Essays of Undoing
By Terry Tempest Williams
We usually think of “erosion” as a geological term — a way of describing a gradual sloughing of earth. But the word has an older and slightly more ominous meaning, coming from the Latin erodere, which refers to the idea of gnawing, scraping and scratching until something is consumed. What disappears isn’t necessarily geological. Live long enough and you’ll witness many forms of erosion: of belief, trust, safety and youth, of culture and democracy — and yes, of the earth’s surface and sheltering climate.
It is in this spacious, all-encompassing spirit that Terry Tempest Williams imagines erosion in her new book, as a process that also weathers the body, mind and spirit. Malignant forms — for example, the effect of self-serving political policies — may be imperceptible in the short run, or even during a lifetime, yet still be massively destructive over a longer span of time. Most of the pieces here focus on Williams’s political and environmental resistance to such marauding, including her acts of civil disobedience, their fallout, and her sustained grief and anger over the despoiling of the natural world. In one feral moment, she stands outside, throws back her head and howls like a coyote. She writes: “This is how I survive. With a family name like Tempest, I can only contain myself for so long until an eruption occurs: anger, joy, irreverence, love. These essays are my howl.”
Williams divides her time between Cambridge (where she is the writer in residence at Harvard Divinity School) and Utah, a place of wild beauty, where Bears Ears National Monument has been in the cross-hairs of the Trump administration — even though its protected wilderness contains land that is sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Mountain Ute and Zuni Nations. In 2017, Trump decided to eviscerate its 1.35 million acres of red rock desert by 85 percent and open the rest to drilling and development. The case is currently in the courts. If his mission is successful, Trump will be the first president to abolish a national monument.
Williams makes a poignant connection between the political and the personal: “Like the red rock desert before me, I too am eroding. Nothing fixed. Nothing static. Only a steady state of flux.” She writes honestly and simply about her brother Dan’s mental illness and suicide: “My brother’s suicide is a noose around my neck and it is tightening. The questions left will never be answered” — including a detailed description of his cremation. While it was in progress, Williams politely asked if she could light a candle, only to be told by a man in a black suit (who happened to be an acquaintance from high school), “‘I’m sorry, Terry, no candles can be lit as it is against the fire code.’
“‘Of course,’ I said, and we all burst out laughing.”
Williams has woven together several kinds of trauma, evoking the precise weft many of us are living under these days. She asks: “How do we survive our grief in the midst of so many losses in the living world, from white bark pines to grizzly bears to the decline of willow flycatchers along the Colorado River? … How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?”
Her answer is to turn back to the well of nature: “The world is so beautiful, even as it burns, even as those we love leave us.” If Williams’s haunting, powerful and brave book can be summed up in one line of advice it would be this: try to stare down the grief of everyday life, speak out and find solace in the boundless beauty of nature.
Diane Ackerman is the author, most recently, of “The Human Age” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
EROSIONEssays of UndoingBy Terry Tempest Williams335 pp. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
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