On a remote beach north of Santa Barbara it's the end of a perfect winter day: A bright blue sky darkens as the orange orb of the sun plunges into the mirror-like ocean.
In the distance, two figures approach, seeming to emerge out of the landscape itself: a woman and a dog. The animal is a stubby Australian cattle dog, a squat thing, close to the earth. The woman is Gretel Ehrlich, herself elemental -- long, blond-cum-gray hair; sharp, bright eyes; a face as weathered as driftwood.
If you're looking for Ehrlich, who is in her 50s, it helps to look outside. That's where her publisher found her a couple of years ago when he finally reached her by cellphone: living in a tent on a glacial moraine in Wyoming. Ehrlich has a single-room house in the hills there but had recently come back from a safari and was easing herself back to living indoors, a transition that took six months.
"I was in Africa for a while and when I came home I just continued living in a tent," she explains. "I like living outside."
She says this as if it's the most natural thing in the world, and for Ehrlich it is. Over the last two decades, she's emerged as a poet of remote, open spaces -- Wyoming, Greenland and, most recently, the far-flung glacial regions of the Earth.
Her new book is called "The Future of Ice," a blank-verse lament about global warming and the melting of the world's ice caps. By some forecasts, the ice caps will largely disappear by midcentury.
"The future of ice ... is really the future of life," she writes. "Will life continue or have we put into action a global machinery that has already destroyed too much and cannot be stopped?"
It's a bit shocking then to walk from the beach with Ehrlich to a parking lot and discover that she drives a very non-eco-friendly vehicle: an SUV, the bumper of which is adorned with two stickers, "Holistic Medicine" and "Heal the Ocean."
"I'd never have one of these if I didn't need four-wheel drive everywhere I live," she says, sitting behind the wheel. "My ideal place to live is where there are no cars. Part of the world's ills is because everything is designed around the car. Not only are the emissions bad but cars are destroying the human community and how we live together. In villages people walk, talk, help each other. There's a human framework."
It's soon clear that Ehrlich wasn't kidding about the need for four-wheel drive, as she pilots her vehicle up a winding dirt road into the hills and then plunges into a valley in a cloud of dust to where her winter house sits on a ridge overlooking the Pacific. There are no lights on the other ridges, and a full moon bathes the landscape in a silvery sheen.
The house looks like someplace Ehrlich would live if she had to be forced indoors: a wide deck in front of a row of windows, a library's worth of simple wooden bookshelves on the other side of the room, more books in tottering piles everywhere you look. Ehrlich throws a log into the fireplace in the center of the room, where the hand-poured concrete floor is set with driftwood collected from the beach after a big storm. Snowshoes and a rucksack hang from a hook on the wall.
After she feeds her dog, Ehrlich sits down to sip champagne, nibble on bread and cheese and talk passionately about the natural world and what man is doing to it.
"We live in a world that is completely tied to making profit at whatever cost," she says. "If we stopped everything today it would take 100 years to stop the adverse effects of climate change. The ecosystem is collapsing. We are living the fall. People forget our lives can be whatever we want. We don't have to have autos and industry. Dogsled is the best way to travel."
Ehrlich, perhaps somewhat surprisingly for an advocate of sled travel, grew up in Santa Barbara. Her father was a businessman who instilled a deep love of the outdoors in his family.
"We camped, rode horses, sailed," Ehrlich says. "I'm very grateful for that."
Filmmaker and ranch hand
She went to Bennington College, then to film school at UCLA before moving to New York, where she was a film editor and documentary maker. In 1975, she went to Wyoming to work on a film about sheepherders. She had also fallen in love and made plans to marry. Months later her fiance died of cancer. He was 29.
Ehrlich decided to stay in Wyoming, to live a different life. "That jerked me into a new reality," she says. "Sometimes horrible things show you a different way to live. I never left. I lived in a bunkhouse on a ranch. I cowboyed for work. I lived on about $6,000 a year."
Ehrlich learned to deliver calves, working at night, writing poetry during the day, publishing her work with small presses. "I like physical work when I'm writing," she says. "Irrigating a hayfield just allowed me to roam a lot in my mind."