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


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.


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

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