Nearly three decades and a dozen books later, Williams is still exploring that question. Her work, grounded in Utah’s red rock wilderness, swirls around a maelstrom of tensions: voice and silence, science and faith, mothers and daughters, animal and human.
She is a writer unafraid to admit the limits of language, a naturalist who refuses to define nature merely by its physical manifestations—plant, animal, water, stone—but insists on the spiritual, as well.
I first discovered Williams’s work as a teenager. After I devoured the young adult books in my own room, I moved on to my mother’s bookshelves. There I found Refuge, a thin red volume with a bird on its cover. It was a revelation. I understood for the first time that writing (my writing) did not have to evoke far-off places or fantasy lands. Here was the desert I loved, in all its raw, aching beauty. Here were the songs of coyotes and the patterns of rain, evoked in language that quivered and hummed.
We’re all just in this erosional process. But I think it’s a clue of different perspectives, and how different people call different places home.
Melissa Sevigny: In your recent book, The Hour of Land, you take a tour of about dozen national parks in America. Can you tell me what you took away from that journey?
Terry Tempest Williams: I thought this would be a simple book, The Hour Of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. I thought it would be celebratory in honor of the anniversary of the National Park Service. It was anything but. For me, it was really mapping what colonialism is, realizing the people who have been left out of national parks, beginning with native people, whether it was in Yosemite or Yellowstone or Glacier National Park—and realizing with a president like Barack Obama, during his eight years, how through the Antiquities Act of 1906 he made the National Park Service much more inclusive, by honoring national monuments like Bears Ears National Monument, and honoring the five tribes that said these lands in fact are sacred lands, with the Diné, the Hopi, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Ouray Ute, and Zuni people. That would be one example. The list goes on and on—Harriet Tubman [National Park], César Chávez [National Monument]—to really honor Americans’ history and the landscape that created historical relevance and significance over time.
Melissa Sevigny: It sounds like that was a journey of discovery for you. You didn’t know you were getting into that.
Terry Tempest Williams: That’s right, because I think as a Westerner, we look at the Grand Canyon, we look at Grand Teton National Park, Canyonlands, Zion, those that are close to home, and the five national parks in Utah and 11 national monuments: those are our backyard. It wasn’t until I really dug deeply that I saw how complicated it really is, and in many ways more beautiful as a result. We are now telling deeper, broader, more expansive and inclusive stories, of not just the identity of wild places but the people who have inhabited those places over time; and also the social movements associated with our national parks and monuments, like Stonewall and the LGBTQ communities.
So I find this a very exciting time. The book was written in 2016. I can’t believe what three years can do. Now, I think this is a very contentious time. We have to fight for our national parks and monuments. I can tell you as a resident of Utah to watch Bears Ears now be gutted by 85 percent, open for business for oil and gas development, to watch what’s happening with Grand Staircase National Monument that was established in 1996 now cut in half and open for the possibility of extractive industry including mines and uranium—it is heartbreaking. If we care about the open space of democracy we’re going to have to fight for it, and make sure that these wild places can be protected and preserved for future generations and communities both human and wild.
Melissa Sevigny: It really struck me reading this book that it wasn’t the journey through beautiful places that you might expect: you chronicle disasters, you talk about oil spills, war, and atomic testing. I wonder whether you think of yourself as a nature writer and if so, do you think nature writing today is something different than it used to be?
Terry Tempest Williams: You know, Melissa, I don’t think about it. I know what it means to be a writer, and the kind of personal and collective interrogation that that demands. How one categorizes one’s work—that’s not my job. Maybe that’s an academic’s job. I think we want nice neat compartments. I write about culture, I write about landscape, I write about our public lands, I write about family. More than anything I hope that I’m writing about what it means it to be human in a just society.
Melissa Sevigny: You write in The Hour of Land that “to bear witness is not a passive act.” Can you tell me what you mean by that?
Terry Tempest Williams: I was just talking to a friend today. She’s a writer. She’s studying English literature, and literature connected to September 11th and climate change. She said, “You know, Terry, it feels so insignificant, it feels irrelevant. I’m in this privileged position to be holed up in a study, and what value does it have?” But then I think about a writer like Leslie Marmon Silko who says, “Let me tell you something. Stories are not neutral. They absolutely have the capacity to cure the evils of our society.”
I think writing is an act of bearing witness, paying attention, having the strength and courage not to look away from hard things, but to deepen then, so that we see that light is one hand, shadow is the other hand: How do we bring these two hands together in prayer?
Melissa Sevigny: Do you ever struggle with that as well, like you were saying your friend does? In the midst of environmental crisis and climate change and extinction, is it hard to sit down at the computer and just start putting words on a page?
Terry Tempest Williams: Every day. Every day. I just finished a book called Erosion: Essays of Undoing, and I guess for me, we have to—how to say this? I think we have to act, we have to create offerings. Each in our own way, each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours. I write. That’s what I can do. I have a friend who is an attorney. She’s at the southern border: that is her work, that is what she can do. I feel no one can do everything and each of us can do something. It’s been useful for me to think about the metaphor of a mosaic. Each of us holds a piece that creates this larger good. I’m a storyteller, and I try to tell stories that bypass rhetoric and touch the heart. I believe that when our hearts are activated, then we are activated, in whatever way we can serve our communities.
Melissa Sevigny: We’ve been talking about your art, your writing, and also your activism as being very closely tied together. In both ways you are a champion of wilderness areas. Do you ever feel like they come into conflict in your life?
Terry Tempest Williams: When I was a younger I did spend a lot of time wondering: am I an activist or an artist? If I’m active on behalf of Utah wilderness issues or women’s health issues, does that diminish my work as a writer? I don’t think about that anymore. To me it’s about a life engaged. Really it’s only in the United States that I think we even worry about those separations or distinctions. Historically writers have always been engaged, and in this country they’ve been engaged. If you look at Thoreau, if you look at Mary Austin, you look at Toni Morrison: the kind of power that her words have held in terms of identity and justice and prejudice and racism. That’s what writers do. Now, if you’re writing from a polemical point of view, no one’s going to read you. It’s boring, you know what’s going to be said before it’s even on the page. But to tell a story: suddenly we become human and boundaries dissolve.
Again, what does it mean to be human? We empathize with characters and see the complexities within characters and the situations they’re in. I think literature in many ways is more valuable than it’s ever been in a society right now, in our country that is so divided by us versus them, by left and right, progressives and conservatives. I’m turning to the arts more and more, whether it’s film or visual arts or theater or music or literature. I think it’s very important to be able to take another point of view and consider our own. Moral certitude of any kind, I think, is dangerous.
Melissa Sevigny: You’re talking about dissolving boundaries. I think it’s interesting that your writing reflects that, in that it is hard to define. You move from science nonfiction and history nonfiction into this lyrical style.
Terry Tempest Williams: I wanted in The Hour of Land in particular for each part to be distinctive, as they are. If you’re writing in the desert then it seems to me you’d want your prose to be more spare, dry, but also dramatic or lyrical. That’s what I tried to do with a park like Big Bend National Park. If I ever disappear that’s where I’ll be! I was so moved by the expanse and aridity, and yet the poignancy of one blooming cactus against the horizon, or fields of lupines, or a night sky of stars, or the pattering hooves of javelina. It was a magical place, and it begged for a more poetic approach.
A park like Gettysburg National Battlefield undid me. I went back four times, for long periods of time. I never could wrap my arms around it. I had always thought: the Civil War was a Southern war. No, it is an American war. What I saw in the rhetoric and many of the reenactors is that this war is still ongoing. I heard many of the conversations that I hear in Utah. I realized this was not a war between the North and South, but it was a war fought for the West, whether or not the American West would be the next territory of enslaved people. That section was much more historical and based on interviews and different people’s points of view.
Each park asked something different of me. Grand Teton National Park—I was raised there and it was really focused on family. A park like Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I went with my father and you can see the differences in terms of his view of natural gas verses mine with open space and wildness. It was brought to a head with seeing the rapidity and scale of a place like the Bakken oil field, where even my father was moved to tears at the exploitation of both the workforce and the land.
And so like everything right now on the planet, we have a choice to make. Will we use restraint and prudence on behalf of future generations, or will we use it all up for ourselves, at our own peril?
Melissa Sevigny: Now that you’ve gone on that journey and seen all these places, what do you feel is the most pressing issue facing our national parks and public lands today?
Terry Tempest Williams: One thing is overcrowding. You can’t even get into Zion National Park, it’s so crowded. Even at 4:30 in the morning, you couldn’t even get across the river. Arches is looking at a permit system that was shot down by the tourist industry, the hotel industry. Grand Teton National Park feels like a suburb right now in high season. Are we loving our parks to death? There is such a desperate need to be outside. It’s a reservoir for our spirits. I think we need more national parks, not less.
I think the biggest threat to our national parks right now is Donald Trump and the Department of the Interior with David Bernhardt. It is open season. Right now they’re wanting a profit margin on our parks which is not going to happen. I think it’s a move toward privatization. My nightmare is to think that one day Arches will be sponsored by McDonalds with golden arches blocking the view of the sandstone arches. The whole privatization of public lands, I think, is a threat.
Right now it’s about money, it’s about the fossil fuel industry in the last gasps of a dying economy in the midst of climate change. And certainly extinction. It’s becoming a perfect storm. Again, I think we have to rise as a people and say these lands matter to us, they hold our histories, diverse histories, multiple histories, as well as biodiversity of this planet, of grizzly bears and willow flycatchers and prairie dogs. And so like everything right now on the planet, we have a choice to make. Will we use restraint and prudence on behalf of future generations, or will we use it all up for ourselves, at our own peril?
Melissa Sevigny: You said that wilderness is a reservoir for our spirits. Will you tell me more about that?
Terry Tempest Williams: You know, I’m living in Cambridge, Massachusetts right now teaching at the Harvard Divinity School. It’s a long way from the American West. Not many people here at this distinguished university know what public lands are, much less experienced them. That’s been a revelation to me. But in the midst of such noise and you can’t see the stars at night, and I strain to find a horizon line where I can watch the sun go down or come up, I just think: I can’t wait to get home, to Castle Valley, to the Colorado Plateau, where I can watch the last light of day unobstructed, where I can hear coyotes howl with delight, where I know that flocks of piñon jays are going to come through and there’s enough stillness to hear the wingbeats of ravens. That’s what I mean by a reservoir for our spirits.
Melissa Sevigny: When you talk about and write about public lands, you use words like soul and spirit, language that I associate more with religion and spirituality than with the environmental movement or political causes. Can you talk more about that?
Terry Tempest Williams: As environmentalists we have wanted to be credible. We have used the language and practice of law, thankfully, with such dignified acts as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act. We also have used science, blessedly (if you don’t mind me using that word) to know what climate change is going to bear, to know the risks of a certain species because of a loss of habitat. But that’s not all of it. If we have erred in the conservation community it’s because we haven’t understood the power of the emotional register, to speak from the heart, to say why these lands matter to us.
I think for those of us living in Utah and on the Colorado Plateau, we have learned and continue to learn so much from the Native people who live there, the way in which they speak about these lands as sacred, as a place of ceremony, a place that heals through the medicines available through various plants and animals. I am so grateful for the mentorship that they have brought to me personally, and that as a community in Utah, finally we are listening rather than talking. I think we have a lot to learn from the elders and from the young activists and Native people who are showing us about the power of indigenous foods and why these lands matter to the soul, each of us.
I keep thinking of Jonah Yellowman, when he said, “We’re not protecting these lands just for us, we’re protecting these lands for everyone.” And that it is about healing. I think that’s too often forgotten in the language of environmentalists and activists.
Melissa Sevigny: I want to go back the activism you do. You write about fossil fuels being sold from public lands; you say, “What is actually being sold is the soul of our nation.” I wanted to ask you: I know in 2016 you actually purchased drilling leases from the Bureau of Land Management with the intention of keeping that oil and gas in the ground. Will you tell me what happened with that?
Terry Tempest Williams: Of course, but words fail me. Brooke and I made a decision at one of the oil and gas leases, February 16, 2016—after the auction was over they have what is called a remnant sale. We went to the office of the Bureau of Land Management and purchased two leases, two parcels, 1,120 acres on lands in our county, near us. We knew those lands. We knew that one parcel was adjacent to a wilderness study area. We knew another area was adjacent to sagebrush habitat. We bought those leases for a $1.50 an acre. That’s less than a cup of coffee, Melissa. It was a protest. It was done legally.
We had seen what our friend Tim Christopher has done when he bid on oil and gas leases that came to $1.8 million. His was an act of civil disobedience, a protest, a gesture in the name of a liveable future—and cost him two years in the federal prison. We wanted to push it further and do it legally. But the BLM revoked our leases, saying that because we had said publicly that we would not drill for the oil and gas until science could show us that the resource was worth more above ground than below, due to the cost of climate [change]—that we would leave it in the ground. Their rationale was, that was not appropriate. We found through a Freedom of Information Act request that no lease had ever been revoked when legally purchased by a citizen since the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act. So what are they afraid of? I think they’re afraid of realizing what corporations are getting away with. The truth is, the people we were sitting with during that auction, they had no intention of drilling for oil and gas at that moment in time either, until the price of oil went up. So that’s what happened.
Our case is still before the Board of Land Appeals in the Department of the Interior. It’s now going on three years. What was the personal cost? I lost my job at the University of Utah, which I loved deeply, dearly. The students are the most amazing students I know, through 13 years of working there at the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program. I’m so proud of them. They are peppering the American West in jobs of public service, working with federal agencies, from the BLM to the Park Service to the Forest Service. They’re writing novels, making films. It’s beautiful work. So it was painful, I have to tell you, and it was a reckoning for me.
Melissa Sevigny: Do you feel like the loss of that job was directly related to your decision to act on climate change in this particular way?
Terry Tempest Williams: No question. We were able to see that in another FOIA request. And whether it was pressure from the legislature and particular legislators who are very closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry or donors at the University of Utah—it was a painful experience. But I don’t regret it. I had no other ambition than stay in Utah for the rest of my life and teach there, as long as I could, but my soul had other plans. It’s one of the lessons we learn in our lives. I could have never imagined I’d be here at the Divinity School, but there’s a freedom that I haven’t known before, and I’m learning so much. I am grateful to be here. But my heart is the West. That is where I live, and that is my home.
Melissa Sevigny: Something that appears in your work again and again is this idea of anger and the power of anger. You talk about the concept of “sacred rage.” Can you explain that?
Terry Tempest Williams: I think about it a lot, and I so appreciate the depth of your questions. What’s the proper response right now with this administration that cares nothing for truth or science or dignity or compassion or the rights of other people or the value of wild places and endangered species—what’s the proper response? I’m angry. I don’t think I’m alone. But again, I think about a conversation I had with Willy Greyeyes who’s now a county commissioner in San Juan County, Utah. He’s been accused of not being a resident of Utah. I have a friend who is a legislator who is Hopi and Navajo, who’s been accused of not being an American citizen. In both cases I asked them, what do you do with your anger? Willy looked at me and said, “This can no longer be about anger. It has to be about healing.”
I keep thinking: What does that mean? He went on to explain—healing cannot begin if you don’t know the source of the pain. Whether it’s thinking about our relationship as white people to Native people, our relationship as white people to black people, to African-American people, and what is white supremacy, and how have I contributed to that? To me, that’s absolutely part of the reflection that we have to be doing right now. So when I think about my own rage, how can I best put that to use? I write, and it fuels me. I hope that wisdom rises from my anger to where it can be useful. I hope that the white-hot heat of that initial rage I feel can be tempered into something of beauty, through story.
But it’s not always possible. I have to tell you in this book Erosion, there is anger, and it is a howl. Part of me says that is appropriate right now, because I want the future—I feel like I’m writing to the future, that our children’s children’s children will know there was a community of people and it was large and it was broad and it was diverse, who saw what was happening and they were angry, and they were heartbroken, and they tried to act with courage, so that a healing could take place, that we could see the wounds of our racism and entitlement and privilege, and make amends with that. Call them reparations, or apologies. We have a lot of work, and I think in so many ways we have a lot to account for. It goes back to what I was saying about our national parks, that before they were public lands they were Native lands, and we can’t forget that.
The other thing, Melissa, I would say: as women, anger isn’t so readily appreciated. Quote-unquote, “an angry woman”—how many times have I had someone say, “You’re angry. Go back to where you belong, which is in your home, in a domesticated space.” I don’t believe that. I think as women we have the right to be angry, and again—how to be skillful with that anger? For me, it does have to do with listening, as well as acting—that capacity to listen, and to reflect, and then to act wisely, when you can.
Terry Tempest Williams Reads from When Women Were Birds on the Importance of a Woman’s Right to Choose
Melissa Sevigny: This idea of women’s voices and when we choose to speak, and when we choose not to speak, is something that’s very powerful in your memoir When Women Were Birds. That story opens with you receiving your mother’s journals after she died and discovering that they’re blank. I wonder: Why did it take you so much time—three decades, I think—to decide to sit down and write about that?
Terry Tempest Williams: That is such a great question. I didn’t want to look at it. It was so painful. I think that when my mother said, “I’m leaving you all my journals, but you have to promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone,” in that period of one week, I thought: finally, I will know what my mother was thinking—she’s a very private woman. I will know what her thoughts are, her regrets, her dreams, all of that. When I waited a month and found three shelves of journals exactly where she’d said they would be, and opened the first one—and it was empty. The second—empty. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals, blank. It was as though she had died for second time. I remember specifically, distinctively, after the shock, just grabbing them all, putting them in the back of my car, three trips, driving back up the canyon, putting them on my bookshelf, and I never thought about it again.
What I did do is fill them. Except for a few. Some I didn’t. I noticed in each one, when I was writing, I’d say: This is one of my mother’s journals. But I really didn’t have the capacity to reflect on what she was trying to say to me. And frankly, I still don’t know. Was she saying: fill these, because I couldn’t? Was it an act of defiance, because that is what Mormon women do, keep journals? Or was my mother—who at 38 was diagnosed with breast cancer, with a less than 90 percent chance of living beyond five years, it was serious, and she lived until my youngest brother turned 20 which was her vow—was she so busy living that she didn’t have time to write about it? I just don’t know. That’s what that reflection is.
Why did I do it then? Because I turned 54, which was the age my mother was when she died. As my mother did, I faced a health crisis. I kept thinking, I wish mother was here to talk to me. I wish I knew what she was thinking. Then came up the disappointment of her empty journals, and I then I thought: okay, figure out why she left these to you. It really turned out to be like a Buddhist koan. I think those things that threaten to undo us—the loss of a job that I loved, the thought of my mother’s eloquent journals that were empty—those acts of undoing actually are our moments of becoming.
Melissa Sevigny: In the final pages of that book you write about how some stories can’t be told or maybe shouldn’t be told. That strikes me as such an unusual conclusion to come to as a writer.
Terry Tempest Williams: I am so aware of all I don’t say. I think discernment is also part of being a writer, and that level is different for every person who writes. What may be private to me may be public to someone else; what may be private to one person would be public for me. Again, there’s no judgement, but there are stories that I won’t ever tell, out of respect for the people who would be involved, and also my own privacy.
Melissa Sevigny: You’ve mentioned a couple of times now how you’re missing home, and how the Colorado Plateau is the heart of your writing. Tell me more about that. I wonder whether living far away from the American West for the first time, whether that distance has changed anything for you about how you think about your home and think about the desert.
Terry Tempest Williams: It is so much sharper. Where I live, every day a gift. Brooke and I sit on the porch or take a walk, and we have never taken for granted living in the redrock desert. But you do come to think that everyone has that sense of expanse. It’s not true.
Here’s a story: Not long ago, a friend of ours called and said, “May I bring this friend of mine?” We said, “Of course.” We’ve known them for years, they live in New York. He brought his friend, we had a wonderful dinner, we went on a walk, we ate outside. There’s Castleton Tower, Round Mountain, the La Sals—beautiful! We walked down to the Colorado River, and we thought, we’re being a good host and hostess to our guests.
The next morning we heard sort of a ruckus and we got up early, and there she was with her bag packed standing at the door. I said, “Are you okay?” She said, “Actually, no. We’re leaving.” Our friend said, “I’m sorry, it’s just not working out.” We walked them to their car, and she turned to me and she said, “It’s too quiet, it’s too big, and it’s too far away.” Then she just got in the car and rolled down the window and said, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be forgotten?” I wanted to say, “I hope so!” We’re all just in this erosional process. But I think it’s a clue of different perspectives, and how different people call different places home. The Colorado Plateau, Utah, is my home.
I just found this letter that I wrote to my father, may I share it with you?
Melissa Sevigny: Yes, please.
Terry Tempest Williams: It’s October 8, 2017.
Dearest Father. Here is the truth. I miss the American West terribly, so much so that the other day, as I sat down to make a grocery list, it somehow morphed into an accounting of all the things I long for at home in the desert. Here is my list:
1. Sage. 2. Meadowlark. 3. Collared lizard. 4. Sandstone. 5. A night sky of stars. 6. Wind. 7. Rain. Heatwaves. Lightning. Clouds. Coyote. Water. Moon. Jackrabbit. Owl. Squirrel. Mule deer. Turkey vulture. Arrowhead. Handprints on slickrock walls. Ringtails. Great Horned Owl. Raven. Cottontail. Globe mallow. Flash floods, mountain lions, sand, bone, stone, juniper, piñon, rainbows, turquoise, bluebirds, black widow spiders, the smell of rain in the desert. The Colorado River running red. Milk.
Melissa Sevigny: That’s beautiful.
Terry Tempest Williams: Finally I thought: “Oh, yeah, milk. Where am I?” So homesickness is real. But it also sharpens what sustains us. And I love a New England fall. It is radiant. I have come to appreciate trees for what they stand for, and the roots that hold the forest soil. Again, we’re growing. Each of us in our way, with what life presents us. I know how privileged I am, and I don’t take any of this for granted. Hence the responsibility to try to contribute something in the world, in the ways we can.
Melissa Sevigny: I think this is a good time now to talk about your next book, Erosion.
Terry Tempest Williams: Again this idea that we are eroding and evolving at once. This is the premise of this book. I also explore and interrogate the idea of erosion, not just as a geologic process, but as transformational process be it negative or positive—the erosion of democracy, the erosion of decency, the erosion of truth, science, the erosion of belief, the erosion of the body, and the erosion of the self.
Erosion is a collection of essays written in the last seven years, from 2012 to 2019, but more than half of them have been written in the last few with the Trump administration. It is political. It is personal. Everything from the Endangered Species Act to Bears Ears National Monument to my brother’s death by suicide. It’s all of a piece. How do we have the strength to not look away? And what do we see on the horizon if we do not make hard decisions and loving decisions?
Melissa L. Sevigny is the interviews editor for Terrain.org. She is the author of two nonfiction books about science and the American West: Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016). She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.