If the world is torn to pieces, I want to see what story I can find in fragmentation.
Renowned nature writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams’ latest comprises essays written between 2012 and 2019, “a seven-year cycle exploring the idea of erosion; the erosion of land; the erosion of home; the erosion of self; the erosion of the body and the body politic.” Using this concept of erosion in various contexts, she tells stories from locales ranging from the Arctic to Rwanda, as well as (guardedly) introspective ones of her own life, relationships, and family. Everything is tied to a focus on the natural world and our responsibilities to it, drawing meaningful connections to the earth and its dire current state.
Our undoing is also the making of our becoming.
In addition to a lot of anger, grief, and explorations of changing concepts of identity and place, the main theme creating a common thread throughout these pieces is that we’re destroying the earth, but there’s hope. Erosion does still leave something in its place. She argues that we can embrace erosion as the heralding of something new, of what’s coming after, even if getting there in the first place wasn’t the ideal option. Williams is realistic but presses the urgency of the current moment, and her lyrical writing underscores this.
Although I knew of her, I haven’t read anything of hers before this. Having read it, I understand her vaunted reputation: she’s an exceptionally skilled, deeply moving writer. So many of her sentences are so beautifully written yet impacting, and I reread individual lines that were almost mesmerizing. Still, this may not be the best book to serve as an introduction to her work. I always had a slight sense that I didn’t know her background, although she assumes a certain immediate intimacy with the reader and gives such a strong sense of her values that maybe it was just my impression.
As these were collected over seven years and not necessarily intended for publication together, there is a significant overlap in topics and themes, particularly around some major points. Since climate change is the biggest topic, its frequency is understandable, but Williams makes her most salient points repeatedly so it can feel a bit much. Her arguments were strong enough once. Reading them over again only felt redundant.
For example, Williams was understandably incensed by Donald Trump’s reversal of the protection President Obama gave in 2016 to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The story around it is told in one form or another several times. Trump controversially reduced its size, massively so, and fighting this particular act of erosion is a major cause for Williams. It’s undoubtedly an important one, but the repetition didn’t add anything, especially when she’s done so much other interesting work in areas of nature and wildlife preservation.
She draws from the political often, having become “obsessed” with politics after Trump’s election and the erosions to wildlife protection and nature conservation she sensed coming. It’s a powerful side of her activism, and has its surprisingly hopeful elements, like when she reminds that Republican Richard Nixon was the one to sign the Endangered Species Act into law (its diminishing current state is another thing). But there’s still hope.
There’s one extremely personal essay addressing her brother’s suicide, and her previous relationship to him. Her strength as a personal essayist is near-overwhelming, that story is one that will stay with me, as heartwrenching as it is. She writes as hauntingly of her personal griefs and regrets as she does about those in the wider world.
You know how the New York Times has been asking authors if they could force Trump to read one book, what would it be? I think I’d pick this one. Yes, I know it’s an impossible dream because it has no pictures and he’s incapable of abstract thinking or appreciating the power and meaning in words that aren’t his own name crowning a building in 10-foot tall gold letters, but nevertheless. The knowledge, urgency, and gift for storytelling Williams brings to these essays are undeniably stirring. 3.5/5
Some favorite lines:
“We need not lose hope, we just need to locate where it dwells.”
On her complicated history with Utah’s Mormon community, which led to her resignation from the University of Utah: “If birds had a voice, so did I.”
“The afterlife we imagine exists in our minds. Perhaps that is enough. If it isn’t we turn to religion.”
“Once I stared at a burrowing owl on the edge of Great Salt Lake and was given a curse of a phrase: ‘If I can learn to love death, I can begin to find refuge in change.'”
Erosion: Essays of Undoing
by Terry Tempest Williams
published October 8, 2019 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.