I don't often rave about a speaker I just saw, but let me rave now.
Last night, I went to see the great environmental writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams speak to a crowd of about 600 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Williams is the author of "When Women Were Birds," "The Open Space of Democracy," "Refuge," and "Finding Beauty in a Broken World."
She spoke poetically and powerfully in a conversation on stage conducted with skill by interviewer Jane Elder, executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. The evening was sponsored by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin.
Disclosure alert: Terry Tempest Williams writes for The Progressive and is a friend of mine.
But I'm urging you to pay attention to what she said not because she's a friend but because she's a wise woman.
About the government shutdown, she said that she was "perplexed and horrified," like the rest of us. But she added that part of her was "deeply grateful" because it brought a rare stillness to the national wildlife refuges so that the animals "could experience the landscape without tourists and hunters."
She noted that this year is the fortieth anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and in two years we'll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. She added: "We could not pass those beautiful laws today." They "acknowledge there is life beyond our species," she said. And they reflect "a spirit of generosity and empathy I don't see in Washington right now." Pointedly, she said: "We have forgotten what it means to be human, to care about civil society, or public lands and public health."
She stressed the need to pay attention to the animals around us and to live responsibly in place and in community. "Each moment requires something different of us," she said. "It behooves us to be ready."
Twice she quoted Gertrude Stein's phrase, "the vitality of the struggle."
Coming to the problem of global climate change, she noted that when we used to tell people not to make small talk, we'd say, "Don't talk to me about the weather." That's no longer valid, she said. "Today, weather is the most substantive thing we have to talk about it."
She called climate change "the great leveler," explaining that "the only good thing to emerge out of climate change is that national boundaries are useless." She said she was "very suspect," though, of rhetoric that says, "This is the endgame," or that invokes images of the apocalypse. She talked about how some evangelical Christians invoke the apocalypse to avoid doing anything about the problems here on Earth. The severity of global warming "doesn't take us off the hook," she said. And she talked about being up in the Brooks Range of Alaska this past summer, and she spoke of "the glorious indifference of the mountains." Even with global warming, she said, "Something will survive; it'll be in an altered state."
She discussed the role of art and stories, saying they can "bypass rhetoric and pierce the heart."
So she told some stories, and two stood out to me.
The first was about her father, who had a bad cough and went to see the doctor, wondering whether it was bronchitis or pneumonia. Her dad called her up after the appointment and said, "You won't believe the diagnosis I got. I'm a victim of climate change." His doctor had explained how the increased pollution around Salt Lake City had adversely affected his lungs. And now, she said, he goes around telling his friends in the Mormon Church: "I didn't believe in climate change. Get real. It's here."
The second was about two young moose calves whose mother had been killed by a car. A friend of Terry's called her up and asked her if she could bring some food to the calves. So she cut some willow branches and brought a bundle out to them. As she told this story, she choked up when she said: "When we met them, I didn't know how to be, how to calm my heart to be pure enough to say I'm sorry about your mother." And then she lightened up, commenting, "We're so incapacitated by our own judgment, like, 'I don't know how to feed a moose.' So I just held out the branches of willows. It's about just being together, showing up, and receiving the gift. It's not about the thought but about being present."
Part of being present, she said, is listening to others and being attentive to beauty. As she put it: "Beauty is not optional but a strategy for survival."
When asked about how she sustains hope, she said, "Sometimes I don't think it's about hope. I'm more interested in faith, and in faith that is tied to action."
"Hope," she said, "is for hostages."
Far better than to hope, she said, is to ask, "What can I do today to make a small difference, and what can we do in community tomorrow to make a big difference?"
Those are words to live by.