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The Solace of New Spaces

By Page Lambert

When The Solace of Open Spaces first appeared on Wyoming’s literary horizon (Viking, 1985), there were many longtime residents who felt that despite Ehrlich’s glowing lyricism and mastery of fact she had somehow failed to capture the true solace about which she wrote. She’s an outsider. Hell, she’s from California. What does she know?  Nearly fifteen years later, when Annie Proulx’s collection of Wyoming short stories reared its hardscrabble head (Close Range, Scribner, 1999), more grumbling among Wyoming’s longtime residents surfaced. She sure as hell can write about the hard side, but what good is telling stories about dying and meanness if you don’t see the good in a thing? Proulx, like Ehrlich, was an outsider, born back East in Connecticut. This fact alone, despite her Pulitzer prize-winning stature, was enough to cause some to dismiss the validity of her expertly crafted stories.

Two camps arose within Wyoming’s literary circles. Academia praised both works but academia did not represent the only accomplished group of writers within the state. Wyoming was fertile soil for the growing of stories, as Ehrlich and Proulx had proven, and it had also produced a grassroots crop of writers with long ranching legacies who wrote poignantly and skillfully about the hardscrabble life. Was it professional jealousy that caused grumblings among this group of writers? A sense of usurpation? An encroachment into their territory? The airing of a family’s dirty laundry by someonewho didn’t belong to the family? Both Ehrlich and Proulx had captured the nation’s attention with their books while lesser known writers with perhaps more authority to write about Wyoming remained unknown much beyond the borders of the state. When Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” was made into a movie, and millions outside the state formed their opinions of the state based on this movie, grumblings like tremors rumbled across the landscape.

I occasionally voiced an opinion amidst this controversial dialogue, yet for the most part I merely acknowledged the elegance of both books, then kept my mouth shut – for I was one of the lesser known writers. When I peered closely into the soft gray matter where my own stories gestated, a shadow of professional jealousy did indeed lurk. I vowed not to feed it. The creative soul housed both intellect and emotion and I did not want to corrupt either. The world was rich with stories. There were enough stories to go around. But perhaps more importantly I, too, was an outsider. I had moved north from Colorado to Wyoming in 1985, the same year Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Spaces first appeared on the horizon.

Yet now, as I read Ehrlich’s opening passages twenty years later, after the successful publication of my own narrative book about Wyoming, In Search of Kinship, and after a difficult move back to Colorado, then further south to New Mexico, I am overcome by both nostalgia and a sense of camaraderie. Gretel, too, is now divorced, no longer living with the husband with whom she shared this landscape and its people. In The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel writes of sheep shaded up in the hot sun, of the silence that cold creates, of the “lean-to” look of Wyoming, of sentences “shortened to the skin and bones of a thought,” of “riding her horse across unchartered land.” She writes elegantly, knowingly, and compassionately about these things. She makes me long for the small ranch in the Black Hills of Wyoming where I reared my children, for the comfort of my Border collie on a hike through my favorite aspen draw, for the whitetail deer outside the window of our log home, for squirrels scampering along the old gnarly branches of the bur oaks, for the cows bellowing to their calves as they move to water, for the grassy smell of my horse’s breath, for the three-legged porcupine who lived among the ponderosas at the edge of the hay meadow.

The challenge now is to discover the solace of new spaces, based on a deeper and more compassionate understanding of earlier landscapes, whether beloved or begrudged. I am learning, as I hike through the rocky metaphorical terrain of this new life, the importance of pausing every now and then, of stopping in my tracks to turn and look behind, to check my back trail so that I don’t lose sight of the landmarks that guide my journey.

Without a doubt, Wyoming deserves much of the credit for the sharp-edged elegance of the books Gretel Ehrlich has gone on to write. As much, perhaps, as the stands of aspen and ponderosa, the bones of fox and coyote and cow and horse, deserve to share my byline. Just as the paths cut through the oak trees by generations of whitetail deer have led me both to and from the things I love.


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