In her new book Erosion: Essays of Undoing, Terry Tempest Williams takes a decisive political stand against the Trump Administration’s lack of respect for the natural world, particularly our public lands. In a series of essays, interviews, poems, letters, and vignettes, Williams—in her signature activist style—speaks of erosion not just of the dissolving of a landscape in response to wind and rain, but also as the wasting away of democracy and public discourse, of environmental legislation, of our land, community, and trust. She speaks too of the erosion of her own family and her career.
Williams is rooted firmly in the bedrock of her home state, Utah. In 1998, she and her husband decided Salt Lake City was too busy and moved to a quiet hamlet, Castle Valley, in the middle of Utah’s public lands. She shares an anecdote about a friend who came to visit from New York and was expected to stay for a few days, but the morning after she arrived was packed and ready to go home, saying, “It’s too quiet, it’s too big, and it’s too far away.” She was afraid that Williams would be forgotten in such a place. Williams herself says she wouldn’t mind.
Her roots go far deeper than just living in a small town and being close to its vibrant community. She was born and raised in Utah, and most of her family still lives there. She was raised Mormon but no longer practices. Her family is also heavily involved in the resource industry, as they lay pipelines for transporting natural gas and other fossil fuels. While Williams and most of the rest of her family have differing religious and political views, they’ve managed to maintain family connections by not discussing about politics too much.
Erosion focuses largely on the shrinking the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments as Trump directed more land to open up to oil and gas development. This is an assault on public lands that Williams can’t overlook, particularly since the assault is in her backyard, and also because President Barack Obama created these monuments in full consultation with local Native tribes, who worked hard to finally have these sacred lands protected.
Two essays in particular address the erosion of public lands: focusing particularly on the Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act. In the former, she likens the protection of public lands to a game of paper, rock, scissors. The Wilderness Act is the paper. The rock is the land the Act is designed to protect—it is the clenched fist of the resistance. And the scissors are the current administration trying to shred the Act. Since rock wins scissors, the landscape wins if it has strong defenders like Williams. “Wilderness is not a game,” she writes. “We must change the rules of engagement. Paper can be used for a map. A rock keeps the map in place. And the scissors can be retired. We have cut enough wilderness out of the heart of the American landscape.”
Williams deepens her connection to the land through ceremony, and these ceremonies are what keep her going after events like the election of Trump and the shrinking of the national monuments. The day after Trump’s election, she and seven community members gathered at a friend’s house for a formal tea ceremony, which was a quiet affair until it was finished and everyone was able to speak freely about what was on their mind and how they aimed to confront the future. She writes, “We will resist and insist that our communities be built upon the faith we have in each other, as it has always been—and, most important, upon the faith we have in these lands that have shaped us.”
Williams also involves her students in ceremonial activities centered around environmental justice. As a writer in residence at the University of Wyoming, she created a program called the Weather Report. She and her students visited seven communities impacted by oil, gas, and coal-bed methane development one Friday evening, in a “politically neutral zone” like the public library, and asked: What keeps you up at night? No one was prepared for the stories they heard about the dangers of these types of resource developments, or the worries that citizens have about them, including drug problems, violence, and environmental contamination. A U.S. senator from Wyoming attended one such event and tried to shut it down, but ended up participating when he realized there was no fight to be had.
Williams does something similar with the course she taught at the University of Utah, taking students to small Utah communities that are economically dependent on fossil fuels to talk about climate change and related environmental issues. Through these exercises, Williams shows us that we can engage with people from the other side of the fence, as it were, without anger but with compassion—and we can use this connection to build community.
Williams also focuses her attention on wild animals and wilderness as a way to ground herself and to offset the constant struggle for environmental justice. Ellen Meloy writes, “Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.” Williams does exactly that, sitting in a blind on the shores of the Platte River to watch Sandhill cranes at dawn, and at the end of a runway in Wyoming to watch the sage grouse dance in their lek. She visits the Galápagos and marvels at the iguanas and tortoises, as well as the thrush that sings the same song in Utah. She is also drawn to the pronghorn in Wyoming, from which her team creates an art piece called A Council of Pronghorn—a circle of 23 pronghorn skulls, one for each county in Wyoming, mounted on old ranch fence posts using metal waste from the oil and gas industry. Next to the circle is a subtle poem by Williams, about the plight of the pronghorn being fenced in across Wyoming.
Following the example of activist Tim deChristopher’s, who she interviews in the book, Williams and her husband take direct action against oil and gas development by purchasing leasing rights to 1,120 acres of federal land near their home. Since they don’t plan to develop those rights, the government wants to revoke their leases—but there’s no precedent for this in state law. So for now, Williams and her family hold onto the leases while the case is before the Board of Land Appeals in the Department of the Interior, which has left them hanging for three years.
In retaliation, though, the University of Utah fired Williams, who served as a faculty member for 13 years, just weeks after the oil and gas lease purchase. The university claims it doesn’t want her taking students off-campus, but it happens so soon after the purchase of the leases that, based on FOIA requests, she knows it’s the oil industry leaning on the university to keep her in line.
Williams thus leaves Utah for Harvard Divinity School in Massachusetts, a move that helps her escape the Utah bubble and interact with Easterners, who have a much different vision of public lands. She also finds herself in a geography that challenges her, one lush with vegetation and water, one so unlike her home in Utah. As she says in a later interview with Melissa Sevigny, “Homesickness is real. But it also sharpens what sustains us.”
Despite the challenges to her career and the landscape she fights to protect, Williams concludes Erosion on a hopeful note. While life is heartbreaking under Trump, she says, people are rising up against his actions and standing up for climate justice, environmental justice, and social justice. She believes the patriarchy is beginning to erode and champions an “’ecology of mind,’ where we can change the nature of reality through our focused attention, which is another form of prayer.”
Erosion is a brilliant and necessary example of what a writer and activist can do to protect landscape and community in these fraught times. It is an urgent call to all artists to engage with their communities and come together across political divides to work toward common goals, the preservation of land and the stemming of fossil fuel development among them. Terry Tempest Williams makes it possible to believe that we can reverse erosion in all its sociopolitical contexts. And it’s clear we must.
Sarah Boon has bylines in The Rumpus, The Millions, Terrain.org, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Science, Nature, and other publications. She is writing a book about her adventures as a field scientist in remote areas across the West. Find her on Twitter @SnowHydro.
Header photo of Professor Valley, Utah, by Simmons Buntin.