“If the world is torn to pieces,” writes Terry Tempest Williams in her explosive and unflinching new collection, Erosion: Essays of Undoing, “I want to see what story I can find in fragmentation.” Written over seven years and exploring the erosion of home, land, self, the human body, and the body politic, the book begins by asking the most difficult and pressing questions of our time: “How do we survive our grief in the midst of so many losses in the living world…? How do we hold ourselves to account over our inescapable complicity in a fossil fuel economy…? And how do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?”
Williams offers no easy answers, only layers of explorations, as in the essay “Bluebirds: Erosion of Belief,” where she writes, “We are a species known as Homo Sapiens, often paralyzed by despair, having forgotten who we are together in our adamant claims of difference. Fortunately, we live among other species, many unknown to us, who show us how to enter the home of another and offer the gift of attention and presence, which is an exercise in vulnerability.”
Like all Williams’s books, Erosion manages to be many things at once. It is a well-researched account of the Trump administration’s gutting of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments and the president’s disregard for the rights and values of the tribal communities who live there, and it is simultaneously an animal howl on behalf of the decimated desert landscape Williams loves. It is a precise record of the correspondence she had with her beloved brother Dan in the months leading up to his suicide, and it is also a ceremony of bottomless grief, sibling intuition, and unbounded love. It is an overview of the influential activists in Williams’s life, among them anti-apartheid crusader Breyten Breytenbach (who tells her, “You Americans, you’ve mastered the art of living with the unacceptable”) and Tim DeChristopher, a young man who went to jail for bidding on Utah oil and gas leases that were being auctioned off to corporations for $2 an acre. Finally, Erosion is an investigation into Williams’s faith, and her loss of it, describing both her respect for the traditions of the Mormon church and her own contrasting decision to baptize herself by the power invested in her and not in God.
“I am learning to pray again,” she writes in “The Cutting Edge of Time: Erosion of Home,” “not in the way I was taught as a child, but in all the ways the desert has taught me how to listen.” Later, in “Heart of the Matter: Erosion of Fear,” she elaborates: “Whatever I know as a woman about spirituality, I have learned from my body encountering Earth. Soul and soil are not separate. Neither is wind and spirit, nor water and tears. We are eroding and evolving at once, like the red rock landscape before me. Our grief is our love. Our love will be our undoing as we quietly disengage from the collective madness of the patriarchal mind that says aggression is the way forward.”
The essays in Erosion are full of indelible images that circle back and back again. There are the doomed pelicans walking listlessly to their deaths on the flats of the Great Salt Lake because too many years of drought have denied them the fresh water they need to survive. There is the statue of Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy, in a grotto in China, holding in her hand, like an offering, a bowl that contains her heart. There are the image-rich text messages from Williams’s brother, and also a series of phone calls, including the one during which he said he was eroding, the one during which he said he’d bought a rope.
In the essay on his suicide, “A Beautiful, Rugged Place: Erosion of the Body,” Williams writes, “To sorrow in the suffering of the world together may be what we need to embrace now, something beyond hope, something deeper than hope, which is to honor our grief of a changing world.”
Erosion could have benefited from some more aggressive editing—especially the elimination of a few short essays, obviously written on assignment, that do little more than reiterate information delivered with more complexity elsewhere in the book. But there is so much power in the arc and build of the collection that those redundancies are quickly overlooked.
Some years ago, an earth scientist, attempting to assuage my fears about the climate, reassured me, “The future of the earth looks terrible in the 100-year frame, but in the 500-year frame it looks pretty good. There will hardly be any people left, of course, but the ones who are here will have learned a lot.”
I think a great deal about those scatterlings: who they will be, how they will be, and what they will do with their time. If those survivors look back to the great die-off, I picture them reading Erosion. Not so much to understand the why of our civilization’s demise but to grasp the how of it: how sad we had become, how inert, how capitalism had not only failed us but made us unrecognizable as living creatures, how unable we were to help ourselves, one another, or the earth, even when the writing was on every wall.
As the essays in Erosion accumulate, so do the questions: Is it our moral obligation to find hope on a planet whose death we accelerate every day? Is it possible to move forward in a condition of hopelessness, or has our obsession with moving forward been the problem all along? And if we were to abandon hope, in what state would we spend what time we had left? How would we expend our energy?
“The time has come,” Williams writes, “to stop seeing ourselves as saviors and instead see ourselves as human beings on a burning globe capable of acknowledging the harm we have caused. Do we dare to hold our severed hearts in our hands as both an offering and a sacrifice in the name of what is now required?”
Erosion is a call to action, a cry in the dark, and a way if not forward then perhaps inside, deep into the center of the trouble we are causing, written with the hope that we might learn something in the time we have left, and that we might honor the earth, our only home, as she continues, even in her diminished state, to teach us.
• By Terry Tempest Williams
• Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books, 336 pages, $27
THREE QUESTIONS: TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS
If Americans have learned to live with the unacceptable, what is the answer? To not walk away from hard things. If we choose “to stay with the troubles,” we begin to feel again what it means to be human in relationship to the life around us—even if that emotion is grief. Grief is love.
Can the damage to the environment be undone? Yes, but it will take an uncommon resolve. The question becomes “How serious are we?”
What’s the most effective way to fight back? Beauty is its own resistance. It is easy to forget where the source of our power lies when we are only focused on “the fight” or our anger. Rage will only take us so far. If we can learn to respect each other, perhaps we can learn to respect the Earth—there is no separation. It is time to listen. It is time to act. The world is so beautiful. How can we not respond?