The sun was setting on a late October afternoon when I met with author Terry Tempest Williams in a hotel conference room built over a saltwater marsh near San Pablo Bay in San Rafael, California. She was in my hometown that day to deliver a Sunday morning keynote lecture about her latest book, The Open Space of Democracy, to 4,000 people attending the fifteenth annual Bioneers Conference. Following her morning plenary lecture, she hosted a press conference with several dozen journalists, spoke as part a workshop on her book, and signed copies for a long line of fans.
Despite her rather intense schedule that day, she was bright, evocative, introspective, and quite poignant. Like Edward Abbey, she is very much aware of her place in the world and her community in the American West. A fourth-generation Mormon and native of Utah, she takes inspiration from her church and from nature.
Among her books are Desert Quartet, Leap, Unspoken Hunger, and Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. Her sixth, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, tells the story of how the Great Salt Lake once rose to historic levels and flooded the wetlands that serve the migratory birds in northern Utah. She also weaves in her own family's struggle with cancer as a result of living downwind from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site near Las Vegas. A recipient of both a Guggenheim and a Lannan literary fellowship, Williams lives with her husband, Brooke, far from the concrete jungle in Castle Valley, Utah, where she has been passionately active in social and environmental issues for decades. She is currently the Annie Clark Tanner fellow at the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Utah.
Question: How do you plug into your muse?
Terry Tempest Williams: I live in a very, very quiet place. I have a sequence to my creative life. In spring and fall, I am above ground and commit to community. In the summer, I'm outside. It is a time for family. And in the winter, I am underground. Home. This is when I do my work as a writer--in hibernation. I write with the bears.
Q: How has your sense of place affected your outlook?
Williams: I come from an old Mormon family, six generations. Our ancestors came across the plains with Brigham Young in 1847, when he settled the Salt Lake Valley. I was raised in the interior American West. The space seemed infinite. It was a wonderful place to grow up. Our family spent most of our time together outside, so there was never a separation between the land, our family, and our spiritual life. For four generations, the Tempest family has made a living by putting in natural gas lines, water lines, sewage lines, optic fiber cables. Our family has made its livelihood from the land, digging trenches for hundreds of miles cross-country. You could say this is a real paradox, to destroy the land, yet love it at the same time. This is a typical story of Westerners, how we build community through change.
For me, it always comes back to the land, respecting the land, the wildlife, the plants, the rivers, mountains, and deserts, the absolute essential bedrock of our lives. This is the source of where my power lies, the source of where all our power lies. We are animal. We are Earth. We are water. We are a community of human beings living on this planet together. And we forget that. We become disconnected, we lose our center point of gravity, that stillness that allows us to listen to life on a deeper level and to meet each other in a fully authentic and present way.As children, we had access to all the open space imaginable. We would set up camps in rural Utah where the Tempest Company was at work laying pipe. We spent time around the West in Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado. Wild beautiful places. Now, many of these natural places have disappeared under the press of development.
Every day, my heart breaks living in southern Utah on the edge of America's Redrock Wilderness, witnessing what the Bush Administration's policies regarding oil and gas exploitation are doing to our public lands that belong to all Americans. In Utah alone, ten million acres are open for business. Their policy is not about the public or the public's best interest. It is about the oil and gas corporations' best interests. The Secretary of the Interior, under Bush and Cheney's thumb, is urging the Bureau of Land Management to support the gas and oil industry's most extreme drilling scenario in some of the American West's most pristine and fragile areas without proper legal and public input.
Community after community is rising up, ranchers, developers, environmentalists, and local commissioners, all saying this is not the best use of our public lands. It is a story that is largely unknown in the rest of the country. It is a disturbing and community-destroying example of domestic imperialism being waged against people in places deeply connected to the public lands that are our public commons. The Bush energy policy is a short-term strategy based on corporate greed instead of a sustainable vision of what best supports local economies and healthy ecosystems.
Q: It seems to me that being an American right now has never been more shameful. How do you deal with that?
Williams: I don't think of myself as an American; I see myself as a human being. On the other hand, you're right, I am an American, I do live in Utah, and I am deeply ashamed about the decisions our President is making around the world, in our name: the war in Iraq, his continued denial about global warming, the wholesale degradation of the environment on every level. Since September 11, 2001, I have come to believe that there are many forms of terrorism, and environmental degradation is one of them.
We have to transcend our government and relate to each other as human beings first and Americans second and feel both our local and global responsibilities. No one lives in isolation anymore.
Q: You've said our language has been taken hostage. What do you mean by that?
Williams: Not only has our language been taken hostage, but individual words like "patriot," "patriotism," "democracy," and "liberty" have been bound and gagged, forced to perform indecent acts through the abuse of slogans like "Liberty and freedom will prevail." As a writer, I cannot in good conscience use the word "prevail" anymore because I keep hearing the cliches circling around it. Take the word "resolve"--I am so tired of hearing George W. Bush use it ad nauseum like a verbal weapon. He speaks in this mind-numbing, heart-tearing litany of cliches. Our symbols have also been taken hostage: the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, the list goes on and on. Joseph Campbell warns us to beware of those who take our deeply held symbols and turn them into signs of intolerance, signs of shallowness, coercion, and control.
Q: You yourself encountered some of this coercion. Talk about your brush with censorship at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Williams: I was invited to give the Freshmen Convocation at Florida Gulf Coast University on October 24, 2004. My book The Open Space of Democracy had been selected as one of the "common readers" for the university's 1,050 entering freshmen. On October 6, William Merwin, the president of Florida Gulf Coast (along with his board of trustees appointed by Governor Jeb Bush), made the decision to "postpone" the convocation because, in the president's words, "I in good conscience cannot permit an unbalanced political commentary." He cited negative statements I had made in print about President Bush.
What was so upsetting about this situation is the fact that if our colleges and universities are no longer the champions and protectors of free speech, then no voice in this country is safe.
In a telephone conversation, which I had with him prior to his public announcement, he had said that I was "threatening to the students and the university."
Earlier in the month, President Merwin asked me to sign an agreement creating the conditions that would enable me to speak at Florida Gulf Coast University. The agreement demanded that 1) I would not represent a particular point of view and 2) I would not publicly criticize the President of the United States. I refused.
Luckily, the students rose to the occasion. They immediately recognized the violation of their own free speech and how this was compromising their own education. They exerted true courage and leadership creating a bipartisan coalition of over twelve student organizations ranging from the Young Republicans to the New Democrats to the Model U.N. They issued their own invitation to me to speak on campus at the same date, which I readily accepted. And then they publicly denounced the president's decision to postpone their convocation as a violation of the First Amendment and their understanding of the precepts of Florida Gulf Coast University.
Q: And then what happened?
Williams: What happened was even more disturbing. The following week, President Merwin extended an invitation to Vice President Dick Cheney to speak on campus. Turns out, Merwin was a known contributor to the Republican Party and a Bush supporter. The students and faculty became outraged; the Faculty Senate called a meeting with Merwin where impassioned speeches were made and hard questions asked. In the end, the president agreed never to make a unilateral decision like this again without input from students and faculty. In the end, I did speak at Florida Gulf Coast University at the student-organized event, and it was an extraordinary gathering, a true healing inspired by the students' wise leadership. I thanked them for their true civil disobedience and spoke about how what power fears most is the naked beauty of a singular voice--what they had exercised. I thanked them for not only reading The Open Space of Democracy but for embodying it.
Q: Who have been your role models?
Williams: Rachel Carson. I remember as a child, my grandmother read to me Silent Spring. It was incomprehensible to me that there could be a world without birdsong. Rachel Carson was not only an influence on me but felt like family because of the regard my grandmother had for her. It was the same with the writer Loren Eiseley. Certainly, I've been influenced by the Transcendentalists: Thoreau, Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Lately, I have returned to Whitman's poetry, his notion of what a spiritual democracy is and can be. These ideas are part of a great continuum, both literary and political. Consider the writings of Willa Cather, Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, James Baldwin, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, Maxine Hong Kingston, and the poetry of Mary Oliver.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received from a role model or mentor?
Williams: Wangari Maathai, one of my teachers to whom I dedicated The Open Space of Democracy, comes to mind most readily. She said to me in Castle Valley last spring, "Those who help create these openings of democracy must inhabit them." She was speaking about each of us getting involved in local and national politics. And then I asked her what she had learned in these last twenty years of activism on behalf of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Her reply was one word: patience.
Q: Do you look to your writing as a tool for your activism in the effort to prevent the wholesale destruction of the environment?
Williams: I do. I never will forget when I crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site in the Mojave Desert just outside Las Vegas. Before arresting me, the officer searched my body and found a pen and a notepad tucked inside my boots. "And these?" she asked. "Weapons," I replied. She quietly slipped my pant leg over my boots and let me keep them. Writing can be a powerful tool toward justice. Story bypasses rhetoric and pierces the heart. We feel it. Stories have the power to create social change and inspire community. But good writing must stay open to the questions and not fall prey to the pull of a polemic, otherwise, words simply become predictable, sentimental, and stale.
Q: What role should direct action play in the conservation and environmental movement?
Williams: It's a personal decision not to be taken lightly. I know when I chose to commit civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site for the first time in 1988, it was not only a political decision but a spiritual one. I thought about this gesture, long and hard. I felt the gravity of its tradition, the seriousness of its action. I remember reading Gandhi's words and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," along with Thoreau's essay. I went through nonviolent training led by seasoned activists at the Test Site sponsored by the Nevada Desert Experience. And I was not alone; there was a great solidarity among the men and women who were far more experienced about social actions than I was, including the Shoshone elders whose land the Test Site is on. So I think direct political action, civil disobedience, in particular, is something to be taken very seriously. I belong to "a clan of one-breasted women," where nine women in my family have all had mastectomies; seven have died, as a result of nuclear testing and radioactive fallout. We are downwinders. As we speak, my brother is in the last stages of lymphoma. There are times we have to put our body on the line for what we believe, for the injustices we see even within our own families.
Q: Could you speak to environmentalism in the Mormon Church and to other changes there?
Williams: At the heart of Mormonism is a high regard for community. That is its strength. I have great respect for that, and I think that for those of us living in Utah--for those of us who are Mormon, even if we are not orthodox--the way into an environmental conversation with the Mormon Church is through the door of community. And if we respect the Creator, then it logically follows that we respect Creation. In the early days of the Mormon Church, stewardship toward the land was a priority. It was a matter of survival in the desert.
If you waste water, you die. Brigham Young and others lectured about water and soil conservation and overgrazing. There are members of the church today who are still concerned about sustainability issues. They have gone back into church history and pulled out old references that have never been so relevant.
An example of this renaissance of environmental thought can be found in an anthology some of us put together called New Genesis--A Mormon Reader on Land and Community. It's a collection of forty essays written by members of the LDS faith on why wilderness and a healthy environment matter and why they are compatible with religious beliefs. It has provided some balance and provocation to the notion that all Mormons are Republicans and anti-wilderness.
I can only say that I believe the Mormon Church is changing because the people inside the church are changing, particularly, the women. And if the women in the Mormon Church are changing, that means the men in the Mormon Church will change--slowly, reluctantly to be sure, but inevitably.
Our orthodoxies are no longer working for us, whether it is government, organized religion, or our schools. We are moving beyond the constraints that have held us for so long. There is an unraveling, a great unraveling that I believe is occurring. Not without its pain, not without its frustration. Perhaps the fundamentalism we see within America right now is in response to these changes. We fear change, and so we cling to what is known.
Q: Where are we in history?
Williams: This is an incredibly creative time. It is a difficult time. It is a disparaging time. A time of cultural and global transitions based on the realization that the Earth cannot support nonsustainable practices anymore. I believe capitalism will eventually be replaced by a communitarian ethic where the rights and care of all beings will be taken into consideration, not just the greed of a corporate few. Thomas Berry calls this time the Ecozoic Era, a time when we recognize the imperative of caring for the planet as a means of compassionate survival. We do not know what the outcome is going to be, but we have an opportunity to make these kinds of creative and imaginative leaps of thought and actions both locally and globally. This is completely antithetical to the direction George W. Bush is leading this nation. I do trust that the open space of democracy is ultimately the open space of our hearts and that we can follow our own leadership that carries a long-term view way beyond "four more years."
Q: No one has ever quite phrased it that way before in terms of the ideals of the nation.
Williams: There is such an atmosphere of fear right now, and it is being used aggressively against us. It seems to be in times of war, the only appropriate action is to bear our hearts relentlessly, fearlessly. Call it a reflective activism born out of humility, not arrogance, with deep time spent in the consideration of others, which can open the door to becoming a compassionate citizen in the world.
Q: Why do you remain hopeful?
Williams: Hope is not attached to outcomes but is a state of mind, as Vaclav Havel says, "an orientation of the spirit." And I have faith; maybe more than hope, I have faith. I think of my great-grandmother, Vilate Lee Romney, who came from good pioneer Mormon stock. She always said to us that faith without works is dead, so I think if we have hope, we must work to further that hope. Maybe that is the most important thing of all, to have our faith rooted in action. Our community in Castle Valley, Utah, gives me hope. It is a group of people who have committed to caring for a place, both human and wild. If I walked forever, I would never be able to cover this native ground of wonder and awe. I really do believe if there is hope in the world, then it is to be found within our own communities with our own neighbors, and within our own homes and families. Hope radiates outward from the center of our concerns. Hope dares us to stare the miraculous in the eye and have the courage not to look away.
I refuse to walk away.
David Kupfer is a longtime contributor to The Progressive. His writing has also appeared in magazines such as Adbusters, BackPackers, Diva, Earth Island Journal, HighTimes, Hope, New Farm, SingOut, Talking Leaves, and Whole Earth. He is also an environmental consultant and an organic grower for several East Bay restaurants. He is also working on the United Nations World Environment Day Conference to be held June 1-5 in San Francisco. He divides his time between Berkeley and an organic farm in Northern California.