All through autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite. We feel what the Japanese call “aware” — an almost untranslatable word meaning something like “beauty tinged with sadness.“
—  Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
fossilized in rock

In a collection of excerpts from writers’ journals, I stumble upon Gretel Ehrlich – travel writer, poet – and I am moved by her explorations of love, loss, struggle, and the way she expresses the fullness of her life. In the spring of 1985 (her 39th year), she writes this:

 All these pent up lusts, passions, sorrows, rages at political corruption, corrosion of the spirit, unnecessary deaths, discriminations, impossible loves…what are these? Why do I collapse across my writing table, the sun full on me, the day spectacular, and cry? Why do I feel, not bored, but unused (in the best sense) by a society enslaved? Against mediocrity, against a society that refuses to find solutions to real problems, but only tinkers, whose ingenuity is restricted to the perpetuation of the frivolous…against this and against the living dead, the brain-dead, the dead-beats, the heartbeats that make no noise – what sharpness and number of swords could prick holes into the dogma of greed?

This – my journal, this project – has been, I have come to understand, a record of the struggle of my own 39th year. A year when the inward struggles come up squarely against the outward self. A kind of mid-point. Looking to the past, looking to the alternate possible present, to the future and its myriad unknowable manifestations – all the while, moving inexorably forward in the present moment.

And when the present moment is as luminous as it is (my own ample life, in all its richness, and here again, Ehrlich: “I don’t cry about my life, but cry because of its fullness.”) it is difficult not to want to dismiss the struggle.

But it is very much present.

I woke this morning early, so early, before even the suggestion of light, with the single thought: where does all the past love go?

And by love, I don’t mean romantic love, although certainly that is a part – but all the love – all the passions and rages and longings and imaginings – all the wishes and the worries that we have had for ourselves and for the people whose lives touched our own. All the energies we put into this person or that, or this cause or that. All the life force we have poured out of ourselves, into the lives of others – beautiful testaments as they are to our human capacity to feel deeply, to live fully – where does all that go?

Rick Bass, from his journal, “An Oilman’s Notebook: Oil Notes:”

Nothing can truly disappear. It can only be rearranged, so that it gives that appearance.

The hydrogen and carbon atoms are not smashed; they are not destroyed. Their form is merely altered.

It has something to do with fear, I think.

Fear that there will be a time when I will not remember what it was like to live with such intensity.

“I was once your age, I had those feelings too,” my mother used to say, as a way to preface some admonition, some prohibition that made me think quite the opposite: If you ever, ever felt this way, you would understand. And rather than admonish, you would give me comfort. And rather than forbid, you would coax my own wisdom from me. It cannot be possible: You were never, never my age.

Talking about one’s children makes it simple, wraps it all up in platitudes: “I don’t know where the time went.” “It all has gone by so quickly.” “Wasn’t it only yesterday,” and etc., etc., ad nauseum. In this way, we can talk with other people in acceptable ways. Not drive ourselves mad with probing, without trying to plumb our own depths, all while standing around with our salon manicures, dressed in corporate casual.

We don’t have to say, coffee in hand at the open house, picking at the cheese cubes with plastic tongs: This daughter of mine, in all her radiant beauty, as she opens up to the world, reminds me – in ways that I cannot fully articulate – that I am moving closer, each day, to my own death.

(Please don’t misunderstand: I am thankful for blessings such as these.)

I will admit it: I am nostalgic for those years when I walked around like an open wound. There was the feeling that something essential about who I was, who I was trying to learn how to become was right there – throbbing at the surface, waiting to be discovered.

And as the years went on, I learned to manage (with varying degrees of success, as anyone who has ever been close to me can attest) that level of vulnerability. As we all do. We learn to modulate our passions. To become in control. And of course, this is a necessary social imperative, to control one’s passions. But where, I can’t help but wonder, does that life force – that passion, that flame – go?

There is much more to say, but time, relentless, moves forward, and so I again turn to Gretel Ehrlich:

At every moment, we’re fractured this way, going toward death, then life, so there is, everywhere, a constant movement, a swelling and deflating, an urge to accommodate opposites. Life magnetizes death and death magnetizes life; we grapple at the edge of things, save ourselves though we don’t know it, thrash in the current, hold out compasses that do not give us true north, and leave behind only the beautiful, dunelike, evanescent ripples of each foray, fossilized in rock.

May these ripples, these bits of energy and pixels of light, leave a record of my journeys out. May they point me where I need to go. 

The ways in which we come to know a landscape are preliterate. “A sense of place” implies a sensory knowledge. It mounts up in our minds: empires of smells and sounds, textures and sights held fast by memory, flooding back again and again in such urgent, pungent ways as to let us reenter those places…

All during our lives, in any and every place we live or visit, the sacramental landscape unrolls before us. It is our text. It is public and private, social and wild, political and aesthetic. To see–that is, to discover–is not an act of interpretation, of transfixing with preconceived ideas what is before us; rather, it is an act of surrender.

—  –Gretel Ehrlich
“Lao Tzu exhorts us to listen to the world "not with ears but with mind, not with mind but with spirit.” Some days I hear what sounds like breathing: quick inhalations from the grass, from burnt trees, from streaming clouds, as if desire were finally being answered, and at night in my sleep I can feel black tree branches pressing against me, their long needles combing my hair.“
—  Gretel Ehrlich. Today from the magical fountain of Whiskey River.

The writer Gretel Ehrlich, a longtime passionate student of Japanese poetry and culture, returned to Japan in 2011 after an earthquake and Tsunami devastated the Tohoku coast. As Ehrlich explains, during a literally earth-shattering six minutes on March 11, there were “Three sorrows: quake, tsunami, meltdown. In the quake’s ‘seismic moment,’ the total energy released was two hundred thousand times the energy at the earth’s surface, equal to six hundred million times the energy of the bomb dropped at Hiroshima.” In Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami, poetry is one of the tools she uses to try to understand what she is seeing and the hardships suffered by the people of that region. She finds solace in lines from T. S. Eliot, Roberto Calasso, Basho, Saigyo, and others, and she writes poems of her own along the way. Even the instructions of her driver and friend Abyss-San—advice on how to avoid radiation or how to make curry—become poetry, their sustenance worthy of heightened attention in the face of seismic devastation and grief. Below, one from Ehrlich’s pen, and one from Abyss-San.

At Ishinomaki Where Matsuo Basho Once Wrote a Poem

Finally the twisted roadbed drains
and the daily floodtides at
Ishinomaki dry out.
The sky unmists itself and
loss upon loss begins to
feel like company.
Nothing touches. Nights are brittle and soft,
ink scraped smooth.
To the south Fukushima Daiichi blazes. Flames
we can’t see. Sixty-six years ago
two other seacoast towns vanished.
I stick my forearm out
in moonlight. Looking seaward
my skin burns.

Abyss-San’s Curry Recipe

Sauté cloves, bay leaves, fenugreek, chili peppers, cardamom,
     curry leaf, and garlic in mustard oil.
Add sliced onion, turmeric, coriander, and cumin.
Add chopped potatoes and carrots, then tomatoes.
Rinse China beans and lentils, then add in with salt.
Add enough water to cover. Cover and cook for one hour or
     more, or until beans are soft.
Make an equally large pot of rice with wheat berries.
Fry Aju hing seeds and add to the curry at the end. Serve.
Eat with gratitude.

Learn more about Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave and browse other titles by Gretel Ehrlich.

To share the poem-a-day experience with friends, pass along this link >>

The roar intensified. A white line appeared at the horizon. The wave was coming fast. As Kikuchi-san climbed up to get to his father, water came at him. His father shook his head, refusing to budge. One last look, then the young fisherman jumped off the wall. When he turned back, his father was gone. “My father chose to stay, and in that second I accepted it, and thought it would be the same for me too.”

- from FACING THE WAVE by Gretel Ehrlich

“To trace the history of a river or a raindrop … is also to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body.  In both, we constantly seek and stumble upon divinity, which like feeding the lake, and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself all over again.”

Gretel Ehrlich, from Islands, The Universe, Home 


Best known for her nature and travel writing, Gretel Ehrlich has authored 13 books, including three books of poetry. Here, Ehrlich shares her reflections on the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, where she traveled to document the physical and emotional aftermath.

Plus, an interview with Erhlich at The Economist.

An animal’s wordlessness takes on the cleansing qualities of space: we free-fall through the beguiling operations of our own minds with which we calculate our miseries to responses that are immediate. Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at one time, not who we’ve been or how our bank account describes us. What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes, but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness or equanimity. Because the have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed - we’re finally ourselves.
—  Gretel Ehrlich (The Solace of Open Spaces)
Gretel Ehrlich said of those yawning Wyoming spaces that she loves, “Its absolute indifference steadied me.” I know what she meant. We spend our days trying to be big. In the middle of nowhere, though, we can surrender to smallness again and instead find where we fit in the landscape. Out there, where there’s nothing, is where there’s the most to learn.
—  Christopher Solomon, A Case for Getting Far, Far Away

“The roar intensified. A white line appeared at the horizon. The wave was coming fast. As Kikuchi-san climbed up to get to his father, water came at him. His father shook his head, refusing to budge. One last look, then the young fisherman jumped off the wall. When he turned back, his father was gone. “My father chose to stay, and in that second I accepted it, and thought it would be the same for me too.”
–from FACING THE WAVE: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich

A passionate student of Japanese poetry, theater, and art for much of her life, Gretel Ehrlich felt compelled to return to the earthquake-and-tsunami-devastated Tohoku coast to bear witness, listen to survivors, and experience their terror and exhilaration in villages and towns where all shelter and hope seemed lost. In an eloquent narrative that blends strong reportage, poetic observation, and deeply felt reflection, she takes us into the upside-down world of northeastern Japan, where nothing is certain and where the boundaries between living and dying have been erased by water. The stories of rice farmers, monks, and wanderers; of fishermen who drove their boats up the steep wall of the wave; and of an eighty-four-year-old geisha who survived the tsunami to hand down a song that only she still remembered are both harrowing and inspirational. Facing death, facing life, and coming to terms with impermanence are equally compelling in a landscape of surreal desolation, as the ghostly specter of Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power complex, spews radiation into the ocean and air. Read an excerpt here: