the integrity of the land as a geographical body

I’ve spent the morning in company of Gretel Ehrlich, or to be more precise: with her book The Solace of Open Spaces (1986).

Thunder Basin National Grassland

From where I’m reading, this book is sliding beautifully into the discussion on landscape, art & writing. Listen to this:

The emptiness of the West was a geography of possibility. …

Territorial Wyoming was a boy’s world. the land was generous with everything but water. At first there was room enough, food enough, for everyone.

But this was only at first, then county cattle war started, and the West turned out not to be the egalitarian sanctuary after all –

Fencing ultimately enforces boundaries, but barbed wire abrogated space. It was stretched across the beautiful valleys, into the mountains, over deserted badlands, through buffalo grass. The “anything is possible” fever – the lure of any new place – was constricted. The integrity of the land as a geographical body, and the freedom to ride anywhere on it, were lost.

Gretel Ehrlich is, as I read her, writing about Genius Loci (the special atmosphere of a particular place). And she is showing us, her readers, how people can – and often do – change the spirit of a place, without even thinking about the space or place as a body in itself.

12 comments on “the integrity of the land as a geographical body

  1. As a former Wyomingite, Genius Loci it is, and few express it as well as Ehrlich. Here is a bit of background for you.

    Wyoming is sometimes referred to as the Equality State as it was the first territory and state to give women the vote but like the fences, equality has a political motive. Wyoming has always struggled for population–it still ranks last in state population–to go from territory to state required a certain population total so women were given the vote.

    Wyoming is a starkly beautiful land, almost all of its altitude is over a mile high and snow is possible any day of the year. Perhaps more than you wanted to know but Genius Loci is so apt for state and Ehrlich’s writing.
    Karen

    • Not too much at all, thank you!
      Maybe coming from the west coast of Norway would make me feel at home in this terrain. Especially if the climate also includes rain -.

  2. Thanks for this! I was born in the grass and just will never shake it. I made the mistake of moving to the sea for 4 years, but managed to find my way back to the grass, whew. There’s a grassland in British Columbia that remains pristine, the last in the West, and, along with Mongolia, the only one in the Temperate Zone of our planet that remains close to complete and in its original (well, 4000 year old) state. The book I helped write about it is called Spirit in the Grass. <> There are some photos in the following link. They are not the best photos in the book, which tend to be sweeping portraits of grass terraces full of light. Why are the ones here here? Because bright colours and animals sell, I guess. Not my choice, but maybe you’ll get the idea. <>

  3. I don’t know Gretel Ehrlich’s work, but books that deal with the spirit of place – and particularly open space – usually have great resonance for Australians. I shall hunt it down. Does Ehrlich deal with issues to do with the dispossession of indigenous inhabitants and their beliefs about the spirit of place?

    • I’m also new to her books, so I don’t know yet – hopefully I can tell in a few weeks time!
      But Lyn, do you know about the concept “songline” as something the aborigines use to find their way in the outback? Like a melody they sing to find the path?

      • Aboriginal ‘songlines’ in Australia are usually associated with Aboriginal Dreamtime or creation stories – the songs of how their ancestors brought their land into being and left their marks upon it. They can also be used to track ritual paths through their land by ‘singing’ the landscape. Bruce Chatwin’s book, ‘Songlines’ from the 1980s was a very personal, evocative and imaginative (though not particularly accurate) treatment of the ideas of songlines. Worth a read if you’ve not encountered it before.

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