Going to extremes | New books by Gretel Ehrlich and Sara Wheeler
Two travel writers explore ravaged lands, cold climates and belly-dancing.
In 2011, a 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan sent a series of massive waves crashing to shore. An elderly fisherman bicycled toward the harbor. “We’ve got to get out of here,” his son yelled to him. But rather than evacuate, the old man turned toward the tsunami. It’s in this fraught space—between father and son, land and sea, life and death—that Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave (Pantheon, $25) begins.
An American essayist who writes lyrically of travel and nature, Ehrlich had previously traveled to Japan, and felt compelled to return in the wake of disaster. Her tragic yet moving account of the post-tsunami devastation combines first-person stories, blog posts, vivid observations and occasional haiku. The reportage is arguably stronger than the poetry, but it’s effective how fluidly she moves among forms. The result is a searing portrait of a ravaged land: submerged shrines, displaced people and “boats [riding] waves of rice straw.” She also describes unseen horrors: constant aftershocks and radiation from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant seeping into water and soil.
Ehrlich has a history of willingly going where others won’t. In her meditative 1985 debut, The Solace of Open Spaces, she recalls settling in Wyoming, much to the dismay of her city friends. (“What appeared to them as a landscape of lunar desolation and intellectual backwardness was luxurious to me.”) In 1993, a magazine editor told her he wanted to send a writer to Greenland but couldn’t find one. “I’ll go,” Ehrlich volunteered. In the two decades since, she has trekked to the remote ice sheet numerous times.
Like the best travel reporters, she demonstrates a keen ability to focus, adapt and observe, even in an extreme landscape or situation. In Facing the Wave, she shares survivors’ tales, including those of an 84-year-old geisha, guerrilla animal rescuers and the son of the fisherman who faced the Wave. At times, she’s overwhelmed: “Some days I too feel stricken. I can’t go back to the coast, I tell myself; I can’t look any more.” Still, the importance of the book lies in her subsequent realization: “No, that’s wrong. I can’t stop looking.”
Like Ehrlich, British writer Sara Wheeler wanders to distant lands in order to write about them, and feels similarly at home amid snow and ice. Her 2010 book, The Magnetic North, chronicles her travels in the Arctic. In Access All Areas (Pantheon, $25), a selection of writings from 1990–2011, she provides amusing details about life at the other, southern Pole: e.g., defrosting the next day’s underwear in her sleeping bag, or the time a colleague was using the lavatory—positioned over a hole in the sea ice—and a seal darted through the opening.
Wheeler, like Ehrlich, doesn’t seem to view traveling to treacherous places as work. “Anyone can head off into the desert or the snowy waste,” she writes. “It’s trickier to sit down and unravel knotty questions about perception and reality.”
It’s a shame that Access All Areas doesn’t explore more of what she refers to as the “shifting inner landscapes.” Actually, I’d be happy even if it explored more outer landscapes. Those lively dispatches from Antarctica? They’re few and far between. Despite being billed as a collection of Wheeler’s “greatest adventures,” the book reprints too many reviews (mostly of travel writers’ biographies), explorer profiles and journalistic scraps. A brief piece on her experience taking a London belly-dancing class makes me wish she’d shimmy out into the wilderness again and report back from there. The theme of separation from the natural world “should be closer to my heart than it is,” Wheeler admits. Still, her writing is most compelling when she’s navigating fierce, untamed terrain.