Book Review: Erosion, Essays of Undoing

“Trump finalizes rollback of Obama-era vehicle fuel efficiency standards” (Reuters)

“Trump Loosens Methane Standards In A Win For Oil & Gas Industry” (Forbes)

“Trump Slashes Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments” (New York Times)

Since being elected president, Donald Trump has seemingly had it out for Mother Earth. Unless stopped by the courts, the administration’s regulatory rollbacks will worsen the quality of our air and waterways, shrink our public lands, and spur more fossil fuel production, all at the expense of an already-threatened planet. For many of us, the environmental onslaught is but one area in which lives and norms are being threatened by Trump’s presidency. It’s into this charged arena that author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams lets loose her vital and passionate voice.

Erosion: Essays of Undoing is a “gathering of stories, poems, and pleas” written within the past seven years that takes an outsized view of erosion. Williams explores not just the erosion of land, but of home, of self, of decency and democracy, and mines the anger, grief, and despair that so often accompanies it.

It is also a book of questions, and Williams poses them as much to herself as to her readers. How are we to respond to all this wearing down, reshaping, and undoing? What role do we play in it? What responsibility do we have for it? “And how do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?”

Williams’ life is rooted in the American West, as is much of her writing. Issues she’s long championed as an author and activist—social and environmental justice, the protection of public lands, wildlife conservation, women’s rights—are made present through the wide angle of erosion.

Several essays, taken together, tell the fraught story of our public lands. Too often, as Williams sees it, “[t]he language of economics trumps the language of aesthetics and science.” Public land is mined, despoiled, its acreage slashed. Impassioned pleas to protect it made by indigenous groups and conservationists go unheard.

All that makes Williams’ 2016 essay about the Obama administration’s establishment of Bears Ears National Monument so painful to read. Then, Williams hailed the proclamation both for what it did to protect a large swath of Utah’s red rock desert and for how it was written, “in language more akin to poetry than public policy, well worth reading aloud around a dinner table or campfire.” Now, we know the monument’s future is uncertain—its size under assault by the Trump administration, its sanctity threatened by the fossil fuel industry. (A lawsuit challenging the administration is winding its way through the courts.)

Williams’ most searing essays explore the “erosion of self.” In one, she parses her brother Dan’s death by suicide. That he committed the act did not come as a surprise. Scarred by mental illness and addiction, and distraught by the worsening condition of the planet, he’d made clear to her his despair. “I am eroding-Dan said to me.” And “something that haunts me still: Why can’t you see it, Ter? We’re fucked. You keep hoping things will change. I’m fucked. The planet’s fucked. It’s time to exit.”

What makes Williams’ essays so powerful is her ability to humanize abstract ideas, to make the private public, and the personal universal. There’s also her optimism, her hope, that with struggle, things can change. That as we erode, we evolve.  

“We need not lose hope,” Williams writes. “We just need to locate where it dwells.”

Jacki Skole
Jacki Skole is a writer, communications professor, aspiring yogi and dog lover. Dogland: A Journey to the Heart of America's Dog Problem is her first book.