I appreciated nothing of this country, the actual landscape, until high school, when a friend introduced me to the Southwest via a book called The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Ed Abbey. In it, the land is essentially one of the characters. With that, my days out east were numbered -- as were my days of ignoring the land.
Years later I finally made it to Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and like Abbey (who came from Pennsylvania), I was smitten. But what I saw wasn't what he described in The Monkey Wrench Gang or his classic memoir Desert Solitaire -- far from it.
About that time, I began writing book reviews. Refuge, by a Utah naturalist named Terry Tempest Williams, was one of the first. Writing from another part of the Beehive State than her friend Abbey, in and around Salt Lake City, this "unnatural history of family and place" knocked my socks off, and remains one of my favorites. Here's a bit from my 1992 review:
"... the most powerful book I've read in a very long time. We who consider ourselves environmentalists too often get lost in hand-wringing and abstract thinking, and forget about simple compassion. Terry Tempest Williams remembers. (She) knows the joy of life and the pain of death... she also knows of the joy of death and the pain of life, and writes about each with love and amazing grace."
Terry (if I may; she sent a note of thanks for the review(!), so I guess we're buds) has a new collection called Erosion: Essays of Undoing. Readers may recall that I really liked her previous book, The Hour of Land. Erosion is, if anything, even better. Harking back in many ways to Refuge, exploring family and place, land and loss, wilderness, politics, and history, the thirty-three essays of Erosion are framed by various taxonomies of undoing. But, despite the title, it's not a gloomy collection -- the opposites of erosion run throughout, sometimes subtly, building hope, empathy, and new perspectives as surely as erosion builds new landscapes.
Birds migrate through as well, as is often the case in her writings, and pronghorn and tortoises and prairie dogs. And, though powerfully grounded in her home state, she gets around. She visits Nebraska's Platte River to experience the sandhill crane migration, as everyone must. She serves as a writer in residence in Wyoming, and joins the massive 2015 climate protest in Paris. She frolics with sea lions in the waters of the Galapagos, and watches polar bears in Alaska.
Her experiences are not just described; they serve as springboards to surprising and empathetic journeys of all sorts. As she says while watching the sandhill cranes from a riverside shelter, "I am the pupil of the bird blind, an eye squinting for insight beyond my own kind." Apparently, crane music can encourage winning (and rhyming) triple-entendres.
As I finished nearly every essay, I thought "That is such a great essay," and then the next one surpassed it. A couple, though, really stood out: her interview with the peerless activist Tim DeChristopher, and one called "My Beautiful Undoing: Erosion of Self," which kinda erodes your ability to breathe. Oh, and I liked the surprise ending of "The Council of Pronghorn," too.
Riffing on Darwin while in the Galapagos, she asks, “What if the survival of the fittest is the survival of compassion?” That question is being sorely tested in this age of climate crisis, as she makes clear. In the latter parts of the book, in rather personal explorations of the erosion of fear and the erosion of belief, Terry Tempest Williams’ compassion again comes to the fore. She is a survivor, and we are all better for it.
Don’t let Erosion slide by.
Postscript: To bring it 'round to where I started, last year was the 50th anniversary of Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire. Desert rats will be interested in knowing that the excellent Amy Irvine celebrated by writing Desert Cabal, in which she holds a one-sided conversation with Abbey (who died in 1989), brings him into the 21st century, and sets him straight. It's funny, serious, spot on, and overdue. Well worth reading.
-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.