Terry Tempest Williams has been enchanting us with her poetic visions, activating our senses to the wonders all around us, and opening our hearts to the passion which we must bring to protecting the natural world and its fierce beauty against all those who are savaging her.
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks was her last book and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place was her first. In between are recommendations to savor the erotic landscape, tributes to mentors who have stirred her soul, a soul stretching memoir, reverent meditations on the desert, a call to become spiritual activists, an exploration of the connections between creativity and brokenness, and a touching probe on the meanings of the good heart.
Williams is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and currently is the Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School. She is profiled in S&P's Living Spiritual Teachers Project In the preface to this book, the award-winning author focuses on the erosion of the land, home, self, the body, and the body politic.
She calls this collection of essays, written between 2012 and 2019, "a gathering of stories, poems, and pleas in the name of an emotional landscape sculpted by wind, water, and time." She also refers to it as "a book of questions" which takes us to a paradoxical place — one where "our undoing is also our becoming."
We have decided not to do a conventional review of Erosion but to open the book up to you with seven fetching, prophetic, and thought-provoking passages. We've long thought that everyone should read Terry Tempest Williams, and these paragraphs will no doubt make our case! Her probes are followed by our own musings.
Eroding and Evolving
"What is real, given what we know? I trust what I see — in an erosional landscape such as this, weathering agents are real: water freezes and shatters stone; rocks fall from the force of gravity; new rapids appear in rivers. Storms gather and floods roar through dry washes, cutting and scouring a wider channel and changing the course of water. Perhaps this is what is happening to us — we are being worn down to our essence as we are forced to change course."
Extreme weather is wearing us down and challenging us to acknowledge that we are not in the director's seat. The sometimes totally destructive forces of nature are demolishing our homes and the places we cherish. And in this process, we are being asked to act humbly and change course.
Forests and mountain ranges can no longer be just majestic places to visit; they must become the birth-places for what we have yet to imagine. At one point, Williams suggests that she has made the following phrase her daily mantra: "We are eroding and evolving, at once."
Step to the Side
"The other day, I was eye-to-eye with a Galapagos tortoise that had spent three months walking from the top of the volcano down to the sea to lay her eggs at night on the island of Isabela. In the slow, deliberate nature of her world, she upholds twelve million years of perfection. Beauty is the origin of wonder. What enables her to live eighteen months without food or water? Does a fast predicated by drought or famine become spiritual? What can we do for the tortoise? Step to the side. Give her the right-of-way. Kneel."
Passages like this one spotlight the spiritual practice of reverence in Terry Tempest Williams's writings. She enables us to open our eyes wide and to marvel at the wonders of nature. A tortoise is a tortoise and a symbol of something more. With her closing creative images, we are reminded that care must be taken for these amazing creatures lest they too find themselves on the Endangered Species list.
What Dark Places Offer
"But I think that what no one tells you is, if you go into that dark place, you do come out the other side, you know? If you can go into that darkest place, you can emerge with a sense of empathy and empowerment. But it's not easy, and there is the real sense of danger that we may not move through our despair to a place of illumination, which for me is the taproot of action. . . .
"You know, there's a Syrian myth of going into the underworld, and when you emerge, you come out with what they call 'death eyes' — eyes turned inward. I had been given 'death eyes.' I had been changed. I had a deeper sense of suffering but I also felt a deeper sense of joy."
Spiritual teachers such as like Jesus, Rumi, Gandhi, King, and others all went to dark places and came back as activists. What they learned in the wilderness extinguished the ego so they experienced both an inner and an outer transformation. They saw the world afresh through "death eyes."
Commitment to the Enduring Power of Earth
"Remove our national parks and wildlands from the United States and what remains? An intolerable and lonely self-constructed worth without the wisdom and beauty of a landscape much wiser than we are. We need human endeavor and intelligence, but we also need the intelligences of the wild — the millennial authority of redwood trees, the forbearance of bison, and the lyrical sermon of the wood thrush at dawn. Can we extend freedom to all living things? And in so doing, save ourselves from the folly of our own ambitions?"
To walk through California's Sequoia National Park is to take a pilgrimage as your eyes scan upwards to the tops of the trees standing tall in all their glory. A tour guidebook tells us that a tree still growing here was alive during the time Jesus of Nazareth.
These ancient trees possess wisdom, beauty, and mystery. All the more reason to honor them and be grateful for their majestic stature and endurance. Standing beneath them we feel very small indeed.
Stories and Rituals Needed
"In the aftermath of the seismic shift in American politics and all its ramifications for land, wildlife, borders, clean air, clean water, and all that is at stake with a warming planet, we tell stories. We tell stories that remind us we will resist and insist that our communities be built upon the faith we have in each other, as it always has been — and, most important, upon the faith we have in these lands that have shaped us. We anticipate, we plan, we caress our dreams, even as we fight for a civilized society in the midst of a violent overthrow of democracy and decency. . . .
"On our public lands, daily acts of respect must be practiced with the precision and attentive gestures of a tea ceremony. There, what the right hand does and what the left hand does is as mindful as an unceasing prayer rising upward like the slow swirling smoke from a fire circle burning in the desert."
Williams is convinced that the drastic political, social and economic changes taking place in America require a revival of interest in stories affirming our faith in community. Our yearning for more connection with the land that shaped us can be satisfied by rituals. Here is one to try: If you listen carefully, you can hear the cries and laments of your land. In what ways is your place suffering?
Belief Is Tricky
"Belief is tricky. One day I do. One day I don't. Believe. But there are things I believe that have never wavered. My belief in God is not one of those.
"Not long ago, I made a list, my attempt to address this question: 'Do I believe in God?'
It went like this:
God as an old white man with a beard — No
God as human — No
God as a being — No
God as energy — Yes
God as consequential — Don't know
God without definition — Yes
God as a creative force in the universe — Yes
God as natural processes in motion — Yes
God as evolution — Yes
God as gravity — Yes
God as love — Yes
God as forgiveness — Yes
God as beauty — Yes
God as a no and a yes — Maybe
God as wrathful and merciful – Perhaps — This one scares me.
God as mystery — Most certainly"
Our experiences, ideas, images, beliefs and feelings about God change along with us as we journey through life.
There are thousands of ways to describe the Divine. Williams models one way — making a list of images that we believe in and those we just don't. We can learn a lot about ourselves through such an exercise. Try it.
Coming To a Deeper Understanding of Where I Dwell
"I can never encompass the totality of my place of residence as a writer or as a citizen, but I can come to a deeper understanding of where I dwell
through the diversity of stories of the people, the plants, and the animals that live there.
"To know one place is to recognize every place as familiar."
Terry Tempest Williams has been a great spiritual teacher for all of us. We often take for granted the place where we live. We forget that the land we walk upon is sacred. To get to know the place again, or perhaps for the first time, requires consecration and an act of imagination. That is where stories serve us well.
The Kind of People the Planet Needs
" 'The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people,' David Orr writes. 'But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places.It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane.' "
Reflect on this: What other kinds of people does the planet need? Are you one of them? List some habit changes that will help you to live well in your place. What are you willing to do to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane?