What Follows Our Erosion: A Conversation with Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is known for her work as an author (her most recent book is Erosion, Essays of Undoing) and activist, particularly in relationship to the natural world. In our current puzzling and frustrating social and political environment, Williams has become a leader in putting words to the deep unrest many have felt since 2016.

Bioneers was fortunate to sit down with Terry Tempest Williams to discuss the “erosion” of the United States – and the world at large – and what might follow.

TERRY: I’m going to read a piece that I wrote the morning after the election in 2016. I was on the banks of the Colorado River, and this is from my journal.

This moment, erosion of democracy, November 9th, 2016.

It is morning. I am mourning. And the river is before me. I am a writer without words who is struggling to find them. I am holding the balm of beauty, this river, this desert, so vulnerable, all of us. I am trying to shape my despair into some form of action, but for now I am standing on the cold edge of grief.

We are staring at a belligerent rejection of change by our fellow Americans who believe they have voted for change. The seismic shock of a new political landscape is settling. For now, I do not feel like unity is what is called for. Resistance is our courage. Love will become us. The land holds us still.

Let us pause and listen and gather our strength with grace, and move forward like water in all of its manifestations – flat water, white water, rapids and eddies – and flood this country with an integrity of purpose and patience and persistence capable of cracking stone.

I am a writer without words, who continues to believe in the vitality of the struggle. Let us hold each other close and be kind. Let us gather together and break bread. Let us trust that what is required of us next will become clear in time. What has been hidden is now exposed. This river, this morning, this moment. May we be brave enough to feel it deeply and then act.

Terry Tempest Williams

BIONEERS: How are you feeling now, since you wrote that?

TERRY: My throat closes, so that says something. I remember when I wrote it. I stayed up all night to hear Hillary’s concession speech, and it didn’t come, as you remember, until the morning. And then I walked out to the edge of the river and just sat there. I don’t even remember writing this. It just came out of the moment. I wasn’t surprised. I think living in Utah, I thought this would be the outcome.

How do I feel now? I’m terrified that Donald Trump will win again. And I don’t know what the outcome will be. I think we’re all going to have to work really, really hard. I think we’re watching madness before us on so many levels. I certainly see it in Utah, evidenced on the ground by a rapidity of oil and gas development and the bringing back of uranium mining, which is insanity. With the legacy that the atomic West has experienced with Navajo communities, and certainly my family – nine women in my family are dead from nuclear testing. Half my family’s gone from the result of uranium mining predicated on the development of the atomic bomb. So it’s unthinkable to me. That’s how I’m feeling now.

We cannot look away. We’re watching cruelty become normalized, whether it’s at the Southern border or with the Endangered Species Act, or Charlottesville. On every front, it’s a grand assault.

So how do I feel now? I feel like we have to really, really work hard to make sure that this administration is voted out, mightily.

BIONEERS: Do you feel inspired by what you’re seeing in response?

TERRY: I certainly think that what had been hidden has been exposed. Trump is a symptom as well as a manifestation of our shadow side of this country that’s always been there, that is now being revealed. Certainly, the youth climate justice movement, the activism that we are seeing in terms of gun violence, I think we’re seeing deep engagement. But I don’t think that makes up for what is being lost, and the kind of cruelties that are being exacted, whether it’s on the border, or the gutting of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, or cutting Grand Staircase National Monument in half.

In our community in Castle Valley, there is a Japanese tea master. After the election, she offered to have a tea ceremony, and that’s what we did that night. It was so powerful to just sit as a community in silence and contemplate what had just happened, how we wanted to sit with this, and what we were going to do in these next four years, both as a community as well as citizens. That really set the tone for me.

BIONEERS: This divisiveness and the “shadow side” coming to light seems to have created a disintegration of the public conversation, of public dialogue. “Dialogue” may not even be the right word, because people are just sort of yelling at each other.

TERRY: I don’t even know what we do when the rule of law is not respected, when you realize that the open space of democracy has remained open out of decency and a respect of one’s word and integrity, and that is no longer. If you are sent a subpoena, it doesn’t matter. That’s what worries me, is that there is no democracy if there is no respect for the law. And I don’t know what that outcome will be, if that’s taken to its limit. We’ve never been here before.

That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about these past few years: the idea of erosion. We live in an erosional landscape. We have four directions that are deeply marked to the south, the LaSalle Mountains; to the north, the Colorado River running red, carrying the sediments of sandstone to the ocean; to the west, Porcupine Rim holding the last light of day; and to the east, Castleton Tower, this wonderful monolith of free-standing wingate sandstone that has a pulse. We live in an erosional landscape. It’s not unusual at night to hear what sounds like a bomb, and you realize one of the cliffs has fallen or a boulder has rolled.

Then I started thinking: How does erosion play out in our own lives? The erosion of democracy? The erosion of decency? The erosion of compassion? The erosion of belief, of the body, of time? And I really believe that we are eroding and evolving at once, and that’s not a bad thing. That erosion takes stone to its essence. We see the stratigraphy of deep time in the Grand Canyon through all of the different layers, even the Vishnu shifts three billion years of time. It’s hard for us to even comprehend that.

We, too, are eroding as a nation. And I hope that we will be weathered to our essence of what it means to be human at this moment in the climate crisis.

BIONEERS: What role do you feel that love – all of the different kinds of love – can play in bringing that about?

TERRY: I think everything I do has to do with love. If you talk to any activist or if we get to the heart of what it means to be a citizen engaged, it is about love – a love of justice, a love of equity, a love of fairness. And certainly the work that I’ve been doing regarding public lands is deeply about love – a love of place, a love of wildness, a love of other species. We’re not the only species that lives and breathes and grieves and loves on this planet.

We are all experiencing so much grief in terms of what is being lost, and the suffering that is occurring in real time, in real places. And grief is love.

I think about anger as also a sibling to grief. I’m constantly asking myself: How do I take my anger and transform it into sacred rage? What does that look like? Where do you take it? And if I’m honest, I think I write out of my anger often. But if you go deeper, I write out of my love and questions.

BIONEERS: Stepping back, how do you feel at this moment about the trajectory of your work, and writing and speaking? How have you grown through the process?

TERRY: I think it is an evolution. And certainly, with this last book, Erosion: Essays of Undoing, there’s no embroidery here. It’s raw. In many ways it’s dark. It’s an erosion of my own person, whether it was the loss of my job at the University of Utah based on a political act of purchasing oil and gas leases, or whether it was my brother’s death by suicide. He hung himself in 2018. Those are deeply, deeply erosional moments in my life.

I write to make sense of what I don’t understand. So this book, as I say, it’s raw, it’s real, it’s…I don’t remember ever writing so truly as I have here. In other books, I think I’ve been saved by the structure. I have a wild mind, and the structure holds that mind. But what you see is what you get in this latest collection, and I think that’s where we all are. We don’t have time to mess around, or to be clever, or to be metaphorical. Or at least I don’t. I just wanted to tell it straight and to tell it true, through story.

BIONEERS: You’ve talked about how you try to embrace paradox. What’s important to you about being able to do that? And could you share an example of when the need to do that became evident to you.

TERRY: Well, I know the tensions in my own life. What instantly came to my mind was a sentence I’d written years ago. It haunts me still: “The most radical act we can commit is to stay home.” I miss home. Right now, six months out of the year I’m teaching at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, which is an absolute privilege. I love it, and I love my students, and I love my colleagues, and I feel free, and I’m learning so much, especially how much I don’t know. But I’m away. And I’m 64 years old. I have never been away from home, meaning Utah, for more than four months at a time. I don’t know how to relate to New England, but I’m learning to embrace trees. I’m learning the names of black oak, red oak, white oak, and the different kinds of maples. I love the Mt. Auburn cemetery because it’s the wildest place in Cambridge, and there’s fox, and there’s birds. So you adapt.

But I have to wear those Lucy Carmichael glasses, those sleeping goggles or whatever they’re called, just to be able to have some darkness. There is no darkness in Boston or Cambridge. Where we live in Castle Valley, Utah, we have a writing studio that Brook and I share. It gets so dark at night there have been times where we’ve missed the studio altogether and walked a half mile to the road. It’s those kinds of paradoxes that my work brings.

The obvious paradox for me in my life is Great Salt Lake, a body of water in the desert that no one can drink, and yet it is such a life-giving source to millions of birds that circumnavigate the planet during spring and fall migrations. I think the paradoxes abound. Colorado River running red, that is dammed every inch of the way, and doesn’t even make its source by the time it gets to Mexico. Is that a paradox? I view it that way, that a free-flowing river should have its say at the end, the mouth, and it doesn’t. It’s silenced by development, by water rights, by dams.

BIONEERS: What would you say about the fact that we have this “erosion” of democracy, and at the same time, it is bringing forward such an enormous response?

TERRY: It’s interesting. And I do think that’s a great point: that we can hold contradictory emotions at once. We can hold a contradictory country at once. This is a time where rather than constricting ourselves and going inward, it’s actually a time to expand. We have to become larger as our country seems to be getting smaller in terms of its … I want to use the word “virtue.” We’re watching democracy collapse, and I think we, as citizens, have to be more expansive and responsive as a result.

BIONEERS: A lot of people are wanting to help, especially to end the detainment of asylum seekers who are crossing the borders. They’re asking, “Why is this still happening?” There’s a helplessness there.

TERRY: First of all, I think we have to vote. We need to make sure that we have fair elections, and I think that’s under real question right now.

I also feel that there’s a lot we can do around our own dinner tables with our families. I don’t know about you, but our family is all over the place politically. There are those that are rabid Democrats and progressives, there are those that are waiting for the revolution with their guns locked and loaded, who are Trump diehards, and then there are those that are moderates that are just waiting to see – won’t someone stand up to Trump? I think we have to have those hard conversations within our own families, within our own neighborhoods, within our own communities, and I think we can begin there to take down those walls that Fox News and MSNBC have set up.

BIONEERS: How do you feel that our undoing can be our emergence together?

TERRY: When I lost my job at the University of Utah, I was crushed. I was brokenhearted. I felt exiled, and I really participated in a real soul-searching time. Was it my fault? What didn’t I do? Was I irresponsible? I think as women, we always take that blame.

That was a time of undoing. And because Brook and I had saved enough money, I could take that time off for six months and just contemplate what had happened. I wanted to grieve. I wanted to reflect. And I wanted to think about: Where do I belong if I’m not in my own home?

What I realize now, looking back, is I thought I would be there forever, but my soul had other plans. Looking back at that moment, my undoing, it has now become part of my becoming. I could never have imagined the kind of expansion of mind and soul that I’m able to participate in now at the Divinity School. And I’m grateful. I think that’s a common story; when we lose a job, when our marriage dissolves, perhaps an illness, my brother’s suicide. When these things occur, I think about Shinran, the Japanese poet, who said: This happened. Now something else can occur. This happened in America. Now something else can occur. And that something else is up to us.

We have more power than we know.

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