develop tenderness, because this place we live in is endearing.”

She gave testimony to the endearing tenderness when she wrote in The Solace of Open Spaces: “Today the sky is a wafer. Placed on my tongue, it is a wholeness that has already disintegrated; placed under the tongue, it makes my heart beat strongly enough to stretch myself over the winter brilliances to come. Now I feel the tenderness to which this season rots. It’s defenselessness can no longer be corrupted. Death is its purity, its sweet mud. The string of storms that came across Wyoming like elephants tied tail to trunk falters now and bleeds into a stillness.”
“Everywhere I look it’s unbelievably beautiful,” she said, gazing out her kitchen window. “I’m overwhelmed by that.”

After a pause, she added, “There is an old adage: ‘If you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose.’ Then you are absolutely free to do anything and to be yourself. Life is extraordinarily simple. We spend our tiny fragments of lifetime making it complicated.”

Then she laughed, a spontaneous poem of selfrecognition, at the very thought of it all.