Letter from a Friend: Laura Booth on Terry Tempest Williams and Slowness
On Weeding as a Mournful Dialogue with Land in a Time of Fire
I’m so excited to bring you this Letter from a Friend by Laura Booth. Laura has been a long-time subscriber, and we initially connected as part of a zine club. Laura’s zines were always beautiful and thoughtful meditations, and I’m so excited to bring you her writing in a slightly different form!
Yellow Starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis, overtakes a grassland in American Canyon, in the northeastern San Francisco Bay Area. Photo courtesy of Neal Kramer.
Today, I spent hours thinking about weeds.
One weed, in particular, occupied my thoughts: Yellow Starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis, a plant that troubles grasslands. As of 2006, this jaunty, yellow-flowered thistle merited $12.5 million spent on its management in California, where it crowds out food plants suitable for wildlife and livestock and reduces the area available to other plant species.
In July and August, I spent most of my working hours pulling Yellow Starthistles.
Like so many others, I also inhaled the cancer of obscene headlines—from descriptions of weary wildfire evacuees to state-sanctioned violence against people of color to dismal upticks in coronavirus cases—at the same rate as my friends and family, re-listening to and re-reading the terrible refrain during my morning snooze, on my breaks, and on my commute.
“The cancer process is not unlike the creative process,” writes Terry Tempest Williams, an essayist, activist, and thinker of Mormon heritage, in her 1991 memoir, Refuge. “Ideas emerge slowly, quietly, invisibly at first. They are most often abnormal thoughts, thoughts that disrupt the quotidian, the accustomed. They divide and multiply, become invasive. With time, they congeal, consolidate, and make themselves conscious.”
Refuge covers the temporal territory in Williams’ life as her mother, Diane, is dying of cancer. “A mother and daughter are an edge,” Williams writes in a later memoir, When Women Were Birds. “Edges are ecotones, transitional zones, places of danger or opportunity. House-dwelling tension.”
We are living through a parallel inflection point: experiencing planetary house-dwelling tension as our relationship to the planet that birthed us, labors for us, and feeds us, becomes more fraught by the minute.
Our mutual sickness is manifesting in a grand, terrifying way, across the intersections experts have predicted for decades: global capitalism, identity-based oppressions, political precarity, and climate instability are compounding each other, making themselves conscious. This is a rare, taut, temporal edge in our collective life, when the torment of our systems dying is also, gradually and painfully, offering us the chance to learn and adapt to the new reality we are entering.
Ash clings to the web of a garden-variety orbweaver (Argiope spp.) in a grassland in northern California as smoke aloft from unprecedented fires tints the day red. Photo by Laura Booth.
The weeds of wildlands and the reparative, healing work we need to do as a society seem, at first glance, about as far away from each other as the political left and right.
But the relationship that binds them defines itself to me further with each additional day spent in the field, applying the point of my hand-pick to the soil at the base of each Yellowstar’s stem, feeling the roots hold fast to the earth until—with firm but gentle pressure from my thumb pressed to my forefinger—they release, stabbing me with one of their spines for good measure.
Weeding is a physical gesture between me and land; it tunes my ear to the hum of past and present voices, human and non-human—soil eroding, the symphony of insects, human discards that appear like motifs in a poem or a piece of music: glass bottles, sun-faded scraps of fabric, glinting wrapper corners. The repetition of motion makes my mind into a grassland, capacious, brimming with what I cannot hear, what goes unheard, textures which are so quiet or so nuanced as to be beyond description.
As we are in the midst of conversations about our intricate, entangled relationships of power with one another and our planet, our search for solutions can default to the hastiest option (technology, performative anti-racist social media campaigns and curricula, etc.). But “A quick thaw is a quick flood,” warns Williams. These relationships will need to span generations if we desire to heal. Along the way, we will need to do difficult and exasperating work, make mistakes, move, practice wonder, pay attention, apologize.
In Refuge, Williamsharnesses the dramatic stage of Utah’s Great Salt Lake—where human decisions ignoring the will of the land threaten to undermine the region’s long history of adaptation to change—to confront her own unsettlement of identity as her mother dies in excruciating “increments.” While her mother’s death approaches, she writes, “We wait. We wait for Mother to die. The laziness of grief has us moving slowly.”
To go slowly, as Williams frames it, is thoughtful, painful, inconvenient, accommodating, languorous, sensuous. It requires mobilizing. It compels us to pay attention: to colors, to nuance, to the postures and expressions and responses of our friends and communities and ecosystems. It is physical, uniting intuition with the body and spirit. Going slowly and going with defined intention are often inextricably linked. “What does pain prepare us for?” Williams asks, and answers: “Emily Dickinson says, ‘Pain prepares us for peace.’”
The desire to move with intention towards shared objectives—of ecological health, of environmental equity, of climate resiliency—brought me to hands-on habitat restoration work. Restoration actions aim to imbue the land with vigor by reestablishing species and functions that belong to a landscape in a reparative, rejuvenating arc.
But on the day-to-day as it is practiced now, habitat restoration work is a slog of removing (or killing with chemicals) the same species that have been hastily introduced in places where they cause problems. To successfully restore requires dedicating monetary and labor resources towards removing Yellow Starthistles and many others, one plant at a time, thousands upon thousands of times, year after year, plant generation upon plant generation.
As with so many other intricate, thorny problems, from affordable housing and gentrification to systemic racism and incalculably violent policing, the resources made available by our twisted economy to steward land are simply insufficient to reach the agreed-upon objectives at a wide scale.
To further complicate matters, restoration itself is a critique-worthy idea, analogous to giving additional resources to fix broken systems from the inside (more training for police, more ICE agents, more incarceration, more fire suppression) instead of trialing new systems (de-funding the police and funding our social safety net, a thoughtful and inclusive immigration policy, actualizing restorative justice) or recognizing the validity of earlier systems (indigenous communities leading prescribed burns) that respond to our novel present.
The objective of eradicating invasive plants-out-of-place is a stopgap that has yet to fully grapple with how altered our landscapes—literal and figurative—are. Even the word “weed” contains within it a negation of belonging, a determination that some things belong, so others must not.
To weed is a petitely consequential practice of decision-making. To do it is to admit influencing the land and to recognize its response back to us—whether that’s a snappish uptick in the weed population next year, or the re-emergence of once-extirpated native species. In this way, weeding is choosing.
Of course, this exertion of power can look like seeking control. I think, until recently, the mainstream Science of ecological restoration has done a poor job overall of admitting how subjective it is, how little we understand about the complex will of natural systems, and the degree to which restoration has been an expression of the wishes of a privileged, environmentalist class to return to “pristine” wilderness—a concept whose premise is anti-indigenous, broadly racist, and bound to yield gentrification.
But for me, pulling weeds has become a tenuous mourning ritual, one that involves my body in the grieving process—for those species which have already been lost and for my mother, who died in 2018, at the age of 56. This ritual encompasses my complicity and seeks, however imperfectly, to make amends.
“Ritual creates its own logic,” Williams writes in When Women Were Birds. The book itself is an enumeration of the ritual Williams makes of revisiting her mother’s journals, which, contrary to expectation, her mother left blank. Wading through the pages is a kind of grief practice to which Williams applies language—her interactions with the journals reveal new, unforeseeable meanings held inside them. In the same way, the repetitiveness of weeding helps me to unite my abstract thinking and the realities of the world, with its infinite births and deaths.
Eradication through weeding is beyond the point for many introduced plant species (ironically, land managers call these species “naturalized”). We know our weeding practice, like a religious practice, will always be imperfect—like an errant thought, there will always be one errant Yellow Starthistle. This imperfection holds us in dynamic, humble, evolving, attentive relationship to the landscape. As long as we seek to exert our influence on land, we can never finish.
“The relationships continue—something I did not anticipate,” Williams writes after the deaths of her mother and grandmother in close succession. Death—of the society we thought we knew, of the landscapes that have supported us and our ancestors—is not neutral or finite; it is both cause for mourning and cause for sustained action. Like life, it is ongoing.
In weeding, I find I can practice both mourning and action simultaneously, slowly and humbly, secure in the conviction that this work need not—and cannot—finish in my lifetime. In weeding, I aspire to be a little like Williams’ describes her mother, Diane Dixon Tempest: “She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously.”
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams
Hope is the Thing With Feathers: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (particularly ‘To make a prairie’)
Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, by M Kat Anderson (This is more of a reference book, and an incredibly-detailed account of indigenous land management strategies in California, though it’s worth noting that Anderson is not indigenous herself.)
‘Hind Swaraj’ and Other Writings, by Mohandas Gandhi, ed. by Anthony J. Parel (this treatise first inspired me to think about the political qualities of slowness)
And for listening! Chapter 3: The Hatchet, by Jennah Bell, for the mood.
Laura B. is a Capricorn bookseller, aspiring-poet, and ecological restoration technician living in San Francisco. You can follow her Instagram at @citrullus_n_helianthus
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