We Leave Our Doors Wide Open: An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams
By Simmons B. Buntin
About Author, Naturalist, and Environmental Activist Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams is perhaps best known for her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Pantheon, 1991), where she chronicles the epic rise of Great Salt Lake and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in 1983, alongside her mother’s diagnosis with ovarian cancer, believed to be caused by radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests in the Nevada desert in the 1950s and 60s, and which is now regarded as a classic in American nature writing.
Williams’ work has been widely anthologized, having also appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Outside, Audubon, Orion, The Iowa Review, and The New England Review, among other national and international publications.
She has served on the Governing Council of the Wilderness Society and was a member of the western team for the President’s Council for Sustainable Development. She is currently on the advisory board of the National Parks and Conservation Association, The Nature Conservancy, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. She has testified before the United States Congress twice regarding women’s health and the environmental links associated with cancer, and has been a strong advocate for America’s Redrock Wilderness Act.
As an editor of Testimony: Writers of the West Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness, she organized 20 American writers to pen their thoughts on why the protection of these wildlands matter. When President William Jefferson Clinton dedicated the new Grand Staircase-Escalate National Monument on September 18, 1996, he held up this book on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and said, “This made a difference.”
She was recently inducted to the Rachel Carson Honor Roll and has received the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Award for Special Achievement. The Utne Readernamed Terry Tempest Williams as one of its Utne 100 Visionaries: “a person who could change your life.” She has been a fellow for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and received a Lannan Literary Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction.
Formerly, naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History, Ms. Williams now lives in Castle Valley, Utah, with her husband Brooke Williams.
August 27, 2005, Castle Valley, Utah
Terrain.org: In the essays of The Open Space of Democracy we are urged to commit to the open space of democracy, where there is “room for dissent . . . or differences,” where beauty is “essential to our survival as a species.” In your work to save Utah’s redrock wildernesses—the millions of acres across southern Utah as well as those lands just outside Castle Valley—you faced at times insulting resistance from elected representatives, government officials, and others. How do you respond to those who don’t appear willing to allow for, let alone acknowledge, differences and dissent? How can the landscape be used as a facilitator of a common good, where bureaucracy, corporate profit interests, and sense of community are so often at odds?
Terry Tempest Williams: Perhaps the most important qualities in protecting wildlands are patience and perseverance. We must speak in a language that opens hearts rather than closes them. And we need to build our cases for environmental protection around broad-based community concerns like health, quality of life, the protection of our watersheds and wildlife, and the total education of our children. Environmental issues are social issues, economic issues, issues that honor a quality of life. Our challenge is to bring the idea of wilderness into the discussion of “life-sustaining principles” to quote Michael Soule, and how we can think creatively for the long view, rather than the short term.
How do we respond to those who do not share these values or who are not interested in a civil dialogue within the Open Space of Democracy? We just keep meeting them within the context of community, trying to articulate not only why wilderness matters but how we can protect it so that the care of wildlands becomes a positive expression for the town, becoming a model of what it means to live in place, what it means to be responsible citizens mindful of other forms of life. This kind of community organizing depends on partnerships, building a deep, broad coalition of support. It’s about changing minds, opening minds. And it takes time.
This is the model we tried to create for the Castle Rock Collaboration. Our partners included The Nature Conservancy, Grand Canyon Trust, The Access Fund, Patagonia, Black Diamond, Petzl Company, The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah School Institutional Trust Lands, the Cowboy Caucus—it was a coalition that was irresistible drawing from many facets of the community from both ends of the political spectrum. Patience and perseverance were asked for and a lot of time spent in meetings, planning, listening, and not only articulating a vision, but figuring out how to make it happen on the ground.
Terrain.org:The Open Space of Democracy was published “on the eve of a defining national election [when] we are asking ourselves what is the true nature of democracy,” according to Laurie Lane-Zucker, The Orion Society’s executive director. Did the results of the presidential election surprise you? Do you see a difference in those working for a more compassionate environment following this election—more persistence and vigor, perhaps, or just the opposite: a disgust that is resulting in a lack of action?
Terry Tempest Williams: I am always surprised by elections, especially living in Utah. I keep hoping that just once before I die I can be part of a majority! Bill Clinton came in third, twice, in the state of Utah, when he ran for president. Utah loves George W. Bush. But the tide is turning. President Bush spoke to the National Guard Conference here in Utah on August 21. He was met by a healthy protest of around two thousand people led by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who quoted Edward Abbey, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” Even my father, a devout republican is talking about impeachment.
On the surface, we appear to be a nation divided, red states, blue states. This is too simple. I believe most Americans do care about the environment and love the open spaces near their homes as places of peace and positive memories with their families. I believe we want equitable health care and good schools. And I do not believe this war in Iraq has broad support. The lies of the Bush administration are now beginning to smolder, catch fire, and are burning away the fortress of deceit they have been hiding behind.
We are suffering from a crisis of leadership in this country. Since this administration will not deal with climate change, nine states in the northeast are taking it in their own hands. If the administration won’t deal with the immigration crisis on the border of the US and Mexico, the states along the borders will. We are hungry for creativity and imagination, inspiration that can carry us forward to places of possibility. We want to act, create, and make meaning out of our lives that can help and be part of the Common Good. Instead, we are being pulled into a large collective arena of fear that breeds paranoia, isolation, and despair. We must not fall prey to their manipulation of mind and habit that is creating a sense of inertia and denial.
Terrain.org: Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America was full of fear and distrust and question—and yet there was also a sense of hope. “It is no longer the survival of the fittest but the survival of compassion—to extend our humanity to include honor and respect for plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and air,” you said in an interview just four weeks later. We were awake, and could be “conscious of our connection to the world.” Four years have now passed. Did we miss the opportunity, passing on the “exquisite tenderness” and the incredible coming together as a nation? Or are there still forces of hope at work—indeed are we extending our humanity?
Terry Tempest Williams:As difficult as this time is in our history, it is also a very creative time. People are alive, engaged, and wanting to change the climate of this country to one of hope. We are a nation at war. That war is now being questioned by both liberals and conservatives. I look to the power of individuals to make a difference within our own communities. This is where true leadership dwells. The heart is the first home of democracy. In the town of Blue Hill, Maine, for instance, there is a man named Rufus Wanning, an arborist, who almost single-handedly is responsible for saving the American Elms that are still standing in this little coastal village. He inspired the community to donate $10,000 a year to care for these majestic trees that line their streets as elders. Over 100 million American elms have been lost in this country. Rufus Wanning was determined to take care of those in his own community. He knew each tree personally. Every week, he checked on them. He was vigilant. If he saw the slightest sign or symptom of Dutch Elm disease on the trees, a wilting of leaves, he would immediately, in his neighbors words, “nip it in the bud.”
Rufus Wanning is also responsible for donating a piece of his land on Main Street to the Peninsula Peace & Justice Group in the creation of a memorial for the soldiers who have been killed in Iraq. A field of small white flags has been erected between the First Congregational Church and the Blue Hill Library. Each time a soldier dies, a small white flag is planted in the field. It now looks like an ocean of tiny sails. Each week, the numbers of American and Iraqi casualties are updated, painted black on a white sign. I find this kind of mindful action in the name of community very hopeful. It holds us accountable, allows us to reflect on what is happening and how we are responsible. I also believe the same impulse to save American elms is the same impulse to offer up one’s land as a reflection of peace. The question becomes how to live our lives with greater attention and intention on behalf of life.
Terrain.org:Tell us about your move in 1998 from Salt Lake City—that “city of salt and granite”—to Castle Valley, with its sign warning, “CAUTION: FALLING SKY.” What spurred the move? Following the community’s rally to preserve its open space, of which you and your husband were a keen part, has your perception of your role in community—the built environment, if you will—changed?
Terry Tempest Williams: My husband Brooke and I moved from Salt Lake City to Castle Valley, five hours south, because we wanted to be closer to wild country, we wanted to live in a smaller community with a greater sense of engagement and accountability. And we have found it. There are difficulties to be sure, how to make a living, how to live more sustainably together, but we are working through these questions as a town—be it through a survey of our watershed, town planning, or the caretaking of the open space that surrounds us. We have to take care of our relations. We have to be civil with one another because we rely on each other in times of fire, drought, and sickness. We also have a good time. But the desert is harsh. There is no place to hide. Refuge is found in our relations neighbor to neighbor. I love the intimacy and intricacy of living here. The light changes hourly on the redrock cliffs. Storms come in. The sun bears down. Ravens cavort on currents rising from the desert floor. The stars at night keep one in a constant state of awe. Last night, I woke to get a glass of water and ran into a tumbleweed that had blown into our living room. We leave our doors wide open.
Terrain.org: If the essay “Ground Truthing,” which originally appeared in Orion magazine and then in The Open Space of Democracy, is any indication, your trip to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was life-changing. Tell us about that journey. How did your visit impact you as a writer, as a woman, as a citizen of the world? How does it still impact you?
Terry Tempest Williams: In 1977, I testified in Denver, Colorado, on behalf of the Alaska Lands Settlement Act. I was 22 years old. I remember saying to Congressman John Seiberling from Ohio, that although I may never see the Arctic National Wildlife Range (it was not designated as a refuge until 1980) or much of Wild Alaska, I believed it deserved our protection and respect. Just knowing it was there was enough, more than enough. And the Athabaskan and Inuit cultures who have lived on these lands for millennia, have a right to carry on their traditions without the press of development imposing its agenda on to theirs. It was very moving to be able to participate in this kind of democratic process and to listen to hours of testimony rendered by citizens.
It was a thirty year dream to one day be able to go into the Brooks Range and visit the Refuge. In 2003, we had the opportunity to do so. It wasn’t so much life-changing as it was life-affirming. To stand in the center of such wholeness. To realize what a tragedy it is that we have politicized a place to the point that we can no longer see it for what it is—original, unaggitated nature—biologically intact and self-sustaining. It was an immersion in Beauty, simply that.
Every day we awoke with a sense of wonder and every day, we witnessed the surprise of a wolverine track, a grizzly foraging in the tundra, caribou crossing the Canning River, arctic terns about to make their journey south. It was a mosaic of the most beautiful, elemental, I don’t even have the language… a mosaic of perfect relations… snowy owls hunting meadow voles, the migrations of snow geese, tundra so rich with a diversity of plants you found yourself on hands and knees for a closer look. Everything had a grand integrity about it—from the sweeping vistas that stretched from one mountain range to another—to the delicacy of lichen on a riverstone. The near and far were seen in one embrace of wildness. Never have I felt my humanness in such perspective. It was deeply humbling and deeply spiritual. I remember placing my hand in the paw print of a wolverine. I remember standing on top of a ridge watching thousands of caribou crossing the horizon, moving as the great herds have always moved through the landscape through time.
That the United States Congress is on the verge of opening this last refuge to drilling is a sacrilege, a small-minded act of greed based on the same oil relationships. If this truly happens, we will look back on this as a dark moment in the soul of this country. Where is our restraint on behalf of other species, other cultures? It is a giant tear in the fabric of what makes America a free country. The open space of democracy requires open space.
Terrain.org: In 1995 you visited Hiroshima, Japan—a dual exploration of the A-bomb’s continuous impact on the region’s people, and the death by cancer of your mother, who was exposed to the fallout of America’s A-bomb tests in the 1950s. How difficult was it to put that journey into words, ultimately into the powerfully moving essay, “Hiroshima Journey?” Do you find other parallels between your life—between the anticipated and unanticipated impacts of technology on people and place—as strong as this one in locations far from home? Have or will you return to Hiroshima?
Terry Tempest Williams: My journey to Hiroshima was a deeply personal one. My grandmother’s birthday was August 6. Every year, I celebrate her and pay my respects to those who died on that same day in 1945 by our country’s nuclear hand. My grandmother was a peacemaker who saw a larger world. She was also a member with my mother and aunts of the Clan of One-Breasted Women. Breast cancer caused by radioactive fallout in the above-ground testing in the Nevada desert in the 1950’s and 60’s. We are all bound by the wind.
In 1995, I traveled to Japan. It was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was also the 50th anniversary of when America dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To stand with Shoko Ito, on the banks of the Hiroshima River, both of us profoundly affected by the atomic bomb as “hibakusha” (explosion-affected people) changed my life. The isolation I felt as a “downwinder” disappeared. The inability to articulate what this horror had meant in her life as a baby who survived was shared. We emerged as two women, an American and a Japanese who found our humanity in one another’s stories. Both our families have been ravaged by cancer. Both our families honored its governments. Both of us had been in denial as to how deeply this had shaped our characters. Both of us turned to writing as a way of creating hope out of despair. Both of us found our solace in nature and the beauty of language bowing to landscape. Both of us found our voices through tragedy made whole through art.
Terrain.org: Earlier this decade you made a conscientious decision to primarily write newspaper and magazine articles and op-ed pieces, so your words may be “entered in the public discourse.” Is that still your emphasis, or is there an urge to return to the larger and more complex canvases of books? How has the exponential growth of the Internet impacted not only your writing, but the writing of anyone advocating the open space of democracy?
Terry Tempest Williams: Writing is very versatile and can be called upon to for different purposes and occasions. I love the immediacy of writing for newspapers. It is a way of creating a conversation within community, a way of calling attention to an issue at hand that is still open for discussion. I appreciate the ephemeral nature of newsprint. One day your words appear, the next day they are gone. The paper held in hand around a breakfast table is now being used to house train a puppy. Your words are not precious.
In contrast, a book is a sustained exploration of ideas that can meander, circle, and deviate through story. They can rise and fall and wrap themselves around our imagination and create worlds unknown before. A book becomes a companion. The words between covers create an intimacy with the reader, change them, transform them and they can seep into the bloodstream of a culture if we are lucky.
The Internet creates an instantaneous community around the world—a shot of light—a way to inform, incite, and organize. It’s hard to imagine how our lives have changed since e-mail, Google, and the flood of information we now have through our fingers. The Internet may be our collective addiction, trying to make contact when we feel so isolated. A way to connect as we disconnect.
Writing is a means of keeping in touch, discovering who we are and what we are connected to. And writing finds all forms from grafitti to the film, from a love letter to a declaration of war. I honor the power of words, their revolutionary nature, the way they make us less lonely in the world, their capacity to both destroy and heal. How do use them? A newspaper, a magazine, a poem, a book of ideas—the stories we tell—it’s what makes us human.
Terrain.org: It has been more than 15 years since the death of Edward Abbey, who you described as “our sacred rage,” and who continues to inspire environmentalists through his words and ways. In a time when development is expanding across the Western landscape at an almost unfathomable pace—and patterns of American suburban sprawl are appearing like lesions across the globe—is it time again for the crass monkey wrenching of folks like Abbey and organizations like Earth First!? Should there be a land-based civil disobedience as well as a civil discourse?
Terry Tempest Williams: In the American West, Edward Abbey is still among us—the shadow of a turkey vulture passes and we tip our hats. Ed was radical in life. He is more radical in death. I think about him every day. Every day. I wonder what he would be thinking, writing, doing. Again, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” He dreamed of taking down Glen Canyon Dam. Now there is an organization that is planning to do exactly that—legitimately. It’s called the Glen Canyon Institute and there’s alot of science to support the decommissioning of the dam. He wrote about “industrial tourism.” We see it rampantly taking over the interior west. And he deplored war. Desert Solitaire written in 1968 can be read as an antiwar novel written at the height of the Vietnam protests. Today, as we find ourselves as a nation at war in Iraq and a nation at war with the environment led by the Bush administration, I think it is critical to question, stand, speak, and act. Patriots act—they are not handed a piece of paper and asked to comply. Ed did his best to make people uncomfortable. We can do the same.
If civil disobedience is standing our ground in the places we love—then we must do that now. We must say no to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We must say no to drilling in our national parks and the wilderness study areas in the fragile redrock wilderness of southern Utah. We must say no to the relaxing of all our environmental laws from clean air to water to the storage of toxic wastes that are affecting the health of our communities. And we must say yes to a engaged populace who sees the ecological crisis as a crisis of conscience and imagination. We have to believe in our own power to affect change. Empathy. Compassion. Engagement. Love. Four words that for me, create a base from which a heightened democracy can function.
Ed Abbey handed us a monkey wrench not as a tool of destruction but restoration. It is time to restore our sense of place in this country with an ethic of place, freedom and liberty for all.
Terrain.org: What’s next for Terry Tempest Williams?
Terry Tempest Williams: I am leaving for Rwanda tomorrow. There is nothing in my imagination that can prepare me for what I will see, what I will hear, and what I will feel. I can only go with an open heart and a sincere desire to listen and be of use. I am going as a team member with the Chinese-American artist Lily Yeh and her group of “Barefoot Artists.” We are going to Gisenyi to help paint a village, to focus on art as way to restore that which has been broken.
I am taking binoculars for the children. Perhaps we can begin our encounter with birds—mediators between heaven and earth.
Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
Header photo of Professor Valley, Utah, by Simmons B. Buntin.