did not finish: Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams

I stopped at page 238 of 314, in my galley copy, but that’s three quarters of the book, and I feel warranted to share my reactions. This was to have been a Shelf Awareness review, but I had too many concerns about this book. And you must know how it pains me to criticize a writer I love; but I have to say honestly that this book does not live up to her best work.

Erosion: Essays of Undoing is a collection of Williams’s work in the last few years, in the disturbing times of Trump, concerned in particular with the decimation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments (but of course all of the disturbing trends we’re seeing). In the spirit and style of Williams as many of us have come to know and love her, she reacts: with pain, with home, with spirituality, with connection, with often lovely writing. But in many ways, Erosion falls short.

For one thing, there are several ways to put together an essay collection, and this one feels clearly like a gathering up of published work of the last several years, putting them into a certain order and stapling them at the corners. There is an enormous amount of redundant information here: in particular, the signing of the two National Monuments into existence by Obama and their undoing by Trump are explicated a number of times in very few pages, and in similar wording. This feels really lazy. I just recently put together my MFA thesis, sort of a memoir-in-essays, and those essays started out with quite a bit of redundancy; I spent months reworking them to be sure they flowed smoothly and didn’t restate; my thesis advisor worked me pretty hard, because we had high standards for that product, which is just a little ol’ MFA thesis that maybe no one will ever read. I certainly intend to hold Williams to the same standard. I think it shows a lack of respect for her readership to throw this collection together like this. The inclusion of several poems, and an interview with Tim DeChristopher, could certainly have worked in a more carefully put together book, but here they feel haphazardly inserted, as if trying to make a certain page count.

The Williams style can be a little vague and mystical; I have a lower tolerance for (shall we say) the woo-woo than some readers, but in the past she’s made it work for me – beautifully, in fact – in the right proportions and with the right subject matter. In those successful books, she earns it with a careful attention to her surroundings, a quiet, humble voice that I read as an authority on her subjects. Here, that signature style failed to perform. I think it’s in part because this book is much more polemic, timely, policy-related; the vagueness doesn’t resonate as wisdom but rather feels like a shortcoming. I marked the line “Scientists credit the ESA for saving 227 species from going extinct,” wondering which scientists and when they said it; but with no bibliography or footnotes, I regret that this author loses some credibility.

An essay about her losing her job was revealing in a few ways. To sum up: in an act of civil disobedience, Williams purchased at auction the oil and gas leasing rights to a plot of public land. Shortly thereafter she was fired from her longtime position at the University of Utah, which she feels was politically motivated (and it makes a lot of sense to me that it was), although that is denied. The university, she says, claims “I was making too much money for doing too little compared to teaching fellows who were teaching several classes a semester, something like that.” It’s the “something like that” that got under my skin; it felt dismissive of the teaching fellows, and dismissive of the concern that the university may need to spend its limited funds (or didn’t you know that education funding is decimated these days, Terry?) on teaching hours rather than the author’s pet project (which I’m sure is a fine one, certainly). She goes on to claim that being asked to teach out of a classroom with four walls, and have field trips approved rather than happen at her whim, felt like a “straitjacket.” This strikes me as a bit shrill, and feels like the voice of privilege: a longstanding professor who is used to going outside the rulebook is appalled that she is being asked to at least start from a classroom. It’s a the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me sort of attitude which I think makes her case much less sympathetic.

From here we learn that, having lost her job, the narrator is interested in selling more articles and essays for publication to make a little income while she figures things out; and this was an aha! moment for me. Aha! Terry Tempest Williams sees that, with her name, she can sell a book of collected essays, a few poems, and an interview, many (all?) of them previously published, without massaging them into place or editing them at all. I see the book in my hands taking shape.

I can see now that Williams’s oldest books have worked best for me, and more recently they fall a little short. You know that my admiration for Pieces of White Shell continues. I had begun to think that maybe my criticism of this book came from my recent time in a writing program, that I was too quick to see where sentences, paragraphs, whole essays needed further editing. But I taught from Pieces of White Shell within the last year, and I’ve read and admired other books recently; it’s not like I’m impossible to please. I’m even forgiving of a few weak lines here and there, because none of us is perfect (although not all of us have access to the editing teams at FSG’s Sarah Crichton Books, either).

There’s something else I noted here that I don’t think counts as a vote against Williams, but it’s something I want to remember for clarification’s sake: I (and perhaps others) had been thinking of Williams as an environmental writer for the U.S., but that’s not right. She’s really about her own region, and not the rest of the country. I think this accounts for part of my concern with The Hour of Land, that she was so hard on Gettysburg and mostly stuck to the west. It’s normal, I believe, for us to have regional loyalties; no one can know a place as big as this country as well as they can know their own backyard. But be clear: Williams is not here for the Pacific Northwest, or Appalachia, or the Midwest or the South or, or – she’s here for the desert Southwest, her homeland and her love. Nothing wrong with that. But I need to remember it and not get confused.

I know I’ve been harsh here. Maybe it’s hard to be let down by an author I’ve admired; maybe I’m harder on her than a new reader would be, because I’m holding her to the high standard of her earlier work as it affected me. It’s hard to see our heroes fall. But this book struck me as lazy, and Williams’s narrative voice as increasingly self-referential and unaware of privilege. I’m disappointed.

On the other hand, of course, her heart is still very much in the right place as far as I’m concerned (although our regional focuses are different), and I have a sense of nostalgia for a voice I recognize. I only wish I didn’t feel like she were phoning it in.


Rating: 5 pronghorns.

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