Buddhist at the Edge of the Earth

Pico Iyer talks with Gretel EhrlichPico Iyer

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When Gretel Ehrlich burst onto the literary scene in 1985 with a book of essays about Wyoming, The Solace of Open Spaces, she was instantly compared to Thoreau and Whitman. Her open heart, her free-floating adventurousness, her celebration of the here and now, all drew her to find her teachers in the silent farm hands of the West and in the wild. Through her novel Heart Mountain, a sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese held in American internment camps during World War II, and another book of essays, Islands, the Universe, Home, it became apparent that she had learned much from the wandering priests of Japan and from all those poets and scientists who find no rift between the nature within us and without. She belongs to that tradition of American writers—from Gary Snyder to Jim Harrison, from Peter Matthiessen to W. S. Merwin—who write of spirit when they write of nature, fashioning parables of impermanence and death from the matter of their daily lives. Yet she never wrote explicitly about her Buddhist practice until her most recent and startling book, A Match to the Heart, the story of how she was struck by lightning for the second time in her life, was left for dead and, coming back to a state of semiconsciousness, took residence in a kind of bardo state.

Born in 1946 in Santa Barbara, California, Ehrlich was educated at Bennington College and U.C.L.A. Film School. In 1976 she went to Wyoming to make a film and stayed there 15 years as a rancher. She now lives in an isolated two-room cabin tucked into the hills along the California coast. Recently she met with Tricycle Consulting Editor Pico Iyer in Santa Barbara and talked for the first time about her life as a “closet Buddhist.”


Tricycle: People associate you with solitude and isolation, and living in the wild. But you found a way to integrate your thoughts about Buddhism with this relatively secluded setting.

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