Is the Earth Not Enough?: An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams

In this interview, nonfiction MFA candidate Rachel Rueckert spoke to Terry Tempest Williams about her upcoming essay collection, Erosion: Essays of Undoing. In Erosion, Williams explores her connection to the American West, particularly her home state of Utah, as evolutionary process and how our undoing—of the self, self-centeredness, extractive capitalism, fear, tribalism—can also be our becoming, creating room for change and progress.

Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks; Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; Finding Beauty in a Broken World; and When Women Were Birds, among other books. Her work is widely taught and anthologized around the world. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is currently the Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School and divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Castle Valley, Utah.

I understand that this collection was written between 2016 and 2018, turbulent years for this country and critical for vulnerable places like Bears Ears National Monument. Two years struck me as quite quick given the ambitious essays and the amount of material. How did the process of writing this compare to some of the many other books you have written such as Refuge and When Women Were Birds?

Each book I have written, be it memoir or a collection of essays, finds its own rhythm and structure to hold the weight of its ideas. With Refuge (1991), I was holding the question, “How do we find refuge in change?” Great Salt Lake was flooding, much of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge was underwater, and my mother Diane Dixon Tempest had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Refuge charted the process of these intertwining stories into a chronicle of change and transformation. It took seven years to write—from 1983 to 1990.

When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice (2012) could be viewed as a sequel to Refuge written twenty years later. I found myself in a health crisis wishing I could talk to my mother—and then I retrieved what I had chosen to bury—the painful truth of what my mother had left me after she died: three shelves of journals, all of them blank. Why? This book became an interrogation as to my mother’s intent. Was it an act of defiance, protest, or an encouragement to fill them as she could not? This book came quickly, written out of a white-hot flame to understand the mystery of my mother’s empty journals—asking me to consider what it means to have a voice, how do we find it, how do we lose it, and how do we retrieve it once again, all the while committing ourselves as women to speak the truth. There are consequences.

With Erosion: Essays of Undoing (2019), these essays were born out of witness, heartbreak, and love. The choice to not look away. I live in an erosional landscape in the heart of the Colorado Plateau (in southeastern Utah) where red rock spires, buttes and mesas, arches and stair-step canyons define the landscape shaped by wind, water, and time. Essays at the front of the book commemorate the anniversaries of the Wilderness Act (1964) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). These are visionary laws created through congressional legislation to protect wild lands and wild lives. These laws, like the land itself, are under siege, being eroded by the current administration who continue to confuse capitalism with democracy. Other essays in the middle of the book focus on the supremacy of the fossil fuel industry that is ravaging these fragile desert lands on the edges of our national parks and monuments. And I wanted the reader to see this erosion of democracy in the extreme with the gutting of Bears Ears National Monument by Donald Trump in 2017. President Barack Obama had established the monument on December 28, 2016. He listened to the pleas of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition who spoke of these lands as being sacred, home to the bones of their ancestors, where their ceremonies are performed and medicines held. It was a handshake across history. Donald Trump ruptured this act of trust. Now these sacred lands are open to fossil fuel development and coal and uranium mining.

Thank you for writing this book and for inspiring more awareness. It comes at an urgent time. At what point did you realize you were writing a full essay collection? Was there an igniting moment or a particular essay that sparked the whole?

When I looked at the essays I had been writing over the past few years, I realized I was writing not only from the vantage point of living in an erosional landscape, but that we as a nation were experiencing another kind of erosion: an erosion of democracy, an erosion of decency, an erosion of belief, even an erosion of the self and the body. Our bodies are intrinsically connected to the Earth. The first two sections of the book create the backdrop for Erosion, the last two sections focus on our undoing (personally, politically, and spiritually) leading us to the possibility of becoming stronger than we have imagined. Some may view this as a dark book. I don’t see it that way. The essays build, they may seem repetitive at times, but that is the truth of environmental degradation, it keeps happening over and over again. Working with Native People, especially within the community of Utah Diné Bikéyah, I watched what authentic leadership looks like—how it can no longer be about anger, but healing; how we must go deeper. It is in this context of leadership and love that we can find the strength to not look away.

I was pleased to see your 2018 Ingersoll Lecture called “The Liturgy of Home” at Harvard Divinity School made its way into various essays in this collection. In the letters to your father, you express that it is difficult (feels like “exile”) to be away from Utah, but that being out east has also allowed you to drink, “more deeply from the fountain of knowledge and inspiration than I have ever known.” How did living between Castle Valley, Utah and Cambridge, Massachusetts as a Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School shape this book?

Would you believe me, Rachel, if I told you that I have never been away from home in the American West for more than three or four months? So to move to Cambridge for a full academic year (and I am now in my third year at the Harvard Divinity School), it has given me a much sharper view of my home ground in Utah. I feel free in Cambridge, intellectually, spiritually, and have found a deeply supportive community here. But the homesickness never leaves me, and that fueled the essays in the last half of Erosion, beginning with the letters to my father. And so the title of my Ingersoll Lecture, “The Liturgy of Home,” became quite literal through this essay collection. 

And when I have returned home, which has been between semesters, spring break, and the summer, I see where we dwell with fresh eyes and my heartbreak for all that is being destroyed breaks deeper and wider allowing me to feel the injustices more acutely to Native People and the land.

I appreciate the phrase, “sharper focus,” especially as someone who also hails from Utah and has lived on the East Coast for the past seven years. I’m also curiousin your preface, you say that, “When everything feels like it is coming apart, the art of assemblage feels like a worthy pastime.” The ordering of the essays seems largely chronological with four sections and a powerful coda at the end. Can you talk about how you conceptualized the different sections and say more about your decision to include many different kinds of forms—essays, interviews, letters, op-eds, poems, pleas, hybrids, etc.?

Erosion begins with a map designed by the wonderful cartographer Ross Donihue. It tells a visual story of shifting political boundaries: tribal lands, federal or public lands, state lands and national parks and monuments. The reader can visualize where the essays are placed within the Four Corners Area in the American Southwest. The essays build on one another, becoming an accumulation of images, poems, stories, laws, opinion pieces, letters, interviews, pleas and the book ends with the trial of Willie Grayeyes, asking us to consider what it means to dwell in place.

I see this book as a kaleidoscope, a turning of the hand on the page with each accruing essay made more vivid by sequential shards of experience that together attempt to create a more compelling whole. I wanted readers unfamiliar with public lands who live in other parts of the country and the world to not only be able to imagine what is happening in Utah and the Colorado Plateau, but also to begin to translate the degradation of this place to the ecological and cultural losses of every place. Erosion is a howl coming from all directions. Perhaps a reader has not encountered the plight of the sage grouse before or the pronghorn trapped within the confines of the oil patches in Pinedale, Wyoming. But after reading about them, perhaps they will become more aware and inclined to care why the Endangered Species Act matters to the soul of America, both human and wild. I want to create a space for the reader between the covers of this book where they can embrace their grief. Perhaps, after reading the conversation between my beloved brother Dan and me, they will be able to retrieve and recall their own difficult conversations and how isolation kills, how suicide rates are escalating, and that what is required of us is engagement in all its forms. I wanted the book to be a model for different forms of engagement on the page and in the world.

I’m taking a course with Wendy Walters called “Writing the Anthropocene.” We discuss the danger of having a single narrative about climate change, especially the single-note despair narrative of “it’s too bad” that strips people of accountability or even courage to face the realities. Though the glaring facts require everyone’s immediate attention and action, we’ve talked about the importance of writers in this space and the need for imagination. This collection tells a story with many more notes ranging from outrage to hope to grief to reverence for an undoing process that is also “our becoming.” In the book, you ask, “how do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?” You later ask, “As a writer, must I write a hopeful story? Or an evolving one?” I would love to hear your answers. How do you write into this pain to illuminate facts while preserving imagination? How do you put pen to paper in the midst of despair?

I honestly don’t know, Rachel. I just keep trying to live and love with a broken heart. The world remains so beautiful in the midst of the sorrows and terrors that surround us. And I am very aware of my white privilege. Even so, collectively, I believe we are eroding and evolving at once within this planetary moment—together.

I write because it’s the only thing I know how to do. Writing is my path toward understanding. It is my attempt to make order out of chaos. I see each essay as an offering in the name of community. We never get it right, but we can begin an honest conversation: This is what I saw, this is what I felt, this is what scares me, can you share with me your experiences, as well? Writing is a stay against loneliness. It makes me feel less crazy and alone in the world. It is, at times, my own quiet act of civil disobedience. I write out of my anger into my peace. My words are always ahead of me, they show me where I need to go. It’s why I love to read—to follow a wiser voice than my own.

Grief is love. A grief shared is a grief endured. When I am fully present, I am alive to the situation at hand—no matter how beautiful or difficult or both. I believe when we find the strength to not look away, but to “stay with the troubles,” we access an inner power that rises out of the act of witness. To be present. To care. To understand. When we feel the pain of another, we connect with a life force beyond our own. That, to me, is the definition of joy. What is behind me, what is ahead of me, is secondary to what is within me at that particular moment. This I trust. There is courage in the sustained focus of a life engaged. To not look away—to not walk away. And if we must turn and leave, we can honor the courage of that gesture, as well.

Thank you for those wonderful thoughts. I also observed throughout this collection many instances of highlighting artists working with different mediums: a Plexiglas cutting called The Escalade Project by Michael Namingha, a circle of antelope skulls called The Council of Pronghorn by Ben Roth, ephemeral art by Alisha Anderson, and others. Can you talk more about the decision to feature other artists? How has community been vital to you in the creation of your own work?

I am aware of the limitations of words as a writer. I believe in the generative power of collaboration. Imaginations shared create community and in community anything is possible. And I am constantly inspired by the work of artists, how they not only see the world, but respond visually, physically, in real time and space. Artists create an embodied vision through their intelligence and fierce intuition. They make things. What is most personal can become the most universal. Artists pay attention to historical moments. They translate. They transgress. They transmit and transform. Artists create pilgrimages out of space: a painting on a wall becomes a window; an installation is an unknown world we can enter. Artists can also take me into ritualistic space. Within the Council of Pronghorn, we can dance. Artists can evoke and provoke, at once. They make us uncomfortable, offer us visceral experiences beyond words, beyond what is rational or understood. Sensations. We feel something. We are stretched. As a writer working with other artists—sculptors, painters, photographers, land artists and musicians—I can be part of something I could never have imagined alone. 1 +1 = 3. Call it the creative third. I want to be in the service of that third thing.

In our world today, what do you think is the role of the artist? 

To create beauty in a broken world. 

To provoke and evoke what is hidden, what is feared.

To make the invisible visible.

To stand outside of the status quo. 

To care. To not care. 

To own their power and yet, not be owned.

To be honest. To be true. 

To transgress.

To love the process more than the outcome.

To share what it means to be human.

To keep working.

Beautifully said. What advice would you give artists—be it painters or sculptors or writers—seeking to give voice or bear witness to the process of erosion, be it the personal, the spiritual, the political, or the land itself?

Trust yourself—what you know and what you don’t know.

Respect what you do.

Stretch yourself.

Do what scares you.

Embrace grief and create from that place, understanding it is the shadowside of love.

Stay awake. Stay curious. Honor strangeness. Embrace joy in the vitality of the struggle.

And foster, support and create community in the process.

Don’t take yourself so seriously, but take your work and the weather very seriously.

Keep working.

Hands on the Earth, remember the source of all things.

Look up.

Thank you for sharing this wisdom, and congratulations on completing such a beautiful, important book. What projects or efforts are you pursuing next?

Thank you, Rachel. I have appreciated the depth and breadth of your questions. I am working with the photographer Fazal Sheikh on an ongoing exploration of “Exposure” within the American Southwest in collaboration with Utah Diné Bikéyah. The essay, “BOOM!” came out of this collective in response to President Donald J. Trump’s gutting of Bears Ears National Monument. We are interrogating the incursions of human disturbances on the landscape and the beauty and terror of what remains.

My own personal inquiry at the Harvard Divinity School is focused on “The Constellation Project” in collaboration with the Planetary Health Alliance. We are bringing the disciplines and discourses of science and religion together as we examine the spiritual implications of climate change as it corresponds to the health of our communities both human and wild.

Photo by Zoe Rodriguez shared with permission by the author and publisher.

About the author

Rachel Rueckert is a nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia.

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