Because we see only part of the process during our lifetimes, erosion may remind us of chalk cliffs and gentle hills. But in its original etymology, erosion comes down to us from the Latin ex-rodere, which literally translates as “gnaw away.” The Latin inflects the word with the sound of teeth picking at a bone or the grinding sensation of summer cicadas. It implies an active agent, and in Terry Tempest Williams’ essay collection, “Erosion,” those agents are human greed and need for immediate gratification as years of protective policies toward wildlife and wilderness are being undone.
Those familiar with Williams’ previous work know that one of her strengths is her ability to write about the minute specifics of a particular ecosystem while conveying universal truths about the human condition. And while a significant number of these essays are about the environmental damage that is the direct result of political decisions, she also writes here about the ways in which individual lives wear away.
She recounts new acts of environmental activism undertaken by her and her husband, Brooke Williams, including their participation in an auction of leasing rights of public land by the Bureau of Land Management as well as protests and legal action. Williams also writes of people worldwide, young and old, who are fighting to save the planet even as we teeter on the brink of irreversible climate change.
But the greatest erosion that Williams documents is the toll that environmental destruction wreaks in individual lives. In particular, she writes in heartbreaking language of the suicide of her older brother, Dan, in July 2018. Before his death, he had sent his sister a series of texts in which he discussed his struggles with mental illness and his fears that the undoing of decades of environmental regulations in the past few years meant that there was no hope left.
“It’s time to exit,” he wrote. “Face it, sis. It’s time to let me go, time to let it all go.”
As Williams did in previous works such as “Refuge” and “When Women Were Birds” — in which she wrote of the women in her family and their experiences of reproductive cancers — she weaves together personal experiences with the larger world in order to produce shattering emotional truths. In the introduction to this latest collection of disparate essays, her stated goal is to assemble a collage of seemingly random facts, experiences and reflections in order to produce a work that reflects a whole comprising fragments. She delivers on that promise by creating something permanent and beautiful in the face of wanton destruction.
Erosion: Essays of Undoing By: Terry Tempest Williams. Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 316 pages, $27.
Lorraine Berry is a Florida-based writer and book critic.