Near-death experience taught author to find strength in weakness THE NATURE OF LIGHTNING

June 26, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

New York -- This is the last thing writer Gretel Ehrlich remembers before her heart stopped beating in August 1991: She was out walking with her two dogs on her ranch in Wyoming when she heard the distant sound of thunder. Knowing that one of her dogs was afraid of thunder she called him to her. "Don't worry, Sam," she said. "You're safe as long as you're with me."

The next thing Gretel Ehrlich remembers is something she describes as a "coming-back-to-life dream:"

I was underwater, deep in the ocean, in some kind of moribund state. The water was gray and I could see the kelp and the fish lying dead below me. For a long time I was suspended in the ocean like that. And then I heard a heartbeat. Just a single heartbeat. And then I heard another one. There was a long space between the beats. Finally, they started coming more rapidly.

What she was hearing, Ms. Ehrlich says now, was the sound of her heart starting up again. The vision continued:

I saw the gray water being pushed away and blue water began swirling in. The kelp started coming up again and the fish started swimming by. Then suddenly my beloved dogs appeared. They were harnessed together like sled dogs . . . They came down from the sky toward me. And somehow I got harnessed in with them, and they turned around and went back up toward the light.

She woke from this vision to find herself lying in a pool of blood, her legs and right arm paralyzed. She tried to call out but the

muscles in her throat were paralyzed. Breathing was difficult and she was wracked with deep chest pains. Thoughts raced through her mind: Had she been shot in the back by a hunter? Was it a stroke? A heart attack?

Suddenly she became aware of the sound of thunder exploding over her. Streaks of lightning zigzagged through the darkened sky. It began raining. And suddenly she knew what had happened: "Oh God," she thought, "I have been struck by lightning."

It was a direct hit. She lay there in terrible pain, thinking: "I am going to die. I've got to get my thoughts together and not be frightened. I must lie here and die properly."

Ms. Ehrlich, 48, who has been a Buddhist practitioner for most of her life, recalls with some wryness her attempts to "die properly."

"I rolled over on my right side -- because that's the side you're supposed to lie on. And then I twisted myself until I faced east . . ." She stops and laughs. "I'm not sure what I was doing. But I'm lying there and eventually I thought, 'Well, I guess I'm not going to die. At least not now.' " In the act of preparing herself to die, she passed out.

The fact that Ms. Ehrlich did not die on the spot still amazes the cardiologist who later treated her. "Anyone struck as badly as she was -- usually they die immediately," says Dr. Blaine Braniff. "She's very lucky."

Lucky to have survived, absolutely. But Gretel Ehrlich's encounter with one of nature's furies was hardly over, as she recounts in her recently published book, "A Match to the Heart."

In many ways, her ordeal was just beginning.

*

Gretel Ehrlich limps into a midtown Manhattan hotel and sits down to an interview over coffee and orange juice. No, she says, laughing, the limp is not the result of the lightning strike. "I had a horse wreck. He fell in a ravine and landed on top of me." It's nothing out of the ordinary, happens all the time -- horse wrecks and cow wrecks -- when you're working a 3,000-acre ranch as she has for the last 17 years. "Ranch life prepares you for these kinds of things," she says. "You get used to being in pain and used to toughing it out. Being physically vulnerable is part of everyday life."

But being struck by lightning is not. Even if you're Gretel Ehrlich, a woman who "virtually lives outdoors all the time."

A naturalist's eye

There is more than a little irony to be found in Ms. Ehrlich's near-lethal confrontation with nature. In her life as a writer, she has emerged as one of nature's most eloquent -- and respectful -- observers.

Her first book, "Solace of Open Spaces," appeared in 1985. A collection of essays about ranch life in Wyoming, it immediately established her reputation as a nature writer who ranked with the likes of Wallace Stegner and Annie Dillard. In that book and others that followed she presented nature not only as the benign host of incredible beauty but also as a harsh and unpredictable force. Once, commenting on her role as an observer of nature, she said: "I am its humble student of violent weather, endless drought, wild diversity, surprising and profound beauty -- almost impossible to calculate."

Now Ms. Ehrlich, the humble student of nature, turns her naturalist's eye inward as well as outward. In her new book, "A Match to the Heart," she examines the physical, spiritual and psychological consequences of being struck by lightning. The physical consequences, even after three years, still play a role in how she lives her life.

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