Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams
Photo Credit: Zoë Rodriguez

Terry Tempest Williams has been called “a citizen writer,” a writer who speaks and speaks out eloquently on behalf of an ethical stance toward life. A naturalist and fierce advocate for freedom of speech, she has consistently shown us how environmental issues are social issues that ultimately become matters of justice. Her most recent book is Erosion: Essays of Undoing, a collection of wide-ranging essays that explore the many forms of erosion we face: of democracy, science, compassion, and trust. She is also the author of the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert; The Open Space of Democracy; Finding Beauty in a Broken World; and When Women Were Birds. Her numerous honors include, a Wallace Stegner Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship and theSierra Club’s John Muir Award. Williams is currently writer-in-residence at the Harvard Divinity School. 

From Erosion: Essays of Undoing


Not long ago, a friend visited us from New York City, planning to stay several days in the desert. But after her first night, we awoke in the morning and found her with her bags packed, standing at the front door. She had changed her plane ticket for an early return to Manhattan. Her last words to us as she left were “Aren’t you afraid you will be forgotten?”

What I wanted to say but didn’t was “I hope so.”

None of us see landscape the same.

Each of us finds our identity within the communities we call home. My delight in being forgotten is rooted in the belief that I don’t matter in the larger scheme of things, only that I tried my best to be a good human, failing repeatedly, but trying again with the soul-settling knowledge that my body will return to the desert.

Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of a beloved professor who had the initials NYS written behind his name. It stood for “not yet soil.” Amen.

For those of us who live in arid country, red dust devils as commonplace as sage sandblast any notion of self-importance right out of us.

Yet still, we forget.

I write to remember.

It is dark, the sun has yet to rise, and a candle is lit on my desk. It is the last day of the year, a difficult year, and I am up early, unable to sleep. People often ask how we can stay buoyant in the face of loss, and I don’t know what to say except the world is so beautiful even as it burns, even as those we love leave us, even as we witness the ravaging of land and species, especially as we witness the brutal injustices and deep divisions in this country—as exemplified by the separation of families seeking asylum at the southern border; the blatant racism exposed in Charlottesville; or the students’ encounter with a Native elder drumming at the Indigenous March in Washington, D.C. The erosion of democracy and decency feels like a widening crack on the face of Liberty.

And now, the coronavirus reminds us how vulnerable we are, how connected we are worldwide.

How do we not fall into a perpetual state of despair?

My father said to me the other day, “We have to stare it down.” It being grief. It being everything he can’t control, like age, the waning strength in his legs, or the loss of another son.

I am aware that we hold a multitude of emotions at once. They are not contradictory; they are siblings. One minute I can hardly breathe—and in the next, I am in gales of laughter. Humor is the match I strike to see where I must go, especially when my vision is blurred by sorrow.

Continue reading from Erosion: Essays of Undoing at Macmillan


“A Reservoir for Our Spirits: An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams.” (new window) Terrain.org. 30 October 2019.

“One Environmentalist’s Warning: Think Globally, Act Accordingly.” (new window) The New York Times. 14 October 2019.

“Terry Tempest Williams on nature writing: ‘My heart is very deep in these wild lands’.” (new window) The Los Angeles Times. 5 April 2019.