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Know the West

How will humans live through ecological collapse?

In ‘Believers,’ Lisa Wells profiles ordinary people who want to lead less destructive lives.


“The end of the world” is a slippery concept; writing the phrase, I feel the need for quotes to avoid giving the impression that I can define it. It makes sense, then, that the ways we deal with the prospect of doomsday would vary. In Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World — the nonfiction debut of Lisa Wells, a poet and essayist living in Seattle — the author writes, “If we imagine that our civilization is already in collapse, the question we are faced with is this: How, then, shall we live?” Her book is a direct response to major ecological issues — increasing carbon emissions, declining biodiversity, thawing permafrost — but collapse is not really the focus; rather, it is “the backdrop, the central prophecy.”

Prolonged thinking about the apocalypse can inspire hefty, extensively researched books on how the crisis will affect our species and others (The Sixth Extinction and The Uninhabitable Earth among them). It can also plunge a writer into fatalism. But Wells merely edges up to the cliff, using her eco-anxiety and grief as a starting point to examine how  different people reckon with planetary catastrophe.

And yet, there are no survival bunkers or billionaire isolationists in this book. Instead, the Believers’ eight chapters introduce us to “relatively ordinary people” with a shared belief “that their inherited way of life was destructive.” Most of them are based in the Western United States. Wells spends time with Finisia Medrano, an itinerant transgender woman who traveled the Western backcountry by foot and horse for decades, living off the land and planting as she went. In the woods of northwest Oregon, Wells studies with a wildly impressive tracker named Fernando Moreira, whose attention to detail leads her to consider our habitual disconnection from the natural world. In New Mexico, she meets with a group of Mennonite rewilders. In Paradise, California, she discusses devastating wildfires and the role of humans in ecosystem restoration.

Finisia Medrano, left, at Lone Pine Ridge, Idaho.

Believers is digressive and its scope broad, the book’s many threads tied by Wells’ appraisal of environmental damage and repair. She’s largely successful in this intertwining, although some storylines are better executed than others. A chapter that fluctuates between a reconciliation ceremony in Taos, New Mexico, and a mental breakdown on a trip to Philadelphia feels off-kilter. (Sometimes, the language itself feels circular; while reading, I underlined a sentence that struck me. When the same sentence appeared 10 pages later, its repetition felt more accidental than intentional.) Still, Wells’ prose, rooted in her poetry, gives her a unique advantage when writing about living through this unstable moment in history, “feeling the tenuousness of all we take for granted.” 

“What does it mean, to ‘go back to the land’ in a country that was never yours?”

Some of Believers’ best moments involve Wells digging into the cultural delusions of the frontier, “the foundational myth of the American West.” The land that’s been taken was already inhabited, she reminds us; colonization is an ongoing process. Any examination of nature in America requires acknowledging this violence and its attendant fantasy of emptiness. “What does it mean,” she asks, “to ‘go back to the land’ in a country that was never yours?” This line of questioning undergirds her thinking on the limits of the environmental movement, which she weaves into this history through recollections of coming of age in the Pacific Northwest during the radical environmentalism of the 1990s. There are times when Wells appears uncomfortable as a memoirist — reticent about some difficult portions of her life — but, like the subjects she profiles, her memories ground Believers’ big questions in personal stakes.

She believes there’s still hope and real value in acting on behalf of future generations.

The current forecast indicates that climate change — a phrase I’ve avoided using until now, although you’ve likely been thinking of it all along — is destroying our chances of inhabiting the Earth long-term. Settler colonialists’ failure to understand the interrelationships between plants, animals and people set us on our current course. As Wells notes, edible gardens are thought to have once blanketed the West; game was abundant, salmon filled the rivers, and flocks of migrating birds were so thick that they sometimes darkened the sky for days. She is clear that there is no going back — “no return to innocence” — but she believes there’s still hope and real value in acting on behalf of future generations.

In the Sierra Nevada, Ron Goode, a North Fork Mono elder, gives Wells a tour of a hidden meadow he first sought to restore over 15 years ago. Walking with the assistance of a cane, he introduces Wells to the plants that he helped steward — black oaks and milkweed; yarrow and manzanita. Deer, bears, bobcats and birds have all become regular visitors to a patch of earth that was once choked with brush and illegally dumped garbage. Now it’s a biodiverse habitat for a growing number of species; Goode has found “his joy and his purpose,” his “ecological niche.” As Wells writes, “The span of a single human life is almost no time at all, and yet we can do so much to keep our world living.”

Andru Okun is a writer living in New Orleans. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.