Early in the beautiful mosaic book of essays, poetry, opinion pieces, journals, and contemplations, Terry Tempest Williams (2019) suggests that Erosion: Essays on Undoing is really a book of questions. One set of questions in the book, from an interview with Tim DeChristopher, an environmental activist, is an appropriate place to begin:
What are the stories that we tell? You know, what are the stories that move us forward culturally? What are the stories that keep us in place? What are the stories that actually perpetuate myths of a dominant culture or the subjugation of women? (p. 111)
Williams’ (2019) storytelling in this collection is reviving. This assemblage of writings is not really just Terry. As any wide-ranging, humble, and auspicious writer does, Williams credits her many writing companions in the acknowledgments to the book, which comes only at the end: “Whatever words I have written in Erosion have been born of my relationships: family, friends, colleagues, students, and experiences shared in place. I am not a lone writer” (p. 315). And while she credits many human friends for their insights, fortitudes, and “sacred rage” (p. 316), her homage to the more than human strikes me as most important. She credits place (particularly the great outdoors of the West, specifically Utah), “night,” and “the great horned owls who stayed” (p. 318). This book takes us outside the human, situating the reader in cosmic relations with the natural world, those landscapes, animals, plants, and memories whom, through entangled relationality, help us build or “dwell” at home and come into ourselves. Erosion truly centers the crises of the Anthropocene and reminds us of our more-than-human responsibilities.
Story is central to this book, and as a lover of story, a purveyor of the written word, and one who believes we build community through narratives, Williams reminds us throughout this text that the stories we tell ourselves create worlds – “belief creates its own reality” (p. 297). She beckons us to hear a different story than the one we now tell ourselves – specifically, that crises of climate, democracy, and selfhood are still in a semi-distant future. Quite succinctly, she recognizes “that it’s probably too late to avoid any of the worst-case scenarios that we’re talking about” (p. 114), specifically in relation to climate change, but likely to crises of democracy, faith, and reason as well. To quote the prolific James Baldwin, the fire is upon us, and we must hear the stories of crisis while writing new stories for our collective future.
As I read, I was reminded of a t-shirt my dear friend Ric Montelongo recently purchased for me. A comfortable, simple gray t-shirt with black lettering inscribed:
We’re gathered here tonight, around the fire – as people of all lands have gathered for thousands and thousands of years before us – to share the light and to share a story.
Reading this book felt very much like sitting around a campfire with a vast, wide-ranging community of human and more-than-human friends, grappling with our collective questions in this “moment of strange juxtapositions” (p. xi). The book feels like a “community of care” (p. 274).
The range of this book is massive. Like the mosaics Williams (2019) describes and beckons in her 2012 interview with Krista Tippett’s On Being, this book may feel fragmented, jumpy, discombobulating. Looked at from a distance, one sees the shards of this assemblage with particular beauty, attuned to the questions Williams asks us to grapple with individually and collectively.
Another of these beautiful questions is Whom do we serve? (p. xiii). The we here is individual and collective. Certainly, Williams’ (2019) essays and poems ask us the deep interrogational questions of our own interests: vocation, beauty, love, community. But these personal questions are tied to a cosmic, collective order of grappling. In our self-servingness, how are we serving our larger community? How are we honoring the past, and serving the future? Here, I am drawn to Williams’ connection with Indigenous and Native communities of the Southwest United States, and the question becomes one of intergenerational justice: how do the choices I make today serve future generations?
For Williams, many of these questions revolve around protection of public lands, wilderness conservation, access and protection to water, eco-diversity, and endangered species. The book is overtly political, intensely and justifiably critical of the Trump administration—the first administration in history to reduce the size of national monuments and wildlife preserves, along with their gutting of environmental protections and removal of many endangered species from protected status—facts she consistently reminds readers about. She is critical of oil and gas companies, and what we now refer to as the vestiges of advanced capitalism: corrupt corporations, gutless colleges and universities, oil and gas tycoons, the ongoing residue of patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, and outmoded religious practices. Each of these contentious issues arise at various points in the text: her being fired from the University of Utah after engaging in citizen protest; the discussions of cancer rates in the American West; increasing infant mortality rates in Utah and Wyoming as fracking increases; “fallout” from nuclear testing, uranium, and coal mining; the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court; light pollution, overtaking the West like an invasive species as oil derricks rise to newly sold-off public lands; the dwindling populations of birds, pronghorns, prairie dogs, insects, and various species of plants.
All this might feel hopeless, at times. Williams attempts to paint a reality-based narrative about the myriad challenges facing the environment, the country, humanity, and our collective home. She makes a prediction: “the decade ahead will be one of the most crucial breakdown or breakthrough moments in the history of our species” (p. 45).
But Williams’ book is a project in hope. She suggests, it seems to me, that these old structures are eroding away, with new evolutionary forms of community, compassion, and care culling forth, evolving. Erosion, looked at only as a wearing away, sees only destruction, rather than ongoing creation. “We are eroding and evolving, at once. Let this be my mantra to be repeated daily. What if beauty dwells in the margins of our undoing and remaking?” (p. 212).
The book is highly educational. I finished realizing I know very little about the history of the American West. I was blithely unaware of the crisis in the Great Salt Lake of Utah – one of the most eye-opening chapters of the book for me, given the amount of biodiversity that depends on the lake, and the issues arising for migratory birds and other wildlife as the lake dries up. The ongoing fallout from military colonization in the West – uranium mining, coal mining, the testing of nuclear weapons, and the remnants of Japanese internment camps, which reminds me that the current internment camps, built and filled under the Trump administration, also largely occupy this same territory. There is the poisoning of water, fully fledged due to fracking, oil and gas exploration, the damming of rivers, and the aridification ushered in by climate change. And the archaeological reserves in the West: the ancient burial grounds of Indigenous and Native peoples, the art, and the geological archive captured in the mountains, valleys, deserts, and forests. I feel compelled to learn more about each of these issues and their interconnectedness.
But the book also takes on many personal issues, shifts, and erosions, adding to the wide-ranging scope of its content. In two of the most beautiful essays in the book, Williams deals specifically with the change of form we will all take someday in death. “The Questions Held by Owls” documents the death of Terry and Brooke’s dog, Rio. Williams describes the quiet process of putting one’s dog to rest, raising the beautiful questions of how we create joy in the last moments of life: in this case, giving Rio a piece of salmon, his favorite meat, in the moments before the veterinarian inserts the final injection that will stop Rio’s heart. The salmon, Williams reminds us, allowed Rio’s last moment on earth to be one of “gluttonous joy” (p. 34). But Williams also describes the process of burying Rio in the desert, returning the dog to the earth to erode and become something different. Gone from one state, but still present and interconnected to all that is around us. Importantly, this chapter also addresses the process of how the loss of a pet can change who we are as well. A haunting, but beautiful line from the book, interrogates this shift: “Who will Brooke be without Rio?”
Perhaps the most arresting chapter in the book, “A Beautiful, Rugged Place: Erosion of the Body,” documents the aftermath of Williams’ brother’s suicide. This chapter is so startling in its beauty, grief, and raw truth – about mental health, addiction, pain, love, and self-love. Though Williams mourns her brother’s loss, she sees his decision as one rooted in self-love, even as she interrogates her own guilt over not doing more to save him. Then, in some of the most poetic prose I’ve read this year, Williams describes the process of her brother’s cremation – a process she and her other surviving brother decide to watch. Williams describes the personal ceremony and care of preparing their brother (alongside the crematorium staff), the heat, the hours of waiting as their brother turned from physical body to ash, the grinding of bones, and the final placement in the urn. Finally, the spreading of ashes in a beautiful, rugged place. Their brother, returned to the earth.
These reflections are part of Williams’ (2019) larger project in the book related to erosion of self. She asks, “Can I love myself enough to change?” (p. 278). Some of the personal changes Williams interrogates in the book relate not only to changed and shifted relationships (such as those ushered in through death), but also in unexpected life trajectories. The loss of her job at the University of Utah (a damning condemnation of the role colleges and universities play in destroying people and planet) ushers in a crisis of identity – who does one become when their vocational identity shifts so suddenly, without warning? There are crises of religion and faith throughout the book, with particular shifts in Williams’ thinking through work at the Harvard Divinity School. But all of these shifts are part of the natural processes of life, erosion and evolution:
If we are curious, and committed to growing, adapting, and responding to changing conditions, we must interrogate our maps. My erosion of belief is asking me to let go of what is comfortable, the familiar, and be open to possibilities that I haven’t dared to consider. (Williams, 2019, p. 253)
And this is where the crux of the book as a more-than-human project becomes so evident. Williams is asking what happens when we decenter ourselves as individual human beings, and begin viewing ourselves as part of a relational and interconnected whole.
If we are to flourish as a species, an erosion of belief will be necessary, that says we are not the center of the universe but a dynamic part of an expanding and contracting future that celebrates and collaborates with uncertainty. (Williams, 2019, p. 249)
This will require a humility and imagination that humans seem to have lost. It will require a shift in our identity as a species: “If we were to . . .remove the term ‘human being’ from our sense of identity and instead see ourselves as co-inhabitants with all other species on this planet we call home – could we dwell in place differently with one another?” (p. 305). Williams’ closing chapter on “Dwelling” is a beautiful treatise on how we create home and community, and how our focused attention can really shift our understanding of the world’s ongoing creation.
Which brings us to beauty. Many essays in the book reflect Williams’ desire to create community, beauty, and art through story. Stories connect us in very particular ways, and she asks “What’s wrong with telling stories and listening to one another? What’s wrong with gathering as a community to consider where we live, what we love, and what is at stake in the twenty-first century” (p. 89). For Williams, this community is more-than-human. I remain in “awe” (p. 318) of Williams’ descriptions of soundscapes in this book – the whooing of owls, howling of wolves, and whispers of trees. Yes, we need to hear the stories of other humans to understanding how we can erode our old ways of thinking and usher in a new world. But we also must hear the stories of the more-than-human world, attuning with particular poise to the questions these co-inhabitants are asking us: “What are you for? What do you love?” (Williams, 2019, p. 131).
Williams, T. T. (2019). Erosion: Essays of undoing. New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books.
Additional Terry Tempest Williams
Tippett, K. (Producer). (2012, July 19). The vitality of the struggle [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/terry-tempest-williams-the-vitality-of-the-struggle/
Williams, T. T. (2018, April 18). The liturgy of home [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Lr_YJHADFw