The Solace of Open Spaces Critical Essays

Gretel Ehrlich


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Thematically, all the essays in The Solace of Open Spaces celebrate a tradition of viewing nature which claims that viewers are a part of the landscape they are viewing. Ehrlich, in fact, makes this relationship so strong a focus of her book that she envisions a kind of marriage between herself and Wyoming, and between other Wyoming residents and their state. This concept of marriage is endowed with a kind of sanctity and involves the way humans think about the interconnected, web-like relationship they have with everything in the universe: rocks, trees, dogs, clouds, stars, grass, snow, bugs, deer, even themselves—and, of course, other humans. Indeed, one of the most important stories weaving through these essays culminates in Ehrlich’s actual marriage to a rancher, a marriage that can be seen as an echo of or an analogue for the other marriages in the book.

Because of the nature of ranch work and because animals outnumber humans in this desolate landscape, Ehrlich repeatedly suggests or implies that Wyoming residents feel close attachments—a kind of marriage—to animals. In example after example, animals are treated as friends and are invited into the human world. One sheepherder keeps warm by sleeping with the nannies; another picnics with his horse, fixing two sandwiches and a can of beer for each of them. When domestic animals are in danger, humans save their lives, and animals do the same thing for humans. When wild animals fight, show off, and make love, their lives are described as parallel to the lives of humans. Even when Ehrlich addresses the question of meat eating, she emphasizes not the butchery that would mark the animal as Other, but the ritualized harmony that can be seen in the slaughter.

A different kind of marriage occurs internally within the Wyoming residents. Whether they are male or female, most of the characters in Ehrlich’s book seem to be...

(The entire section is 781 words.)