Such stories are not, of course, found only in Alaska. Later in the book, Jamie spends time at an archaeological site named the Links of Noltland in her native Scotland. Buried for 5,000 years, the site is home to a recently exposed seaside settlement from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. As steady winds erode human remains and other evidence of communities that existed on the spot for 700 years, archaeologists race to save as much of it as they can. The subsistence farmers who lived here, Jamie writes, practiced “a way of life that bound you inescapably.” More than once, archaeologists tell her that these people “just got on with it”—the business of living.
“Does this matter, is the question,” Jamie wonders. “Do we want to know how it was to be human, here, five thousand years ago? Do we want to know where we’re coming from as we cruise into the future? What we were, or might be again? How we ‘engaged,’ if that’s the word, how we configured our relationship with the rest of the natural world, with the planet.”
Jamie appears content to let the reader answer these questions, and she moves on to essays about losing her parents, her bout with cancer, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China. For Terry Tempest Williams, there is no moving on from such questions. The Utah-based conservationist’s new book, Erosion: Essays of Undoing, reads like a longer, louder, and less searching book than Jamie’s. “Without a respect for origins,” Williams declares, “the human spirit falters.”
In her impassioned collection of essays, poems, and interviews dating back to 2012, Williams returns often to the idea that in order to adapt to the climate crisis, everyone will need to understand “what indigenous communities have always known, and are increasingly willing to share—that we are one with the land, not apart from it.”
The veteran nature writer Barry Lopez makes a similar argument in his recent, career-spanning book Horizon, and like him, Williams understands that her observations—and, ultimately, her faith in humanity and optimism about its future—come from a place of privilege. While everyone is experiencing the effects of climate change, it’s easy to write “Our undoing is also the making of our becoming” when the ocean isn’t lapping at your front door. “I have the privilege of looking forward,” Williams admits in Erosion, later adding, “This is who I am—Boom! A white woman of privilege born of the Covenant—I am not on the outside but inside.”
Williams’s impatience with subtlety, penchant for aphorisms (“Wilderness is a necessity, not a luxury”; “The silence before us is time”), and wide embrace of repetition threaten to dull the book’s message early on. But the more she repeats her arguments—sometimes within the same paragraph—for saving public lands, standing up to the oil and gas industries, and building “another world in the ashes of this one,” the more effective Erosion becomes.