An electrifying experience gave Ehrlich a second chance at life

Gretel Ehrlich wakes up many mornings in the back of a pickup truck. It’s not because she’s the victim of a kidnapping, or even a roaming vagabond. In fact, Ehrlich is an award-winning writer and a visiting professor of environmental studies on campus. However, after years of traveling in some of the most remote places, sleeping in the back of a truck for Ehrlich seems more like a luxury than a discomfort.

Ehrlich grew up an avid bookworm, always reading and looking at maps about distant lands. From this childhood inquisitiveness, she cultivated an interest in the unique stories of different people and their diverse backgrounds. “I have met a lot of people by chance, through going to different places and interacting with them . . . I have a vertical sense of how one relates, how people are shaped by a place and how they shape a place,” Ehrlich said.

Though she has grown up since her days of youthful fancies, Ehrlich has retained many of her childhood passions well into her adult years. The same places from her daydreams are now permanent memories from her many lengthy travels. Ehrlich’s novel Islands, the Universe, Home describes life on her ranch in Wyoming and her powerful love for nature.

“There was a big pond or lake that I went down to, and I would go through a contemplative ritual at the same three places along the pond – at the beginning of spring and its end,” Ehrlich said. “At the time it was both an internal and external transformative event. Each day I could see small things as they were happening, like the ice coming apart and melting little by little, and coyotes and wolves coming to drink from the pond. It was stunning.”

By the time Islands, the Universe, Home was published, Ehrlich had already extensively traveled around the world, but none of these experiences compared to being struck by lightning. For Ehrlich, this was her truly life-changing experience.

“I was on my ranch in Wyoming and the sky was clear over my head,” Ehrlich said. “I went for a walk with my dogs on this mountain road and I heard distant thunder. I called my dogs and I remember saying ‘you’ll be okay,’ and that was all. [My dogs and I] were all hit by lightning. We had been thrown into the air, but we all survived … It felt like I was dying a slow death.”

Although Ehrlich lived to tell the tale, her recovery process was far from trouble-free. Immediately after being struck by lightning, Ehrlich’s heart completely stopped. Before the end of her recuperation, she suffered two more cardiac arrests.

“My parents brought me to an excellent hospital in California, but my recovery was not swift,” she said. “My sympathetic nervous system had been impacted . . . and during the months that followed I would faint and lose consciousness. I had trouble walking, thinking and talking and I lost control of my associative processes – I would know what I needed to do, but would have trouble following through.”

Incredibly, Ehrlich survived the experience and made a full recovery after incredible support from her parents, cardiologist and childhood friends. Her 1995 book, A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning, chronicled her astonishing experience and revival. “The title was my editor’s choice. It fit my experience perfectly because it was a match that made my heart stop. [The book teaches that] the unfolding of one’s heart when you’re nose to nose with death can be painful, and that you have to wonder how you can reignite your life,” Ehrlich said.

The answer for Ehrlich was nature. Out in the openness of the rough country, she was able to slowly recover and contemplate her life. “I would get up early in the isolated place where I was staying, where it was just nature, the mountains and wildlife,” Ehrlich said. “I would greet the day, letting the place speak to me. I used to write in long hand outside in little notebooks, sitting in front of my cabin to keep it as intimate as possible.”

Once Ehrlich was back on her feet, she refused to let her brush with death affect the continuation of her adventures into the unknown. By chance, she was offered the opportunity to travel to Greenland and see firsthand the traditional hunting expeditions of Inuit tribes.

“I met this Inuit couple who invited me to come up to their village and live with them,” Ehrlich said. “They handed me to their friends further and further up the coast. We went around these great big dog sleds that were over 13 feet long and pulled by dogs. They were completely subsistence hunters and we lived off the ice eating walrus and seals.”

Ehrlich’s various journeys cover a variety of lands and people, but the constant strain among these travels is the connection to the wilderness. This fondness for nature was one of the reasons that brought her to the College in the idyllic Berkshire County. “I love taking walks in Hopkins Forest. The setting is a really beautiful area to walk or hike in. The physical isolation here makes the academic environment thrive. It’s easy to develop a sense of community here because you can pay attention to your studies.”

Ehrlich has not only found her niche academically on campus, but she has also settled into her Berkshire surroundings. In many ways, for Ehrlich, the wilderness – and even the back of her pickup truck – is more like home than the confines of a residential building.