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Know the West

Q & A: Terry Tempest Williams on erosion as an emotional state

The acclaimed author discusses how she hopes to help people find strength in these times.


“How do we survive our grief in the midst of so many losses in the living world, from white bark pines to grizzly bears to the decline of willow flycatchers along the Colorado River?” asks nature writer Terry Tempest Williams in her new book. “How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?”

Williams, the critically acclaimed author of Refuge, begins Erosion: Essays of Undoing with these challenging questions. Her lyric essays and poems chronicle her growing concern about the West’s changing landscapes — and changing politics.

Facing her own fears following the election of an anti-conservation president, Williams writes about coming to terms with a variety of losses, ranging from her brother’s suicide to the reduction of her beloved Bears Ears National Monument. At the same time, she’s determined to find a way to help people to move forward.

High Country News recently spoke with Williams by phone while she was at home in Utah’s Castle Valley, watching the sun rise over the nearby mountains. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Terry Tempest Williams.
Kwaku Alston/Contour RA by Getty Images

High Country News: What first inspired you to write this book?

Terry Tempest Williams: I think it’s where we are right now. This book, more than any I have written, is really grounded in the here and now. I live in an erosional landscape in Castle Valley, Utah. But I think it’s also the emotional, spiritual and political landscape where I’m dwelling. Erosion as a process of watching the landscape weather and be carried away through wind, water and time seems to run in parallel with the weathering and erosion of our own democracy.

Instead of the erosion of sandstone, I see the erosion of science, the erosion of truth and facts, the erosion of public comment regarding public policies, the erosion of decency and compassion, belief, integrity, and the weathering and overall breaking down of the political landscape in the United States of America, including the erosion of the rule of law.

When you see the (Bureau of Land Management) is moving their office to Grand Junction, I think they have a sharp eye on selling our public lands into private hands. When you see the rapidity and the numbers of oil and gas sales occurring on our public lands, adjacent to our national monuments and national parks, it is urgent. It’s requiring us to come forward in dynamic and creative ways to stop this assault (on public lands).

HCN: Which climate change effects on the American West really keep you up at night?

TTW: Well, drought, for one. Last year, Castle Valley was so dry, the Colorado River was so low, it was terrifying.

The other thing that keeps me up at night is what we’re seeing around the world, with people searching for another place to live because of rising seas, drought or political instability, which I think follows climate change.

HCN: When you heard that President Trump planned to drastically reduce the size of Bears Ears, what was your first response?

TTW: My first response was outrage. My second response is: What can we do? Engagement is to me a way of taking that anger and turning it into action.

The photographer Fazal Sheikh and I put together a pamphlet we called “Exposure.” We knew there would be a protest in Salt Lake City, and that different organizations and thousands of citizens would convene at the state Capitol, and we wanted to have something we could pass out, almost in the tradition of Camus during the French Resistance. The pamphlet offers an explanation of Bears Ears, with the proclamation from President Obama about what this monument means.

HCN: In the book, you included an extended interview with Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who served a prison term for thwarting a public-land auction in southern Utah. Do you think we need more civil disobedience like that today?

TTW: I think we need everything. I think each of us needs to really search our soul and ask, “What is my gift? What can I contribute to my community, wherever we live?” In this time where it’s easy to wonder, “How can we live with this kind of despair,” I think despair shows us the limits of our imagination.

HCN: Your book also includes a couple of poems interspersed between the essays. Do you feel you can communicate some things better with poetry?

TTW: I do, because I think it’s lean. And these are lean times. I think so often we don’t have the words. What I love about poetry is that the spaces between the lines say as much as the lines themselves, which is what I continue to learn in the desert. It’s the stillness that mentors me. It’s the silences that inspire me in a world where there’s so much noise and distraction.  

Ramin Skibba is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist based in San Diego. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor