Fierce and compassionate Author Terry Tempest Williams
AS an environmental writer and activist, Terry Tempest Williams is something of an institution. Among her many books are The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (Sarah Crichton Books, 2016) and When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice (Sarah Crichton Books, 2012). She lives in Utah with her husband, Brooke, where they both grew up, and she founded the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Utah. She has a long record of protest, civil disobedience, and generally getting in the thick of issues that affect the planet and the people and animals who live on it. Williams comes to Santa Fe on Wednesday, March 8, for the Lannan Foundation’s In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom Series. She will discuss her work with Irish author Colum McCann at an event (sold out at press time) that will be rebroadcast on Santa Fe Public Radio, KSFR 101.1 FM, at 4 p.m. on March 12.
In advance of her visit, Williams agreed to an email interview with Pasatiempo. I sent her a round of questions about Scott Pruitt’s appointment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the ecological ramifications of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and her thoughts on the Dakota Access Pipeline, among other topics. “Thank you,” Williams responded. “These are REALLY big, tough questions, and I don’t think I have any answers for most of them. More to come.”
I wrote back, asking her to focus on the questions she felt most strongly about. Several days passed before another email arrived. “For one reason or another, your questions silenced me — I honestly don’t have any answers right now,” she wrote. “I only have my commitment to be present in this moment, to hold fast to the abiding principles of a free society, and to work in the ways that I can to keep ‘the Open Space of Democracy’ open.” This was followed by a free-form poetic meditation that touched obliquely on many of the things I’d asked about — and an invitation to call her.
“Of course, we’ve been talking about just these questions around the dinner table, and we’re reading about everything that is happening, but we’ve never been here before,” she said over the phone. “All of us are facing the big questions that you asked. I’ve been in such a fragile, hopeless place, and I didn’t want to give you disingenuous answers in this time of despair. I shut down in the face of your questions. I didn’t know what to write. And what emerged is how do each of us take on these questions in the places we call home? How do we have a voice when we feel voiceless?”
As we discussed the most effective way to proceed with the article, it became clear that the honest approach was to expose the interview process to the readers. “I had an experience of being taken to a dark place with these questions — but that is a compliment, and this has become a collaboration. I want that to be transparent,” she said.
Williams wrote the following passages with the readership of Pasatiempo specifically in mind. The words have been edited for length and clarity.
We have made the mistake in this country of confusing democracy with capitalism. We are watching this new administration, with a Republican majority in Congress, undermine and undo decades of environmental protections that ensured that communities, both human and wild, would have clean air, clean water, and in the case of threatened species, the right to continue without becoming extinct. These
MEDIA,ON “NEWS TELEVISION,RADIO, ALL AND THE SOCIAL PRINT TIME CREATES— ALTHOUGHA LOT CRUCIALOF NOISE, — WHICH CAN DISTRACT US FROM THE REAL WORK AT HAND. HOW DO WE STAY FOCUSED ENOUGH TO DO THE WORK THAT IS OURS TO DO — EACH IN OUR OWN WAY, WITH THE GIFTS THAT ARE OURS?“
protections are being removed and “modernized” to aid the economy, business — capitalism. Our public lands, our public commons are being compromised in the name of fossil fuel development.
News all the time on television, social media, radio, and print — although crucial — creates a lot of noise, which can distract us from the real work at hand. How do we stay focused enough to do the work that is ours to do — each in our own way, with the gifts that are ours? This is not soft-headed or merely offering a poetic response but rather calling for a different kind of rigor. We must be wary of distractions.
This is where I see my vulnerability — becoming so caught up in my own outrage of what I am seeing, hearing, reading in the news that I lose my concentration. I want to take my anger and transform it into Sacred Rage — I want to understand erosion, even the erosion I am seeing in Washington, D.C., as a process of exposure and awakening. This is a time where our own individual and collective consciousness can become like water and cut through stone. I’ve been spending time with tribal leaders who are expressing their needs for how to heal the earth. They talk about prayer and a spiritual resistance that we have not trusted.
White privilege blinds those of us who have it. It is time to follow those on the margins who are leading us to the center of social justice. I find right now that my words are few. I am interested in hearing what others have to say who not only understand a lifetime of oppression because of race and class and invisibility, but to learn how to support those who are on the front lines of climate justice. How to be a good ally is at the front of my concerns. The challenges before us are not just political challenges, but how to strengthen qualities of humility, forgiveness, and a generosity of spirit.
ON BEAUTY, NATURE, AND ART
Living in Utah, my solace has always been found in the natural world, in wildness, in beauty: the wingbeats of ravens, the choreography of clouds, the smell of rain in the desert before it falls. I live in a landscape of erosion, where rocks tell time differently. Deep time exposed in the layers of sandstone remind us how young we really are, how small we are — yet the press of our presence on the planet in this epoch of the Anthropocene.
Coyotes are a good animal to watch right now. How we survive in the desert. I am paying attention to Badger — who understands what it means to be underground and surface when necessary and hide when one must to spend time being nourished by roots. I saw a photograph of Coyote and Badger hunting together. Nature is my teacher. The Animals are so much more than we know.
I believe in the power of story to touch our hearts and remind us what it means to be human.
I believe in the sustaining grace of art to capture our imagination and see the world differently.
And I believe in human kindness to ignite one another’s souls in times of darkness.
Beauty is its own form of resistance. Perhaps we can begin here — in the beauty of the human heart, which is the first home of democracy.
So what do we do? We become our highest and deepest selves. We listen more deeply. We rise to this occasion with both a focused sense of justice and an open heart. We can be both fierce and compassionate, at once. We cannot do it alone. We must do it together — and in the process, take care of ourselves, with a practice of developing a physical and spiritual stamina that will sustain us for the long view and the long term.
Jennifer Levin I The New Mexican