|Chapter 1:||Historical Erasure and Recovery in Gretel Ehrlich’s“The Solace of Open Spaces” and Janet Campbell Hale’S “Bloodlines”: “Odyssey of a Native Daughter”|
The historical account that emerges is one of geologic forces that blend seamlessly into a naturalized process of (peaceful) Euroamerican settlement.
The text’s naturalization of Wyoming history erases racial conflicts in the past and present based upon Ehrlich’s assumption that “the West is historically new” (11). Indeed, the only “native” element in this vast landscape is the “indigenous growth” of salt sage, snakes, dry washes, and wind (3). The text’s opening (and title) essay traces the natural history of “open space,” which enables Ehrlich to feel “like the first person on earth, or the last” (2), evoking Wister’s vision of nineteenth-century Wyoming as “the newest part of a new world” (139). When the northeastern tenderfoot of The Virginian arrives in an “uninhabited country” (187), he echoes Wister’s own initial impression of Wyoming air, that “[e]ach breath you take tells you no one else has ever used it before you” (qtd. in D. Payne 81). Similarly, The Virginian’s Wyoming is a “voiceless and unpeopled” landscape (Wister 29), paralleling Ehrlich’s observation that “the silence is profound” (The Solace of Open Spaces 7) in a place where one can literally “drink in the space” (6).
Importantly, the mythologizing functions of these representations have been overlooked by ecocritical readings that emphasize the memoir’s use of sexualized metaphors to depict the natural world. Bonney MacDonald, one of the only critics to examine the text’s relation to New Western debates, claims that The Solace of Open Spaces forges a “middle ground” between observational, scientific natural history writing and personalized, “erotic identification with natural forms” (128), which, she asserts, constitute competing traditions in American nature writing. For MacDonald, the “middle ground” offers a means of escaping limitations of both mythic and New Western revisionist views of the West because it resists “the fixed binaries inherent in both the old and the revisionist Wests” (129). While MacDonald broadens the critical lens in her identification of Ehrlich as a New Western writer, her reading of Ehrlich’s revisionism represents, I will claim, a fundamental misreading of the text.