Wyoming-based writer Gretel Ehrlich laughs when her maintaining residence in Santa Barbara, where she was born, is mentioned. “I wouldn’t call it maintained,” she laughs. It’s a ranch, she says, and she’s rarely there. In Wyoming, she gets to live off the grid and close to nature, a lifestyle she’s had for most of her life as a nature writer.
Her first book in 1985 was “The Solace of Open Spaces,” a collection of essays, and she’s sought its namesake out in many areas of the world since. For her latest, “In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape,” she returns to one of the most open spaces on the earth: the Arctic Circle.
In her third book, devoted to the coldest areas with human life — her first, “This Cold Heaven” (2001), focused on Greenland, and her next, “The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold” (2004), took in her home and Chile, among other places — she discovers a land rapidly changing, and not for the better. In her speech at UCSB Campbell Hall tonight, she will be discussing these changes.
“I first went to Greenland in 1993, and it was a paradise,” she says. “There were nine months of ice per year, and it was thick and good. The culture was intact, and the people were relatively happy with the way their lives were going, the way they could choose what to keep from traditional life and what to use in modern life.”
Not so now. On subsequent trips, she’s seen the landscape change, the people with it. Climate change has reduced the ice, in turn reducing hunting, people’s livelihoods, their culture and their stability. “It was coming apart right before your eyes.”
Her plan in this National Geographic-sponsored book was to travel to the Arctic Circle and encounter the various cultures living there. She starts in Northern Alaska, working her way to the Nunavut area of Canada, with stops in northern Siberia and Greenland. She had one year to circumnavigate the Circle.
In her late 60s, Ms. Ehrlich travels alone, apart from a guide and an interpreter. All the people she met welcomed her because, as she says, she remained honest and open with them.
In Canada, she found both good and bad. The village had a huge rise in domestic violence, and her time there was spent witnessing funerals. On the other hand, she said, that particular community had benefited from the filming of “The Fast Runner,” the 2001 cult hit about Inuit life. The villagers were helping other villages learn to shoot their own films.
“It’s interesting to see how a culture in transition finds new ways to survive and express themselves and not end up in utter despair,” she says.
However, in Siberia, she found the nomadic tribe of reindeer herdsmen that was quite untouched by the Western world, but they were the happiest.
“They were amazed that I knew how to split wood and cook on a wood stove,” she says. “They had no idea why we were there, but they couldn’t have been more welcoming. They were very, very, very sweet people.”
How despairing then, to return home to bear witness to climate change, only to find the existence of global warming still being debated. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “I don’t pay attention to it, because I want to devote my energies to solving problems and not to being pissed off at people who engage in self-imposed ignorance.”
Giving talks and writing books is Ms. Ehrlich’s way of increasing awareness and working on solutions, not just because of the people she’s met, but for us all. We will all be affected soon enough by climate change, if we haven’t already. She says she’s even reluctant to go on long book tours just because of the petrol use, so consider her visit to UCSB a rarity.
But she also looks to the villagers of the North for solutions.
“The Arctic people have lived 15,000 years in the harshest environments in the world and thrived. They’ve developed these qualities of patience and self-discipline and generosity and resilience and humor. And I still see them bringing that to every day of their lives and passing into the generations. No matter what happens to them, that will be a part of their character that we can learn from.”
WHEN: 8 p.m. today
WHERE: UCSB Campbell Hall
INFORMATION: (805) 893-3535, www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu