Storied Landscapes, Deep Time

Erosion: Essays of Undoing
Terry Tempest Williams
Sarah Crichton Books,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 336 pages

With her latest collection, Erosion: Essays of Undoing, southern Utah writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams picks up a theme she pursued in 2009’s Finding Beauty in a Broken World, the fragmentation of our times, a process she explores through collage. “When everything feels like it is coming apart,” she states, “the art of assemblage feels like a worthy pastime.”

photo of castle valley
Terry Tempest Williams’ concerns lie with “the peace and restlessness” of desert lands like Castle Valley, Utah, with the “arc between protecting lands and exploiting them.” Photo by Michael Theis.

This is as much method as it is manifesto. In her typical mixing of genres, which here spans letters, poetry, word definitions, journal entries, a conversation with climate activist Tim DeChristopher, and a list of things she longs for when absent from her beloved canyon country, Williams seeks to counter the current undermining of our public lands and democracy, to discover per chance a shape in the strange juxtapositions rampant in today’s American West.

Jarring contrasts manifest right at her threshold in Castle Valley, near Moab. One day she enjoys complete stillness only to recoil on another at the “war games” of helicopters with cameramen filming a super-athlete traversing a record-length slack line strung between redrock formations. Williams’ concerns lie with “the peace and restlessness of these desert lands,” with competing actions and dreams, with “the arc between protecting lands and exploiting them … between engaging politics and bypassing them,” between “succumbing to fear and choosing courage.”

Employed as metaphor, erosion can be tricky, speaking to both unraveling and creation. It’s the force that formed the badlands and buttes we consider sublime. It provides a visual scale, negative space against which we measure the passing of eons and our relative standing. And it’s the process by which we slowly lose bits of our coasts, our wildernesses, and our civil liberties. In its geological sense, counteracting deposition, it partakes in the seemingly endless cycle of Earth building and deconstructing.

book cover thumbnail

In loosely structured chapters, Williams circles the dissolution of home, safety, logic, and democracy’s bedrock, and on a more intimate level, of fear, belief, and the self. She laments this administration’s attacks on the Endangered Species Act and on lands like the Grand Staircase–Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, lands “gutted and open for business” in the state she calls home. The specter of unfettered resource extraction in these wild places walks in lockstep with the decay of decency now too commonly witnessed: Charlottesville, the southern border, Muslim bashing, science denial, and the daily barrage of tweeted offenses that have sullied the three long years since November 2016.

Williams’ antidotes include laughter, art, grieving, ceremony, and deep draughts from the wellspring of wonder at all that remains. Political activism, a tiring immersion, must be balanced with beauty for her to stay healthy and sane. Coalitions and intact communities are crucial to our survival, she insists, taking into account other-than human species and ecosystems. And this bigger picture matters as much as the fine-grained close-ups do. To Williams’ relief, Utah’s scoured scrublands — with their dust devils, bleached bones, and rapids roiling with sediment — sandblast all notions of self-importance, a constant reminder that we are merely soil, just not yet.

In the course of her stocktaking, Williams visits representatives of a growing ecological ethic: marine iguanas on the Galápagos, mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and pronghorns in Wyoming — haggard, listless, snared by barb-wire fences when they try to flee oil and gas developments. Kin to the bluebirds she also admires, Williams flits between narrative branches and alights on kaleidoscopic subjects, perhaps irritating readers who favor carefully laid-out arguments or unbroken threads. She appeals to emotion, to solidarity, urging us to band together, to remember our connections to each other and our past, and to pay attention to nature’s details as means to revive withered imaginations.

“What power tries to control is the story, especially the story that sees the world as a complicated whole,” she concludes. If, as during the Standing Rock and Keystone pipeline protests, corporations can keep people isolated and the story fragmented, they can conduct business as usual, without accountability. As an author working in the Anthropocene, a caesura of climate unhinging and unprecedented extinction rates, Williams questions her role, and that of her profession. “Must I write a hopeful story?” she asks, “Or an evolving one?”

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