It may not be what you think.
By Terry Tempest Williams
Each of us has our mentors, the individuals who showed us at an early age not only a different way of seeing the world, but a different way of being in the world. I found my mentor at the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His name was Ted Major. He was the first Democrat I had ever met. I was eighteen years old.
Today, Ted is ninety-one years old, and still as contemporary as anyone I know. He tends his fruit trees in Victor, Idaho, with his wife, Joan, of more than sixty years, and four generations of Majors living on their homestead. I am still learning from him.
Ted and Joan started a small summer field school in Wilson, Wyoming, in 1968 with the support of friends that included biologist Frank Craighead, geologist David Love, and conservationist Mardy Murie. It was radical for its time, evolving into one of the first environmental education centers in America. I responded to an ad in the Utah Audubon newsletter about a weekend ecology course in the Tetons led by Florence Krall, a professor in education at the University of Utah.
I remember driving up to Jackson Hole and seeing flocks of sandhill cranes dancing in the fields outside Cokeville. I was certain this was a new phenomenon seen for the first time and immediately called my ornithology professor at the University of Utah, William H. Behle, from a phone booth.
“How sweet of you to call,” I remember him saying graciously after my euphoria over this discovery. “Actually, Terry, the cranes have been doing their mating dance for close to nine million years.” He paused and cleared his throat. “But it is no less thrilling.”
Ted continued my ecological education, as did Flo. The lodgepole pines I had seen as red and dying were now part of the story of fire ecology, with pine bark beetles entering the cambium layer of the tree, killing it, and preparing it for fire. The flames rise with the heat and split open the cones, dropping seeds for the lodgepole’s regeneration.
“Serotinus cones,” Ted said.
Being a young Mormon woman, I heard “resurrection.”
What I loved about Ted was that he cared more about the questions and less about the answers.
After watching a pair of trumpeter swans at the OxBow Bend on the Snake River and learning they were still on the endangered list, I asked Ted how the species had reinhabited the Greater Yellowstone region after almost becoming extinct. “There were a few breeding pairs on Red Rock Lakes in the Centennial Valley in Montana, but let’s think about this,” he answered.
Each creature became a point of inquiry, a form for dynamic pedagogy in the field. Whether he knew the answer or not, he invited us to explore relational thinking. I couldn’t count the times Ted said, “I don’t know.” This inspired me. I found myself participating in a language previously unknown to me. I didn’t want to leave. The birds I loved, such as cranes and swans, were now part of a larger story, and I was desperate to know more. I met my own hunger; my curiosity was insatiable.
Before I left, Ted asked if I would take a packet of materials back to a friend of his at the university. His name was David Raskin, a professor of psychology and a leading expert in polygraphs. He had tested Patty Hearst, the publishing mogul William Hearst’s granddaughter, who was kidnapped and joined the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.
The next day, I knocked on Raskin’s door. A short, black-bearded, very intense man opened the door, someone who didn’t want to be bothered. I quickly introduced myself and told him I had just returned from the Teton Science School, and that Ted Major had asked me to deliver this.
“How was it?” he asked.
I burst into tears.
“No, that good,” I managed to say.
“Please come in.”
A friendly errand turned into an hour-long conversation or perhaps, more to the point, a therapy session. No lie-detector test was needed. By the end of the hour, Raskin sat back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head.
“It just so happens there is a scholarship in environmental studies in our department, and it just so happens that the deadline is today,” he said. “And it just so happens no one has applied.”
In the next fifteen minutes, I applied and was accepted, and we designed a summer project for me to conduct through the Teton Science School. I would study tourist behavior in Grand Teton National Park.
The scholarship was for $500. With a quick phone call from Raskin, Grand Teton National Park agreed to pay me $3 a day and I went back to the Science School as their first official intern. I was also asked to conduct Saturday morning bird walks as a naturalist. My parents were both happy and worried for me.
“You said Major is a Democrat?” my father asked one more time. My entire family drove me up to the Science School, where I would be living for the summer. Ted and my father got along well. They both liked to argue. My mother was charming, softening the edges of both, and Joan missed nothing. Hands were shaken. My family left, and I walked to my own cabin to unpack my Levis, hiking boots, a few cowboy shirts, and books.
Toward the end of the summer, Ted and Joan and the students enrolled in the high school field course went on a seven-day backpacking trip in the Wind River range. I was invited to join them. High in the Titcomb Basin, Wyoming’s highest peak was in view: Gannett. We watched a coyote run up the snow field very near to its summit, stop, sit and look out at the view. In that moment, any boundaries I felt as a human being toward other creatures dissolved.
When we returned home, a skinned coyote was hanging by its neck from the crossbars of the ranch as we entered the school. Ted was driving the bus.
He stopped, got out, cut the rope with the buck knife always on his belt. The coyote was released into his arms. We all got out of the bus and circled around him.
“This used to be the Elbo Ranch,” he said. “Some of the old-timers don’t like what we’re doing.”
I wrote my grandmother a letter about this encounter. She wrote me back, enclosing an article by René Dubos titled “Mankind Does Become Better.” She underlined this passage: “Stability, comfort, and even high refinements are not enough to nourish human nature; the body survives but the spirit loses its vitality unless stimulated by new models created by imagination. Working out solutions for problems which have no transcendental meaning soon becomes boring. To keep really alive, men must raise their sights to some high purpose, best perhaps to one divorced from the satisfactions of animal appetites. Human life, like all other forms of life, is not concerned only with perpetuating itself and satisfying itself. It must surpass itself; otherwise, it becomes just a waiting for death.”
My grandmother wrote, “We evolve as human beings through our imagination and will. However hard it must have been for you to see this act of cruelty, view it as an insight into those who wielded the knife.”
Ted Major mentored me. Coyotes continue to mentor me. I still think about the man who skinned the coyote and the man who cut it off the beam, both using the same weapon, both equally powerful gestures. If one can mark a moment, this was mine. I became part of “the Coyote Clan.” I made a vow to the coyote who climbed Gannett Peak and the coyote who was murdered and martyred that I would not remain silent. I would speak.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism.