The ribbed hill, gray to green. Pronghorn grazing in first light. The folded mountains, two owls calling, five low-flying geese, and the near-frantic four-note morning call of the robin. I’m in an off-grid cabin set on a glacial moraine surrounded by kettle ponds where, ten thousand years ago, retreating glaciers left lumps of ice. Green rings every pond and the white folded mountains dive down to foothills threaded with blue flax, sagebrush, and native bunchgrass.
At dawn a calligraphic shadow—loose, wild, and precise, like old Chinese grass script—curtains the forested east hill. I walk inside it, then emerge in sun trying to re-create parts of my past, as when I once hid behind Wyoming sagebrush watching sheep graze when all this began. Would it be better to write nothing at all? No doubt it would. Yet here, I feel most at home.
Everything is moving, but there’s so much we can’t see: how thought comes into being; how grasses and trees connect; how animals know weather, experience pleasure and love; how what’s under the soil, the deep microbial empire, can hold twenty billion tons of carbon in its hands.
The mind splices fragments of sensation and language into story after story. The blood in my veins and every blade of grass is oxygen, sugar, photosynthesis, genetic expression, electrochemistry, and time. I watch clouds crush the last bit of pink sky. Breath slips even as I inhale, even as snow falls out of season and mud thaws, even as lightning ignites a late spring.
I try to calculate the time it takes to scratch these words. Thoughts flare and fade. Ink across paper registers a kind of time theft during which I fictionalize an ongoing present, the ever-elusive me, you, here, and there, all existing somehow in a slightly fraudulent now.
My cabin faces stacked peaks that reach 13,800 feet and are part of the Wind River Mountains. Those mountains are my mind’s wall and wellspring. Down here, the light is peach colored, and as the sun shifts, one loose shadow, like thought, takes on a sharp edge.
Nearby, a meadowlark sings the western meadowlark anthem. Territory is presence. Presence means song, then nest. Nest means egg, fledgling. Time flies and stars are dying. I try to count the split-end strands of lost friendships spliced to new loves, betrayals and failures, houses built, lived in, and sold, as if nothing could possibly be held close or hold me motionless, as if there were no door I couldn’t exit, no door that would let me in.
What has been forgotten, gone unnoticed? Stacked notebooks don’t begin to frame it all, yet I page through them omnivorously, trying to catch a glimpse of myself and others, and the places we’ve lived in. How do we know anything? How do we lose it so easily? Almost daily I return to the high country. Mountain is shoulder: I rub against it and step forward. The hinge squeals, an arm lifts, a rock wall slides, and for a moment the mountain’s inner sanctum is revealed.
Later, down-trail, I lie on grass in the sun with my horse grazing nearby and touch the frayed ends of memory, a soft mane of them, as if fingering braille.
In that eyelid of time between night and now, the horse whinnies at five thirty in the morning, startling a pair of sandhill cranes that have nested nearby. It’s early May and the pond sucks green from the field, lays it on its surface like a coat. The sun’s metallic sheen spreads between cattails whose million seeds have yet to burst. I get up and pace, sink back on the couch, walk up the hill, sit on bare ground between two muddy ruts. A whole day goes by. Night is no cushion. Nor is comfort. It’s been snowing and raining here, and the mud deepens.
I’ve moved too much—something like twenty-eight times since I came of age—and I can’t always anchor my spirit. But why would I want to? Anchor it to what? I’ve loved each place deeply. I try to imagine the comfort of sameness—those friends who live in the houses where they were born or to which they returned, and imagine too the discomfort it must arouse, the sense of confinement.
Sun comes out. Freedom is the green pond turning blue, the muskrat pushing dried reeds and grass to the far bank while making a summer house. I imagine hundreds of mud-andstraw huts clustered together, lit by glowing lanterns like the ones I saw on Kyoto’s Kamo River. My own building project—a writing studio—is clamorously under way. Yet I’m saddened to see sawn and planed logs stacked up. If I listened, I might hear the chaos of those trees being dismembered, their bark peeled, their tendons sliced and the unbearable noise of nail guns assaulting their limbs.
Spring is this: One day the sandhill cranes dance; the next day swallows arrive and push bluebirds from their nest box. A week later an aspen leafs out, while on the mountain, beetles kill off every whitebark pine. Seventeen pronghorn antelope attempt a river crossing and are washed downstream, get out, try again. A prim gray cloud passes over. A porcupine sleeps in the willow, one leg dangling, black nose pointed up smelling for fire, smelling for rain.
Worldwide, violent storms split trees in half, persistent droughts suck bones, rain loosens whole mountains: a mud flow destroys my childhood home, a cornice crumbles, a typhoon drowns a hundred people in Japan, hurricanes raze Caribbean islands, a volcano blows, an avalanche takes three friends.
I rise early. Between first light and coffee, a pair of honking geese fly low over rising water. I hear the jake brakes of a semi loaded with last year’s hay going downhill on the road. Rain begins.
Smarty, my horse (from the bloodline of Smart Little Lena), runs for his shed when lightning flashes—not a cloud-toground strike like the one that got me, but cloud to cloud—an infusion of savage energy. A goose calls, gets an answer, tips its head back in delight as its mate arrives, and the builder sashays through snowdrifts by dogsled. The generator is started: a table saw grinds through forests and a whole room goes up. In rainlight the mud glistens.
Copyright © 2021 by Gretel Ehrlich. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.