Mountainfilm: Gretel Ehrlich, Cultures On The Brink

Mountainfilm takes place in Telluride over Memorial Weekend, May 25 – May 28. Passes to the 2018 festival are nearly sold out. To get your passes or for more information about Mountainfilm, visit here.

Telluride author Susan Dalton captures Mountainfilm‘s best memories in “Mountainfilm: 40 Years.” The beautiful coffee table book costs just $49 (tax included) and can be pre-ordered now here.

Award-winning writer, thinker, rancher, traveler and Mountainfilm regular returns Memorial Weekend to join in the 40th annual Mountainfilm celebration.

“For me Gretel has always been an 8th century T’ang Dynasty poet, able somehow to bring the wisdom and beauty of that tradition right into the open spaces of the West (and the Arctic). She’s certainly the most intrepid traveler I know, ready and delighted to fly off to wherever there will be nine months of snowbound isolation and sub-zero temperatures. Gretel’s ability to bring the vision of desolate places into our revved-up world has been a blessing to both sides. How happy and thrilled I am that my old friend and former neighbor will be at Mountainfilm again, just as she was when I first visited, in 2005. I can still see us swinging in the cable-car up the mountain and recalling all the wild and elemental places we knew and loved up amidst the blue,” said travel writer, thinker and returning Mountainfilm 2018 presenter Pico Iyer.

Please scroll down to listen to a Gretel Ehrlich’s podcast.

(And go here to read more about Pico Iyer and listen to his podcast in the run up to Mountainfilm 2018.)

It is no small things when the name of one of America’s greatest poets is used as an adjective to sum up you and your work.

Novelist, poet, and essayist, Gretel Ehrlich is often described (originally by writer Annie Dillard) as the “Whitman of Wyoming,” because she writes about our vast landscape with the same poetic intensity Whitman used to extol 19th-century America at large, a country he notably referred to as the “greatest poem.”

The prairie spoke to Whitman of the American democratic spirit. Set in Wyoming, Ehrlich’s first nonfiction book, “The Solace of Open Spaces,” (1985), is a lyrical meditation on the remote reaches of the American West and rugged individualism. The story foreshadows other harsh geologies and unique personalities the author would fall in love with, all equally, though differently, rough, raw and electrifying.

“The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding,” says Ehrlich in the intro to “The Solace of Open Spaces.”

On the subject of the seminal role art and culture in shaping socio-political outcomes Whitman and Erlich also appear to be, err, on the same page.

At the 40th annual Mountainfilm celebration, Erlich partners with her colleague and friend National Geographic photographer and festival familiar Chris Rainier. The two will focus on cultures on the brink in the context of the weekend’s leitmotif: migration and its corollary, climate change, a talk not to miss.

Case in point: Greenland.

For those of us living at the top of the food chain, glacial melt is not necessarily top of mind, not of real concern – but is that perspective smart?

“The Greenland ice cap, the largest continental ice sheet except for Antarctica, is melting rapidly. The Arctic ecosystem comprised of polar bears, humans, marine mammals, birds and fish is in the middle of collapse,” Erlich explained in an interview we did a few years ago for Mountainfilm, but her observation is no less true today. “Ice is the matrix of the whole community. Without ice, everything fails. There are other related concerns: In the southern hemisphere, especially in Africa, massive areas of burning throw pollutants into the air. In the northern industrial nations, the U.S., China, Russia and Europe, heavy metals, chemical and radioactive toxins are carried by the wind around the globe and precipitation brings them back down to earth. Springtime in the Arctic when the ice melts is toxic.”

After recovering from injuries from a lightening strike, Ehrlich began traveling north to Greenland.

In 1991, she noted that sea ice pack was two-to-four feet thick even in spring. When Ehrlich first visited the region in 1993 – which was also when she first also traveled in Western China – her goal was to get above the tree line, to see nothing but horizons, “to sink into her preliterate self.”

Once there, Ehrlich fell in love with the Inuit people and traveled with subsistence hunters by dogsled for months at a time out on the sea ice.

“Greenland was a Siren singing me back. I could not stay away.”

In 2004, Erlich received a National Geographic Expedition Grant to spend three or four months in northwest Greenland with photographer David McLain, videographer Michael Netzer, and translator, Aleqa Hammond, who later became the country’s first prime minister and is now in Parliament.

“We left Qaanaaq, one of the two northernmost inhabited villages in the world, in March. It was 35 degrees below zero F. when we started out with four freight sleds, 58 dogs, and four subsistence Inuit hunters, out to hunt walrus to provide food for their sled dogs and extended families.

“The ice was thin, even at that temperature. It rolled and cracked under the weight of the sleds (they are 14 ft long and 4 ft wide). It was all sikiliaq – new ice– which is fragile, salty, bad for the dogs’ paws, and dangerous.

“The first night we made camp, the hunters had to walk single-file so as not to break through the ice. We walked to the ice edge. But too dangerous to stay out. At 3 a.m. one of the hunters went out alone and harpooned a walrus, and later we cut it up and stowed the meat under tarps on our sleds.

“For the next month, it became impossible to hunt. The temperatures got colder – down to minus 59 F., but still the ice broke up.We traveled south and the ice became worse. Turned around and had to go up and over an edge of the ice cap to get around the headlands were there was now only open water. For the rest of the month we traveled out to an island, then back north from ice pan to ice pan….trying to find food, trying to find ice good enough to travel on.”

In 2007, Ehrlich received another National Geographic Expeditions Grant, this time to travel around the top of the world to travel with indigenous Arctic people and hear how their lives were being affected by climate change, a trip that resulted in the book “In the Empire of Ice,” published by National Geographic.

“On these travels I befriended glaciologists from around the world who work in Greenland – from Cambridge University, Dartmouth College, Switzerland, and Jason Box, an American who lives and works in Denmark. By keeping in touch with them, I began to understand the depth of the disaster and how whatever happens in the Arctic happens to all of us, because the Arctic climate controls the climate of the temperate, inhabited world.”

According to Ehrlich, ice and snow act as the earth’s air conditioner.

“As fields, sheets and glaciers begin to disappear, the earth has less and less ability to cool itself. Since our watersheds are fed by ice pack, one day we may lose our water altogether. What I am talking about is just the tip of the iceberg. Suffice to say, a warmer world is a sicker world – or no world at all. We must take our heads out of the sand, stop stuffing our wallets and start living the reality that the only true wealth is biodiversity. Without a healthy planet, there is no healthy life. Intellectually and emotionally distancing ourselves from places like Greenland is the armor we use to justify our money- grubbing ways. We don’t see the living, breathing body of the world we are trampling upon. Our behavior is the most outrageous form of abuse. It is really violent…”

As a result of a Robert Rauschenburg Residency, Ehrlich worked with a visual artist to do an event during the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. The idea was to bring Greenland hunters and their dogsleds to Paris to be pulled by six white French poodles.

“We arrived a month before the conference opened – but the terrorist attacks began just as we were rehearsing. We were living two blocks from the Bataclan where the slaughter of innocent young people took place. As a result all our permits to do our performance piece on various Paris streets were cancelled. With very little to do except cook for everyone every night at our rented loft, I wrote a daily blog.”

Erlich’s “Facing the Wave” is about the tsunami in Japan, written after spending three months with survivors.

“Having nothing to do with climate change, the devastation of 375 miles of Japan’s Tohoku coast gave me a glimpse of how our world might look as the climate throws its worst at us— storms, floods, sea level rise, and severe drought.”

As glaciologist Eric Rignot says: ‘It’s hard to put my finger on a tipping point…I’m not sure what exactly that would be. But one things is for sure, glaciers and ice sheets are going to keep collapsing and retreating. The fuse has already blown. There is no stopping it.’”

In 2016 Ehrlich and her partner, Neal Conan, spent a month at Allan Savory’s camp in western Zimbabwe. There they witnessed extinction in action first-hand: dire drought; waterless rivers; no feed or forage; nut trees with empty shells; very few young surviving after birth.

“For those who may not know him, Allan Savory, also a former Mountainfilm guest, is a restoration ecologist who urges us all to take the excess carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into the ground where it belongs. I work with ranchers and farmers and writers on this subject. It is probably too late in the long run, but necessary nonetheless. Achievable through good farming practices, and using livestock to prevent overgrazing and restore grasslands. Grasslands sequester more carbon (and more reliably) than forests.”

Ehrlich has just finished the final draft of a novel set in California during extreme, dire drought.

“In truth, we are constantly and endlessly at the mercy of the natural world of which we are an integral part: we breathe in the universe with every breath. We ingest weather daily. We touch the earth with every step we take. The universe of our bodies is so complex, no one really understands how we work, never mind how anything else works. Nature, man, we are all the same – and yet not the same. Nevertheless, we share it all: shit, water, molecules, beauty. And so, in the face of doom, the beat goes on. We are alive. There is beauty and joy. And I dig in the ground.”

More about Gretel Ehrlich:

Gretel Ehrlich was born on a horse ranch near Santa Barbara, California and educated at Bennington College and UCLA film school. She worked in film for 10 years, but began writing full-time in 1978 after the death of a loved one.

Erlich had been filming on a 250,000 acre sheep and cattle ranch in northern Wyoming at the time, and there she stayed. The book that resulted was The Solace of Open Spaces, published by Viking Penguin in 1984. Annie Dillard wrote of the book: “Wyoming has found its Whitman.” Solace became an overngiht classic. The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded its author the Harold D. Vurcell Award for Distinguished Prose.

Gretel Ehrlich’s work, including essays, short stories, and poems have been included in many anthologies including: Best Essays of the Century, Best American Essays, Best Spiritual Writing, Best Travel Writing, and The Nature Reader.

Her work has been published in Harper’s, the Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times op-ed page, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Life, National Georaphic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Audubon, Anteaus, Architectural Digest, and the Shambala Sun, among many others.

Ehrlich’s books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Japanese, Danish, and Swedish.
Her awards include: National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a Whiting Foundation Award, A Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Harold B Vurcell Award at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Selected bibliography
• To Touch the Water, Ahsahta Press, 1981
• The Solace of Open Spaces, Viking Press, 1985
• Heart Mountain, Viking Press, 1988,
• Drinking Dry Clouds: Stories from Wyoming, Capra Press, 1991
• Islands, the Universe, Home, Viking Press, 1991,
• Arctic Heart: A Poem Cycle, Capra Press, 1992,
• A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning, Pantheon Books, 1994,
• John Muir: Nature’s Visionary,National Geographic Society, 2000,
• This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, Pantheon Books, 2001,
• The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold, Pantheon Books, 2004,
• In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape, National Geographic Society, 2010,
• Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami, Pantheon, 2013

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Susan Viebrock

Susan is Telluride Inside… and Out’s founder and editor-in-chief, the visionary on the team, in charge of content, concept and development. For 19+ years, Susan has covered Telluride’s cultural economy, which includes non-profits and special events. Much of her writing features high-profile individuals in the arts, entertainment, business, and politics. She is a former Citibank executive specializing in strategic planning and new business development, and a certified Viniyoga instructor.

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