(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“We live not only on the earth, but in the earth; we are part of the dynamic process of every inter-living element and system,” writes essayist Gretel Ehrlich. “I search for the ways in which landscape, plants, animals mirror our psyches and spirits, and similarities between, for example, the chemical workings of the human brain and the workings of the cosmos. All patterns connect; in natural fact there is human meaning.” For Ehrlich, the microcosm is reflected in the macrocosm, the atom in the universe, and each natural fact is a potential metaphor or spiritual insight into the nature of things.

A talented natural history writer with a concise and distinctive style, Gretel Ehrlich published a first collection of essays, The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), that won her wide critical acclaim. “Wyoming has found its Whitman,” wrote Annie Dillard. Ehrlich has published a novel, Heart Mountain (1988), and a short-story collection, Drinking Dry Clouds(1991), and her essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly. She received a Guggenheim fellowship to complete her newest essay collection, Islands, the Universe, Home.

The ten essays in Islands, the Universe, Home were written over a period of three years on Ehrlich’s ranch in Shell, Wyoming, and from her travels in California, Hawaii, and Japan. Her essays, though personal and reflective in nature, taken together trace the cycle of the seasons against the raw but beautiful Wyoming landscape. She captures the grandeur of the American West, but with an artistic sensibility attuned to Japanese aesthetics. Each of her essays is shaped by a distinctive landscape—a place and a season—but each setting then becomes for Ehrlich the occasion for a rich personal discourse on a variety of scientific, philosophical, and cultural topics. Each of her essays is prefaced by a Japanese brush painting that serves as a visual outline for her thought. Her style is concise, pithy, and direct, like Western speech, but her material is wide-ranging and discursive, filled with quotes, anecdotes, reflections, and meditations shared in the manner of good conversation. She draws upon her ranching experiences for outdoor descriptions of winter calving, searching for a lost dog, and hiking through the fire-devastated Yellowstone Park, but she moves easily from these direct experiences to discussions of topics ranging from physics, astronomy, and botany to anthropology and neurology. She moves nimbly back and forth between fact and metaphor, between description and allusion.

The wide-ranging intelligence that Ehrlich brings to her essays reflects her diverse education. Reared in California, she studied at Bennington College, the University of California at Los Angeles Film School, and the New School for Social Research. Well-read and widely traveled, she brings a rich fund of personal experience and literary and scientific allusions to her essays. She finds a personal affinity between the new cosmology of astrophysics and the ascetic purity of Japanese Zen Buddhism and Shintoism. As with any good journal writer or personal essayist, it is finally her personality, as revealed through her essays, that engages the reader, who appreciates the attentiveness of a lively, engaging mind always alert to the mysterious interconnectedness of things. “Nothing in this world is plain,” she asserts.

In her essay “Island,” an excursion to a small island in the middle of a lake on Ehrlich’s Wyoming ranch stimulates a series of meditations on the nature of islands. “Islands are places where exchanges occur,” Ehrlich asserts. “Because the boundaries are so sharp, islands remind us of beginnings and endings, of birth and the arousal of consciousness of the evolutionary movement from water to land and air.” Her title metaphor is an analogy drawn from astronomy, from the curious ways that matter mirrors itself from the very large to the very small. The vast, floating spiral galaxies in the universe resemble in a curious way the tiniest patterns of microscopic life or even the neurological patterns of the brain. Islands are also the spaces that help to define the shape of living forms. Even the brain thinks in islands, Ehrlich claims, in the way in which it works to “string events into temporal arrangements like pearls or archipelagos.” Islands, then, are not monuments to isolation but ways of understanding our relatedness: “Islands beget islands: a terrestrial island is surrounded by an island of water, which is surrounded by an island of air, all of which makes up our island universe.”

In “This Autumn Morning,” Ehrlich describes the end of the hot, dry summer season and the beauty of death at the end of a season. Life and death are everywhere interconnected, she discovers, as she and her husband drive through the fire-blackened Yellowstone Park a year after the...

(The entire section is 2010 words.)