Friday, August 13, 2010

Wilderness writing retreat with Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel with Justin's dog, Mingus

Gretel Ehrlich sits on the forest floor high in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. Her bare feet socialize with a six-inch evergreen sapling, as if playing with a kitten. She’s become very attached to this little tree as she’s sat there, she tells us, her students. She urges us to study the world around us, starting with this forest floor.

“If you study a tiny ecosystem, you will understand how the whole world works,” she says. Observe and write. “Writing is the most democratic of all the arts; you don’t need to depend on anyone or anything else; just need a pencil, a piece of paper and some ideas.”

I write this down. This is our first session with Gretel, on Saturday, and I’m already enamored. I can see the ideas percolating on everyone’s face. They can probably see mine, too. With Gretel as our mentor, we are brief writing brothers and sisters during this journey.

Gretel goes over the loose schedule for Sunday and Monday morning. We head back to camp for hors d’oeuvres and dinner. We are surrounded in the clearing by pines; the sound of Rock Creek over our shoulders.

Ehrlich, who has written thirteen books and won many awards, worked as an ethnographic filmmaker in California before moving to Wyoming, and writing The Solace of Open Spaces, a book about which Annie Dillard said, “Wyoming has found its Whitman.” While taking a walk on her property in1991, Gretel was struck by lightning. A Match to the Heart chronicled her recovery from that. At the retreat, she said her doctor at the time told her to find someplace cold and go there. Greenland was her destiny. There, she met and fell in love with the Inuit people, their way of life, and has written about them in This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold, and In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape.

She does extensive research for everything, which she may never use in what she happens to be writing, saying, “You should try and find out everything you can about any subject that might inform your writing.” She reads broadly, expansively, and continually refers to her collection of books, around 5,000, many of them classics.

Sunday morning after breakfast we hiked a short distance to a rock outcropping where we each found a place and began writing. We all read out loud, and then went back to camp for lunch. We couldn’t have asked for finer weather. Several of us took off for a dunk in the creek.

That afternoon, I was drawn to the sound and movement of the water. As I sat on a rock on the bank, I watched a blue dragonfly patrol up and down. A small swarm of some kind of insect was just a couple of feet away from me. Twice, the dragonfly dipped down to snag one, making a tap and tiny splash as it bumped the water’s surface.

A group of three horseback riders passed by on the path behind me. As quiet as it is in the forest, I hadn’t heard them until the front rider said, “Well, you look like you are in deep concentration.” A smile was all I could respond. The sound of hooves on dirt dissolved away as they went on.

Back at camp, I realized that everyone had left for some meadow where Gretel would be talking about the writing life and giving everyone astonishing insights about what they’d just written, or her experiences in Greenland, or reading something from the twenty-eight-page packet of materials she had brought up to give us—excerpts from her own “Ice” works, Annie Dillard, Thoreau, and Roger Deakin. They didn’t return until after 6 p.m.

One of the best things about camping out with a group of people who you’ve never met before is how the day’s activities melt into the evening campfire around where one by one all gather, after a cook-stove dinner of elk meat and sautéed vegetables, to talk and tell stories and answer deep questions such as, “How do you feel about being alone?”

Ian and Justin carved the tips of long sticks to points for roasting marshmallows. Sara brought out the graham crackers and dark chocolate bars. Not to mention the wine and champagne.

Sunday night, the last night of the writing retreat in the Rock Creek Wilderness area, next to Cloud Peak Wilderness area, the fire burned on and the stars got brighter. The multitude of stars that could be seen from our little clearing would have more than covered the sky where city lights obscure all but our brightest stars. The Milky Way is still there. People began to reluctantly un-gather themselves.

Monday we broke camp. It was an early morning for most us, having stayed up well past midnight singing and talking and laughing. Justin began frying bacon. Gretel had a book signing at Sheridan Stationary that evening, for her latest, In the Empire of Ice. Bradley, who was going down to get the pack horses ready, offered to carry Sophia’s and my sleeping bags, pads, camp stools and my camera equipment down, and wait for us at the trailhead. Ian took off next; he was leaving for Russia for three weeks the next day.

Sophia and I finally got it together enough to leave. We told everyone who was up goodbye. Gretel, sitting by the campfire, had gotten to her knees and she told us both as we walked off that our writing was wonderful. She's very generous. Tracy, who wants to sell her restaurant in Dubois, might be writing “The Naughty Little Cookbook” very soon. Sara was busy getting everything ready for the packhorses. She was instrumental in getting all this together, and we thanked her for everything. There will be a publication with writings from the participants soon, something Sara will also be coordinating.

The down side of backpacking up a mountain is going down. As I told John, a retired competitive runner friend of mine obviously very familiar with this, he said, “Yeah, it tires you out going up, but it hurts like heck going down.” The spectacular setting was hard to get to, harder to leave. Many of us wanted more time. More stars. More creek time. More quiet awe.

There is an effort by the Wyoming Wilderness Association to have the 34,000 acre Rock Creek area designated a forever wilderness area as an addition to the Cloud Peak Wilderness area, supported by the U.S. Forest Service, through an act of Congress, the only way it can happen. There is a contingency of supporters going to Washington, D.C. to further the effort to get this in a bill, passed and signed by the president.

If you are interested in finding out more about this incredibly beautiful area, or getting your name on a list of supporters, or writing a letter that would say as much, call 307-672-2751; or fax 307-672-2752; or go to the Wyoming Wilderness Association’s website at You can write to them at Friends of Rock Creek, a group of the Wyoming Wilderness Association, PO Box 6588, Sheridan, WY 82801.

The poem below is mine, from the Sunday morning session.

Place to Land

I hear the distant river down below;
And yet time is still a secret
Only the stars can fully know.

The mountain lives me down,
Surrenders me to a sheltering spiral.
Now there are waves of shadows
On the peaks, moving slow, cool
As if heaven were
Attending toward a place to land.

It would be unobtrusive, this death
On a waterbed of plump green moss,
To wind down, break apart
Become a part of the spongy gray minute.

I dream of a fetch of golden dragonflies;
Are they always golden when they emerge
From the water—their second birth.
They fan out from their perches
Hovering in the air
Suspended like opulent sparks

The sight of which
Could make kings
Feel destitute.

Linda Coatney