Gretel Ehrlich and the Sowell Collection Conference

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

Photograph from the Gretel Ehrlich Collection, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

The Sowell Conference offers student nature writers the unique opportunity to interact and discuss their work with world-renowned environmental writers. It is a rare opportunity when an amateur in any craft has the chance to share their work with the masters of the field. Children do not usually get a chance to play their favorite sport with their childhood heroes and a brand new musician rarely plays along with a virtuoso. The Sowell Conference is a unique and invaluable educational experience.

Gretel Ehrlich, a Sowell Collection author, was sitting a few rows deep into the crowd while I read the paper I had written in response to her work This Cold Heaven.

In Gretel Ehrlich’s book, This Cold Heaven, she tells the tales of spending 7 seasons on Greenland, the largest island on the planet, after escaping the greedy fingers of death. The paper I presented with Ehrlich in the audience examines the idea of what constitutes an “island”, the effect that escaping death has on the mind, and how isolation on an “island” can change thoughts and desires.

Ehrlich and I share an appreciation for solitude in wild places. Her travels in Greenland influenced me to reflect on my own travels through wild environments. I was always hesitant to accept that Ehrlich really enjoyed her time in Greenland’s gripping cold. Constant darkness and below freezing temperatures are not appealing. I believe that Ehrlich was searching to test her limits and take full advantage of her life after she almost lost it to a lightning strike, but I could never understand why she chose Greenland. If Ehrlich was trying to push herself to her limits in order to truly experience what it meant to live surely there was a more enjoyable climate that was equally conducive to this journey.

There are plenty of remote and wild tropical islands, temperate mountain ranges and vast forests that could provide the same remoteness that she sought in Greenland. It must be the fact that the isle of Greenland is separated and exists alone in a quiet and distant space. The separation from the rest of the world, both spiritually and geographically, might have been necessary for Ehrlich to place herself in an environment that would allow her to expose herself to the wild and delve into introspection and thought.

For whatever reason Ehrlich chose to travel through that frozen exotic tundra, I am grateful that she completed her journey. Through reading her work on her experiences I was able to think back on my own experiences in the wild and reflect on how solitude in wild places breeds contemplation and introspective evaluation.

I may never have the chance to be the novice sharing their craft with the master again. While I was reading this paper Ehrlich sat and listened, and while she may not have agreed with everything I got out of her novel, she was patient and genuine in caring about my work.

The Sowell Conference was responsible for me being able to share this unique experience with Ehrlich. I was living the dream of the child who wanted to shoot hoops with Jordan. And although I never knew whom Gretel Ehrlich was as a child that can’t take away from the fact that I was able to read a paper about a nature writer that I look up to and appreciate that she was actively involved in my education.

This blog entry was written by guest contributor Michael Austin.

Michael Austin is a senior Environment and the Humanities major at Texas Tech University and has lived on the plains of West Texas for over 20 years. After graduation Michael plans to attend law school to focus on environmental law. Michael has been an active member of the university’s Honors College, worked with the Texas Tech Outdoor Pursuits center as a trip leader and climbing wall manager, and spent weeks in the outdoors for both recreation and education. His favorite flavor of ice cream is mint chocolate chip and he prefers all shades of blue to any shade of red. Michael cares about the state of the natural world and is thankful for the opportunities that the EVHM program offers that enable him take his education outdoors. Michael has had the privilege to present at the Sowell Collection Conference on Gretel Ehrlich’s novel This Cold Heaven and travel with Barry Lopez to the historic site of American cavalry and Comanche warrior battles.



About Diane Warner

I'm the Librarian for the James Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community and the Natural World at Texas Tech University. That means I do all sorts of things, from arranging manuscripts to writing news releases or curating exhibits for our new collections.
This entry was posted in Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, Literature, Nature, Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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