Woman of Lightning and Ice

In search of Santa Barbara-raised nature writer, wilderness lover, and ice expert Gretel Ehrlich

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By Matt Kettmann


“These are people who don’t give up. They have patience, resilience, self-discipline, creativity, a complete ability to work together.”


As if getting struck by lightning twice wasn’t enough of an experience to trump a million dinner conversations, nature writer Gretel Ehrlich spent a healthy chunk of the past two decades getting to know Greenland, that fat chunk of the planet between the New and Old Worlds whose oxymoronic existence—why called green when covered in white ice?—continues to confuse countless school children. Fortunately for the kids but disastrously for the locals, Ehrlich discovered that the ice is receding more rapidly than even the most alarmist global warming expert predicted, and a way of life she came to love is fading alongside the polar caps.


Those observations and ruminations comprise her tenth book, “In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape,” which was released last fall and can be seen as a follow-up to “This Cold Heaven”, her introduction to Greenland that was published in 2002. While it will always be difficult for Ehrlich to surpass the wilderness wonderings of her 1985 debut memoir, “The Solace of Open Spaces”, or the lightning strikes-inflected introspection of 1994’s “A Match to the Heart”, her latest book is certainly the most environmentally relevant, and was welcomed with much applause. It’s a blend of self-reflective naturalism and literary anthropology, an intimate look at a culture on the brink and a world not too far behind.


The people of Greenland, Ehrlich explained to me over the phone from her home in Wyoming recently, “are an example of how really great intelligence arises right up through the souls of your feet—not through academia, but from living on the land as subsistence hunters and living in a society where everything is done together, where individuals don’t count for anything more than their participation in the group effort to stay alive and stay fed and stay entertained and keep their humor.”


Taken from a wide angle, Ehrlich’s examination of the Greenlanders offers echoes of what life was like for humans before the big city, in those 100,000 years of evolution when we all lived off the land. And if anyone has crafted their life to reflect more of a stripped down existence, it would be Ehrlich, who was raised on a horse farm in Santa Barbara but now spends much of her time in Wyoming, which was also the setting for her 2005 book #The Future of Ice: A Journey Into the Cold#. I remember reading that book soon after its release one winter while driving to a relative’s home through the barren northeastern corner of California. In between pages, as I looked out upon the patches of snow that littered the red, volcanic earth, I realized that Ehrlich’s fascination with icy climes wasn’t just about the weather—it was an examination of loneliness, of survival, of human beings pushed to their limits. And she nails it, time and time again.


It wasn’t too long before that drive that I had the pleasure of dining with Ehrlich in a small ranch home on the pastoral outskirts of Lompoc, in northern Santa Barbara County, where the closest streetlight was miles away and no threat of the big city could be found. (We were friends with the same friends, as it turns out all so often in Central California.) As a younger writer with no books under my belt, I should have been intimidated by her presence, but that would have been impossible—she was engaging in conversation but reserved, even aloof at other times, an embodied whirlwind of lightning and ice. In the years since, I’ve come to realize she was just doing what any good author or journalist or anthropologist does best: watch, wait your turn to talk, and then watch some more.


“I’m really interested in how landscape shapes the way people think and move and work together,” she told me last year of the Greenland experience, but so it goes for all of her endeavors. After our conversation last fall, she spent time traveling the country on a book tour of sorts, and then promptly disappeared. My repeated attempts to get in touch with her for an update before writing this article were entirely in vain. When I told one contact of my travails, the woman simply replied, “That’s her bag.”


I’ll just assume that Ehrlich’s in search of the next adventure, or maybe she’s back in Greenland, doing what she can to save her friends. They certainly aren’t ending their fight. “These are people who don’t give up,” Ehrlich told me in September before a Santa Barbara book signing. “They have patience, resilience, self-discipline, creativity, a complete ability to work together. To me, those are the survival toolkit for society.”


No matter where she is, I’m sure that she’s reminding everyone at her dinner table that as Greenland goes, so go the rest of us. “It’s a terrible tragedy, but it’s not unrelated to us because the Arctic drives the climate for the whole world,” she said. “We’re all part of this. It’s not just something that’s happening to the people at the top of the world.”



View videos and photos online at gretel-ehrlich.com. “In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape” can be purchased at nationalgeographic.com/books or amazon.com.


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