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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Storied Landscapes, Deep Time

Terry Tempest Williams' latest book combines essay and poetry to explore land under siege.


  • Zoe Rodriguez

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."

This is as much method as it is manifesto. In her typical mixing of genres—which here spans poetry, letters, 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 public lands and democracy and to discover a shape in the strange juxtapositions rampant throughout 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 red rock 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."

Erosion, employed as a metaphor, can be tricky. It speaks to the unraveling and creation processes and is 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 represents the bit-by-bit loss of our coasts, wilderness areas and civil liberties. In its geological sense, this gradual wear is a key component in the seemingly endless cycle of earth building and deconstructing. To Williams' relief, Utah's scoured scrublands—with their bleached bones, dust devils and rapids roiling with sediment—sandblast all notions of self-importance, a constant reminder that we are merely soil, just not yet.

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 the Trump 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: Charlottesville, the southern border, Muslim bashing, science denial, a contested Supreme Court nomination, and the daily barrage of tweets.

Williams' antidotes include art, laughter, grief, ceremony and deep draughts from the wellspring of wonder at all that remains. Political activism and 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 ecosystems and other-than-human species. And this bigger picture matters as much as the fine-grained close-ups and one-on-ones.

In the course of her stock-taking, Williams visits representatives of a growing ecological ethic: marine iguanas on the Galápagos Islands, mountain gorillas in Rwanda's Virunga National Park and pronghorns in Wyoming's Wind River Range that have grown haggard and listless, snared by barb-wire fences when they try to flee oil and gas developments. Akin 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 connections to each other and to our past, and to pay attention to nature's details as means to revive withered imaginations.

"What power tries to control is 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 an era 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?"