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Erin Block on Wild Places

Erin Block lives in the mountains of Colorado, and is librarian by day and writer by night. She is editor-at-large for Trout Unlimited’s magazine, Trout, and her work has appeared in Guernica, The Flatirons Literary Review, American Angler, Waterlog, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. Her debut book, The View from Coal Creek,  published in 2013, is a personal, passionate, and place-based reflection on fishing, fly rods and life.

"Wild places — open, public lands — are where I gain my bearings, where I hike and run and think," explains Block. "I grew up in the rural Midwest, in a small farming community. And so when I came out West “wild places” really struck me. I hadn’t experienced anything like being able to walk for days and days and not run into private property signs or an angry farmer with a gun. So I really treasure that about the West, the wilderness areas and national forests: places designated and set aside for the wild."

Still, she notes, wild places are everywhere, from farm country to big cities.

"I recently read that the first gray fox in over a decade has returned to San Francisco," she says. "And that’s really important, their return, and that humanity has made a way for it. That we’re realizing “wild places” can’t just be set aside and protected from human interaction (although that may play a part, too), but that we need to learn to cohabitate and adjust our way of living, if need be. Just like any good relationship."

Erin Block offers her three favorite books on wild places:

The Solace of Open Spaces
by Gretel Ehrlich

Of Gretel Ehrlich, Annie Dillard said, “Wyoming has found its Whitman.” And while I don’t know Dillard’s specific reason for comparison, what I see is Ehrlich’s same look to nature and wild places to explore things within ourselves — both the darkness and the light. The expanses of land and big sky shrink everything in the world but our thoughts. And through hers and her prose, Ehrlich makes real the human need for space — it “represents sanity,” she writes. Moving from urban California to the high plains of Wyoming to shepherd on a ranch, The Solace of Open Spaces is Ehrlich’s tribute to a very old, yet very new-to-her way of life. And a homage to a wildness in the West that “…however disfigured, persists.” As I hope it always will.

Crossing Open Ground
by Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez won the 1986 National Book Award for nonfiction for his book, Arctic Dreams. However it would be two years later, with his collected essays Crossing Open Ground, that I think his finest work appears. For as much as he loves it, Lopez never romanticizes the wild. And through his writing you realize that the “wild” we’re fed through magazines, photography, and cleverly shot documentaries, is only our wish to see a world that’s not as spent as our own. He skips nothing, but above all, writes of humanity’s relation to and place in the wild. From a stone horse made from rocks in the desert to tackling conservation issues such as the Wilderness Act (“…there is something unsettling in this kind of purity,” Lopez writes, “To banish all evidence of ourselves means the wilderness is to that extent, contrived.”), Lopez possesses a deep wisdom for not only wild places and wildlife, but for the history of us a species and how we’ve evolved and grown (or not) alongside.

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild
by Ellen Meloy

You wouldn’t expect to laugh out loud while reading a book about declining populations of desert bighorn sheep. But I did. Ellen Meloy’s prose is as beautiful as it is blunt truth. And it is this dry wit, this honest self-awareness and deprecation, that makes Eating Stone unlike any other nature writing I’ve read. Meloy takes readers through the seasons of Utah’s desert canyon lands, as she follows The Blue Door Band, a herd of desert bighorns that often pasture near a crumbled old cabin with the blue paint still on the doorframe. And through her writing, you learn just as much about the biology and history of this species and the conservation efforts put in place to recover their population numbers and territory, as you do your own worldview and how even subconsciously you relate to the wild. She passionately makes the case for the importance of wild, native species, and for wild places where they can breed, live and die (she also questions its worth as anti-Darwinian). Nearing the end of the book she warns, “The spellbound threshold between humanity and the rest of nature is very nearly pulled shut to the latching point. Soon we shall turn our backs and walk away entirely, place-blind and terribly lonely.” Ellen Meloy died suddenly in 2004 at the age of 58. And while her voice is missed, it’s louder than ever.

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