Unsolaced

  • By Gretel Ehrlich
  • Pantheon
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Christine Baleshta
  • January 15, 2022

A nuanced meditation on the sacred spaces disappearing before our eyes.

What does it mean to be unsolaced? If you look it up, the word simply means “not solaced,” but perhaps a better explanation lies in Gretel Ehrlich’s new collection of essays. In Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is, Ehrlich reflects on her life experiences and lessons learned in Wyoming and travels as a journalist.

Part memoir, part travelogue, part poetry, Unsolaced follows Ehrlich as she struggles with the concept of “home,” connects with animals and the land, and despairs over climate change. Sentience and sunderance are continuously on her mind: How do we know anything? Who teaches us? How do we lose that knowing? How do animals know what they know? 

The beginning of Unsolaced centers on Ehrlich’s life in her heart’s home, Wyoming, where she escaped the grief of losing her partner. In Shell, Wyoming, she takes on the strenuous cowboying life, hoping it will balance her inner turmoil. Under the mentorship of warmhearted neighbors, she becomes part of a ranching community, learning that the land, weather, cattle, working dogs, and horses will teach you what you don’t know. She marries and buys a ranch, and her aversion to “home” is broken:

“Staying in one place and going deep broke through my restlessness and enlarged all that I saw. I looked around, and what was around looked at me.”

On assignment for Time magazine, she takes clinics with South African restoration ecologist Allan Savory and legendary horseman Ray Hunt, claiming these experiences changed her life. From Savory, she learns holistic land management; through Hunt, she learns a new way of horsemanship that involves discipline, awareness, compassion, and stillness. 

All in the same chapter, Ehrlich’s marriage falls apart and she is struck by lightning. The solace she found in Wyoming abruptly evaporates. She moves back to California to heal and process the death of her marriage, ranch life, and treasured friendships. Though her recovery is long, Ehrlich finds that her infirmity is a blessing, an unexpected opening to a deeper life where she retreats inward, learning to be weak as well as strong. 

When a chance meeting with an editor of Islands magazine leads to an assignment in Greenland, Ehrlich begins a love affair with the Far North. Greenland seems to be a turning point for her. She becomes friends with two elite hunters and returns to Greenland almost every spring for the next 20 years. Year after year, she observes the melting sea ice as the changing climate gradually destroys the Arctic environment and culture. Global warming becomes up close and personal: After a dogsled Ehrlich is traveling on almost goes through the ice, she commits to learning why and how the climate is changing and how it affects the entire world. 

The remainder of Unsolaced follows the author as she shuttles among California, Wyoming, Africa, the Far North, and Kosovo, finding solace in new places and relationships, only to lose it again. In California, she witnesses the loss of a ranch owned and operated by generations of a conservation-minded family. She spends time at Africa Centre, where Savory attempts to restore degraded and “desertified” land, but where poaching, political unrest, and violence are constant barriers to peace and stability.

Traveling to Kosovo at the invitation of Dr. Rifat Latife, a surgeon establishing a global telemedicine center, Ehrlich gets a crash course on the ravages of war and genocide. Always, always, she returns to Wyoming, but even there, solace eludes her as she sees the effects of drought, poor land management, and drilling. 

While global warming looms large in it, Unsolaced differs from other books with a climate-change theme in its emphasis on the human costs thereof. For Ehrlich’s friends in Greenland, the disappearance of sea ice equals the disappearance of their way of life and threatens their survival. Ehrlich worries not only about the warming of the earth and the extinction of animals, but also the extinction of cultures. 

Readers familiar with Ehrlich’s writing may feel a bit of déjà vu as she revisits many of the same places and people she wrote about in The Solace of Open Spaces and other books, but each essay in Unsolaced is its own story. Her journalistic style places the reader squarely in the middle of others’ lives. Chapters read like articles out of National Geographic but aren’t bogged down by abstruse scientific terms and explanations.

Woven into Unsolaced is a meditation on place and nature. Ehrlich believes a person can become native to a place through a deep knowledge and understanding of that place and claims that we are shaped by our environment as much as by our ancestors. Her profound rapport with all that surrounds her is laced into poignant portrayals of her dogs and encounters with wildlife, as well as in illuminating descriptions of the pristine Arctic landscape:

“Autumn set in, plunking its ravishing blocks of color amid half-dead forests of lodgepole pine. I walked home on the last hike of the year and imagined winter: forty-foot-deep snow drifts covering the labyrinth of willow, the hidden place where the moose and her calf grazed. A soft sun burned the lake where twelve geese bathed themselves, dipping breast-first into what looked like flames but was water, flapping, stretching their necks. Their honking goose-talk traveled the airwaves in deep musical tones. Two sandhill cranes circled the top of the lake as if trying to tighten it, keep it from draining. At the Narrows — a pinched waist of rock — water from the lower lake pushed into the upper. A trout jumped, catching the last visible bug and as it did so, the whole valley faded, swallowed from sight.”

But even Ehrlich’s captivating prose does not disguise her underlying sadness. She laments that all the places we can go to find solace are getting smaller and wonders how society could allow this to happen. Were we careless? Or just selfish?

Originally intended as a bookend to The Solace of Open Spaces, Unsolaced is unpredictably timely, a compelling adventure story and an inward and outward journey that may leave the reader with more questions than answers in these uncertain times, the most provoking being, “Where do we go to find solace now?”

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]

Christine Baleshta is the author of Looking for 527 and other essays. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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