Before Diane Dixon Tempest, a Utah woman and a mother of four, died at age 54 of ovarian cancer, she told her eldest child — environmental activist and climate-justice writer Terry Tempest Williams — where to find her private journals. Tempest made her daughter promise not to seek out those diaries until after she passed away.
Following her mom’s death, Williams found the journals — shelves full of them. She opened one; it was blank. So was the next. And the next. All of them, in fact, were full of empty pages.
“Why did she leave those for me?” ponders Williams, 64, speaking on the phone from her home in Castle Valley, Utah. “It remains a mystery. Was she saying she was so busy living her life, she didn’t have time to write about it? Was she saying, ‘Fill them up, because I couldn’t?’”
Those speculations became creative fuel for Williams, who has closely linked (through her own assiduous chronicling) her life with passionate, public defiance of a ravenous fossil fuel industry in the United States. That defiance underscores all of her new collection, “Erosion: Essays of Undoing.”
“Erosion,” Williams’ first book since 2015’s “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks,” is a broad survey of everything that wears away and eventually disappears — and not just geologically.
“We live in an erosional landscape,” says Williams. “If you and I were having a cup of coffee in my living room, to the south we’d see the La Sal Mountains, shrouded in snow. To the north, you have the Colorado River, running red with the sediments of the canyons. To the west, the last light of day, you have Porcupine Rim. To the east, with the rising sun, you have Castleton Tower with The Priest and Nuns, eroded rock formations. It’s a dramatic landscape, a dynamic place.
“When you live in a place of erosion, it’s easy to translate that to our own lives. Whether it’s an erosion of democracy we’re seeing right now, or of our belief in science, of decency. An erosion of trust from Native tribes in the United States government. Of President Trump signing an executive order to gut Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, a year after President Obama established it.”
The book also concerns the erosion of mind and commitment, in essays about the death by suicide of Williams’ brother, Dan, and about the University of Utah’s undermining of her 12-year-old environmental humanities graduate program. The latter was praised as an immersive model that took students out into the wilderness, a practice suddenly deemed an insurance risk for the school in 2016.
Williams, confronted with a steep drop in salary at the university, believes pressure from oil companies in the state was behind an effort to drive her out. She and her husband, Brooke, had recently bought the lease to 1,120 acres of Utah land, auctioned off for drilling rights. The couple intended to keep the oil in the ground as an act of defiance. Williams’ father, who spent his career laying pipelines, warned that Big Oil would “destroy her” for the protest.
Williams is currently writer-in-residence at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Erosion” covers a lot of ground, from Williams’ fervent support of the federal government’s Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act to the plights of Rwanda’s gorillas, the vanishing of polar bears and fishing villages as ice melts in the Arctic Circle, the high mortality rate of babies exposed to toxins released by fracking, and how a confrontational state senator from Wyoming, Kit Jennings, pivoted from a fierce defense of fossil fuels at a public forum to telling the all-too-human story of his childhood impoverishment.
The book takes readers from one emotional extreme to another — from the joys of encountering life in the Galápagos Islands to the helplessness many Americans feel about the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protections. How does Williams deal with moments of her own despair?
“There are days I find it hard to get up in the morning,” she says. “But in that moment, I’m aware of the limits of my imagination. And imagination leads to collaboration, and community is born. I believe that in communities, anything is possible.
“In many ways, ‘Erosion’ is a book about communities. That’s where my faith is. What we can do together, with open hearts and minds, how we take care of each other. So I don’t live in despair very long, because I know what the antidote is. It’s going out in beautiful country, taking heart in literature and art, and knowing family and friends.”
Perhaps not all of these will eventually erode away.
“Erosion: Essays of Undoing” by Terry Tempest Williams, Sarah Crichton Books, 336 pp., $27
Author appearance: Terry Tempest Williams will discuss “Erosion” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, at the Seattle Public Library’s Central branch, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle, spl.org