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Finding A Way Back Into The Light

Brad Orsted wrote a moving book about battling to live after the death of his daughter and finding solace in nature. Now he's penning a new column for Yellowstonian. We know you'll find it meaningful.
By Brad Orsted | June 20, 2024


EDITOR’S NOTE: Victor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who, as a psychologist and philosopher, wrote powerfully about the individual search for meaning and happiness in the aftermath of unspeakable trauma. Once, he shared this observation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation—we are challenged to change ourselves.”Yellowstonian is pleased to announce the addition below of Bradley Orsted as a new columnist. In 2023, Orsted debuted his first book, a memoir titled Through the Wilderness: My Journey of Redemption and Healing in the Wild. A riveting story about loss, it is a raw and inspiring reflection on how Orsted dealt with the tragic death of his young daughter, Marley, the dissolution of his marriage and struggle with alcoholism. He did, and continues to find personal meaning in the natural world of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a photographer, filmmaker and writer. In his debut column, The Nature of Nature, Orsted writes about how, while being out on book tour, he encountered people who say their lives were changed after reading his work, and how he, in turn, was profoundly moved by the reality that so many today are dealing with pain and longing for connection. —Yellowstonian

As artists, we create from within, and release it out into the world, never knowing if it will resonate with the people. The raconteur painter, writer and restauranteur Russell Chatham, who lived for decades just outside of Livingston, Montana, once wrote, “The artist does not simply hold a mirror to society. If the world now is greedy, the artist must be generous,” he said. “If there is war and hate, he must be peaceful and loving. If the world is insane, he must offer sanity, and if the world is becoming a void, he must fill it with his soul.”

I wrote most of my first book, Through the Wilderness: My Journey of Redemption and Healing in the American Wild alone, cut off from everything I knew. Sober for the first time in my life, I was living in a camper next to two rescued black bears in Paradise Valley, Montana. I isolated myself to a monkish lifestyle, sticking to a regiment of writing and fishing, clinging loosely to hope, my Winston flyrod, and a manuscript, though not always in that order. 

After the book launch at Elk River Books in Livingston in summer 2023, I was hugged so tightly by a teary-eyed individual, who whispered to me that Through the Wilderness had given her the courage and hope to navigate through her own trauma. It was my first encounter with impact.

I could have had no way of knowing that this would become a common theme at subsequent book signings. In fact, it got so that I could scan the audience at book events, and almost feel who was going to come up and see me afterwards for a hug and conversation. When you write and send a book out into the world, you never know what might happen.

At one book signing in northern Montana, a mother with several children handed me a card, and told me she was sober today because of Through the Wilderness. She thanked me, with tears in her eyes, for writing it. As they walked away, her teenage son came back, and with a cracking voice, shook my hand, and told me, “Thank you for writing your book,” that it was the reason his mom was sober today. 

Humbled, I thanked him back for telling me. He glanced at his siblings, and then, looking me directly in the eyes, replied, “Thanks for our mom.”

I hadn’t planned on crying in front of children that evening. I’ve since discovered that a book can become a platform for mutual catharsis.

Friends and community turned out for Brad Orsted’s first reading of his memoir at Elk River Books in summer 2023. Among them were founders of the organization Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, with whom Orsted collaborated as a filmmaker working on the award-winning documentary “The Beast of Our Time: Climate Change and Grizzly Bears.”

Another event brought a slightly disheveled elderly man up to the signing table, where he, too, asked me if he could give me a hug. When I rose and embraced him, I could feel him trembling, as he began crying, telling me that since retirement, he has suffered terribly from depression, anxiety, and lack of purpose. 

He said after hearing my story, of how I self-medicated after my daughter died and used alcohol to deal with the trauma of loss, he knew he could find a way to carry on too. Other people in the signing line began coming up and comforting him, rubbing his back and consoling a stranger in need of some human compassion. 

I hadn’t planned on crying that night either.

Sometimes it’s just so beautiful to see people acquiesce to the fact that life is hard, and surrender to the sadness. While it’s both awkward, yet compelling, for me to witness, I do feel like I’m in the presence of something holy, and should avert my gaze out of respect and humility, as they fill voids within their own souls right in front of me. 

Sometimes it’s just so beautiful to see people acquiesce to the fact that life is hard, and surrender to the sadness. While it’s both awkward, yet compelling, for me to witness, I do feel like I’m in the presence of something holy, and should avert my gaze out of respect and humility, as they fill voids within their own souls right in front of me. 

One of the early fall events at an independent bookstore brought out only a handful of guests. The bookstore owner and I were chatting afterwards, when she told me, “If you helped just one person tonight, and I think you helped that one lady for sure, then it was worth it.” 

I’ve discovered that in being able to help other people and relate to them in their place of vulnerability, meeting them where they are, they are inspiring me as much as Through the Wilderness has ever inspired them. 

 I was already okay with the small turnout that night. It was more intimate. But the statement from the bookstore owner resonated with me on the four hour ride home back to Big Timber, a lesser known outpost in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where I live.

It was under a starry Montana sky driving home, that I realized we never help just one person, no matter who is reaching out. We help everyone who would be devastated if something happened to that one person feeling alone and desperate. Somewhere between reaching for the Cheez-Its and dodging deer on a two lane highway, I realized that if trauma can ripple out and be passed down generationally, then so can healing. 

When I set out to write a book, I could have never guessed that going out on a promotional tour would actually be the final chapter, or maybe the first chapter of my next one. The tears, the laughter, the hugs, humans sharing their struggles and stories of hope in bookstores and libraries, were the words I could not know while isolated in a camper white-knuckling sobriety, hammering away at the keyboard. 

Hearing how the sanctuary of wilderness has been a salve for so many walking wounded, I am reminded that we are our brothers and sisters keepers, as the artist offers a modicum of sanity in an ever-increasingly insane world. Words take flight from the page in the hearts and minds of those who would share their journeys. It’s magical to behold. 

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  • Brad Orsted

    Brad Orsted is an award-winning, Montana-based wildlife photographer, conservation filmmaker, author, speaker, poet, and wilderness therapy instructor. His work can be seen on the BBC, PBS, Nature, Smithsonian Channel, ARTE, and Nat Geo Wild, as well as in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Brad's memoir, Through the Wilderness: My Journey of Redemption and Healing in the American Wild (St. Martin’s Press), chronicles the loss of his daughter, Marley, and his odyssey to find recovery from trauma and addiction while healing in the wilds of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. More of his work can be seen at:

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