Terry Tempest Williams
The Vitality of the Struggle
Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist and writer, a biologist by training with a literary mind, who comes from a long Mormon lineage in Utah. She draws political, spiritual, and creative inspiration from her experience of the interior American West. She offers stories of neighborly collaboration that turns into environmental protection, and the value that comes from vitriolic disagreement inside families.
Terry Tempest Williams is a writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School. Her books include When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, and most recently, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks.
July 19, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist and writer, a biologist by training with a literary mind. She comes from a long line of Mormons in Utah. And she takes the interior American West as her center of political, spiritual, and creative gravity. She sheds light on the West as a place where the divisions in America can be at their most heated. But to headlines of impasse and hostility, Terry Tempest Williams also has stories of citizen-led change. She offers up practical virtues of neighborliness, the value of “sacred rage,” and seeing beauty as an act of survival.
MS. TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: It’s the small conversations that again loom large that I think are so crucial, where we really can not just offer our opinions, but really ideas. I think that’s what we’re hungry for and — and I think that’s where leadership lies.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.
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MS. TIPPETT: Terry Tempest Williams has been an activist for wilderness preservation all of her adult life. She’s worked closely with The Wilderness Society, served on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, and helped lead an ongoing effort to save a type of prairie dog from extinction. She’s also the author of lyrical books that merge observation of the natural world with social and spiritual reflection. They have titles like The Open Space of Democracy and Finding Beauty in a Broken World.
I spoke with her in 2011, soon after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Arizona. I wanted to hear what perspective Terry Tempest Williams might add to our national imagination about the meaning of civility — something that continues to elude us now. Terry Tempest Williams’ point of view, as I quickly learned, has everything to do with where she comes from.
MS. TIPPETT: Where I always start my conversations, whoever I’m talking to, is hearing a little bit about the spiritual background of your childhood. It’s clear to me that the fact that you grew up where you did, not just Mormon, right, not just in that tradition, but in that place is formative.
MS. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. For me it begins and ends with landscape. And I grew up in the interior West, in Utah, Salt Lake City, with my back against the Wasatch Mountains as my spine. Religious freedom was the impulse. Five, six generations Mormon coming for spiritual sovereignty into the great Salt Lake Valley. When Brigham Young said, “This is the place,” my ancestors were right there behind him with their handcarts saying, “Yes.” My ancestors’ bones are buried here alongside my family.
I also belong to a fourth-generation pipeline construction company, family business, the Tempest Company. And so at our house not only was Mormonism part of my religious background, but the weather was. And at 5:15 everything stopped at our house where my father would see if they were going to work or not. And the infrastructure of the American West was really built on my family’s backs and the backs of the men who worked there, laying pipe that natural gas could flow through, that water could flow through, sewage, and now telephone lines and fiber-optic cable. So the land held both the religious impulse and also the livelihood of my family.
MS. TIPPETT: So in all of the tension of American life right now, there is a dimension of geographic divides, right? I mean, it’s kind of hard to pin this down. You can’t say the Red States, the Blue States and it’s not East-West, right? But you do come from a part of the country that has a very distinct identity. And you are actually steeped, and even in your work as an environmentalist, in some of these dynamics that we don’t — we, I mean all of us as a collective — don’t really know how to grapple with, um, in terms of relationship to the government, hostility to the government, where is the line between individualism and common life, and what really matters. So, I mean, I’d like for you to talk to me about that, about how you experience, oh, some of the big words that are being thrown around right now like “moral imagination,” “civil discourse.” What’s been on your mind? What insights do you bring? Also what complexity do you see there from standing where you do?
MS. WILLIAMS: First of all, I feel I have no insights.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. WILLIAMS: Last week, I have to tell you, Krista, my husband, Brooke, and I were at a party and someone said, “So what do you do?” And I said, “About what?” And they just looked at me like, “Excuse me? What planet do you live on?” But it just showed me, you know, it’s like what do we do? What do we do? So I feel like I have no insights. I’m just in the vitality with the struggle.
And for me, you know, I go to words. I think words matter in the most profound sense, in the highest sense, in the deepest sense, and in the darkest sense. And the word that I keep hearing played over and over is “vitriol.” And I was thinking, what is vitriol? What does it mean? And I actually looked it up and it was fascinating because it means an allusion to the corrosive properties of vitriol, which is a strong corrosive acid linked to sulfuric acid, clear, colorless, oily, water-soluble liquid that is produced from sulfur dioxide. Which I thought was interesting, which is the toxic waste that comes from burning coal, used chiefly in the manufacturing of fertilizer, chemicals, drugs, explosives, and petroleum refining. And I thought, well, this is really interesting. Because I think that the conversations that we so often have, and I have to tell you, you know, I don’t have to go anywhere but my own family dinner table to find the seed bed of this, both the highest use of language and the lowest use of language with real vitriol, because the people around our dinner table and our extended family do not all think the same. So I have no illusion that we all have this common ground. You know, we have to really fight for that around our household. And we always have.
But I love that. I love that my uncle and I can talk for two and a half hours and he can talk to me about what it means to be a captain on the border of Arizona and Mexico as a Minuteman. I love that my brother, who is laying pipe in Tucson, Arizona, tells me, “If there’s going to be anarchy, it’s going to happen here.” I love that I have a cousin, Lynne Tempest, who was editor of the first women’s magazine in Salt Lake City, Utah. I love that I had a grandmother who studied Jung in the privacy and secrecy of her turquoise study and that we were always afraid to stay overnight because we knew that at the breakfast table she would say, “And what did you dream?”
So it’s a diverse family. I love that my father wears cowboy boots that could kill spiders in corners.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. WILLIAMS: But, you know, this is what I’m saying: It all happens around our family and there’s a larger glue that holds us together and that is love. So we’re forced to listen to each other if we want the relationships to survive.
MS. TIPPETT: But how do you think about — it is precisely that, listening to each other and that relationship, that is missing when some of those very dynamics, those exact dynamics and qualities you listed, become transferred into the political realm? Right?
MS. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: When these become political differences and, in fact, positions but we don’t know each other as human beings across these positions. So what do you know — let me just ask it this way: What do you know from living in your family, from being able to stay at the dinner table together?
MS. WILLIAMS: And believe me, there have been times I’ve left. So I don’t want to create any illusions. I mean, what comes to my mind is a wonderful man named Ray McDonald in Maine. Our family has a place there and he’s our neighbor. He loves deer; he loves bobcats. You know, politically we couldn’t be farther apart but we love the land. I mean, he makes such fun of me, because being a Westerner — I was walking through the woods and I saw this platform at the top of this balsam fir and I thought, “That is incredible that an artist would create an installation in this tree.” And I was saying, “Ray, have you seen this incredible platform? Do you know who created that?” He said, “Terry, that’s where I sit to hunt deer.” Well, in the West you hunt deer by — because the largest trees are sage, which hit you at your knee. You know, so it’s these different cultural differences and yet I understand, you know, Ray McDonald because of my uncle, because of my brothers, because of my father, because even at 16 I held a rifle and went deer hunting. You know, I think we find those commonalities and that can sound cliché but it really isn’t. It’s how do we meet one another? And, you know, it goes back to that story when we’re at a dinner party or we meet someone, what do you do? You know, that’s such a superficial question.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. WILLIAMS: It’s more, “What do you see?” You know, “What do you love?” “Tell me the last time you were afraid.” That’s when we get to the heart of the stories that really matter that shape us, that take us to a different place of communion.
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I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams. There’s been no shortage of struggle in her own sphere of life — struggles that, like the books she writes, reveal the intersection between place and politics and historic American tensions between the national and the regional. Here’s a passage from her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. She recounts a conversation with her father over dinner one year after her mother, Diane, died of breast cancer.
READER: “Over dessert, I shared a recurring dream of mine. I told my father that for years, as long as I could remember, I saw this flash of light in the night in the desert — that this image had so permeated my being that I could not venture south without seeing it again, on the horizon, illuminating buttes and mesas.
“‘You did see it,’ he said. ‘Saw what?’ ‘The bomb. The cloud. We were driving home from Riverside, California. You were sitting on Diane’s lap. She was pregnant. In fact, I remember the day, September 7, 1957. We had just gotten out of the Service. We were driving north, past Las Vegas. It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explosion went off. I thought the oil tanker in front of us had blown up. We pulled over and suddenly, rising from the desert floor, we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the car.’
“I stared at my father. ‘I thought you knew that,’ he said. ‘It was a common occurrence in the fifties.’ […] It is a well-known story in the Desert West, ‘The Day We Bombed Utah,’ or more accurately, the years we bombed Utah: above ground atomic testing in Nevada took place from January 27, 1951 through July 11, 1962. […]
“When the Atomic Energy Commission described the country north of the Nevada Test Site as ‘virtually uninhabited desert terrain,’ my family and the birds at Great Salt Lake were some of the ‘virtual uninhabitants.'”
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MS. TIPPETT: There’s a really defining trauma and tragedy of your life, of cancer. Nine women in your family have had mastectomies and seven have died, including your mother, your grandmother. You have been immersed in this history of open-air nuclear testing that came downwind where you grew up in southern Utah. I have to imagine that in all of that you’ve known what it is to be really angry.
MS. WILLIAMS: I just stayed with my father last night. It marked the 24th anniversary of my mother’s death from cancer. You know, that’s a long time but it feels like no time at all. You know, time and space expand and contract with those that we love. Next week it will be the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death from lymphoma. So, you know, these issues of above-ground testing, nuclear testing, being a downwinder, a hibakusha as the Japanese say. They’re not abstractions. You know, we live with them every day.
The personal becomes political. As you said, nine women in my family have all had mastectomies, seven are dead. I made a decision to cross the line at the Nevada test site and commit civil disobedience and was arrested with many, many other members of the Utah community of the Shoshone Nation who’ve all been affected by nuclear fallout. You know, this is not just our family’s story.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. WILLIAMS: And I have been angry and I’m still angry and I think the challenge is, you know, how do we take that anger and transform it into sacred rage? I write. For me, art is a transformative medium. You know, the challenge is to stay. The challenge is to be present with that pain. As my mother was dying, I sat with her. You know, as my brother was dying, we sat with him. And there are moments of very dark humor. Anyone who has sat with the dying knows that. There’s moments of excruciating pain where you think, “If I could take this from you, I would. Why isn’t it me?” But then just there’s those silences.
And I think it’s the silences that I find my greatest strength, whether it’s the silence between someone you love or whether it’s the silences in the natural world, in the desert, or whether it’s the reflective moments when you have your pen to paper saying how can I take this anger and not have it be a polemic?
MS. TIPPETT: But how do we do that? Is this, in fact, the question right now? Is what we have, in fact, right now the question and not the answers?
MS. WILLIAMS: And I think the questions are enough. You know, if we can ask ourselves the question, then we’re going to move toward the answer. And that’s where, for me, it really is about listening and being curious and speaking from not our mind, and sometimes not even our heart because that’s where it gets so emotional that we can’t hear one another, but to really listen and to find that point of humanity, that connected truth. And I find that absolutely exquisite. And that’s where I want to dwell. You know, as a naturalist my favorite places to be are along the ecotone. It’s where it’s most alive. And that usually is, um, you know, the edge of the forest and the meadow. It’s the edge of the ocean and the sand, you know, where the rack line occurs. It’s that interface between peace and chaos. You know, it’s that creative edge that I think we find most instructive. It’s also the most frightening.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. WILLIAMS: Because it’s completely uncertain and unpredictable. And that’s again where I choose to live.
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MS. TIPPETT: You’ve even spoken about finding refuge in change — comfort in the contradictory nature of things. And I think …
MS. WILLIAMS: What else is there?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. What else is there and yet, you know, we know better than we’ve ever known before, even through science right now, that for all of us as human beings but for some of us more than others, change itself creates fear.
MS. WILLIAMS: And I think that’s what we’re seeing in the interior West. You know, the land is changing. You know, you have in Utah big wilderness bills that are coming up. You have the surge for oil and gas that’s right on that same political conversation. You have communities that are isolated and take great pride in that, who have a distrust of the government, and you have a black president. You know, it’s explosive. And, again, I don’t know if there is a way in other than as neighbors.
MS. TIPPETT: Hmm.
MS. WILLIAMS: I really don’t. And I’m not sure that I believe in consensus.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. WILLIAMS: I believe in — and I don’t think civil …
MS. TIPPETT: Say some more — yeah.
MS. WILLIAMS: I don’t think civil discourse is enough.
MS. TIPPETT: No.
MS. WILLIAMS: Because it still, it sits on the surface and that’s what frustrates me so much, I think about our country, is how do we really find a more meaningful conversation rather than, you know, it’s not enough to simply get a smile from your enemy. That leaves me no solace. What I want to know is what are you really thinking? What are you really feeling? And how did you come to that knowledge? And it asks me, you know, I had a great question that was asked of me. Someone said: “When did you change? When have you ever opened your mind and changed your opinion? You’re asking me to change mine. Tell me at a point where you were going one direction and because of something you shifted.” And I thought that was a great question. You know, it has to go both ways.
MS. TIPPETT: And the kind of question we have to ask — be ready to ask each other and ourselves.
MS. WILLIAMS: Exactly. I remember Stuart Udall, whom I loved and — and …
MS. TIPPETT: And who is he? Stuart?
MS. WILLIAMS: Stuart Udall was, um, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Interior in the 1960s.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. All right.
MS. WILLIAMS: One of the great figures in public lands history. I remember at the 19 — um, it was the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in Washington. He said, “You know Terry, there was a time in Washington when we really listened to each other, and if you can believe this, where we actually because of speech someone made changed our opinion.” You know, It’s the small conversations that again loom large that I think are so crucial, where we really can not just offer our opinions but really ideas. I think that’s what we’re hungry for and I think that’s where leadership lies.
MS. TIPPETT: When I was reading through all your writings, I was kind of pulling out lines and thoughts that I want to ask you about. One of them, again, was just a question — I’m just looking for where I wrote it down. Something like, “What does it mean if our institutions have failed us?” Which is, I think, in itself a frightening question. I recall that, though, and I think about what you’ve just been saying. We’re not going to refashion our institutions quickly but where we can start again, as you said, is as neighbors, which is also not without its challenges.
MS. WILLIAMS: Again, I think of, you know, so many stories, but I do believe our institutions are failing us. And I think it’s why so many of us left our home religions and are searching for a different kind of spirituality and community.
MS. TIPPETT: Out here it is: “What happens when our institutions no longer serve us?” Which is a different …
MS. WILLIAMS: Yeah. And I think we have to really ask those questions. You know, um, I made a commitment to the University of Utah to create a program with our Dean of Humanities and other faculty members and mentors. We’ve started a program — a graduate program called “Environmental Humanities,” where we’re trying to take these disciplines out of the silos, out of their boxes, because they no longer serve us, and how do they talk to each other? You know, how does science speak to literature? How does literature speak to politics? How does politics speak to history? You know, I just think everything is merging, which makes it very terrifying because the boundaries that we have always been able to count on, you know, the boxes that we were always able to put people in are dissolving. And — and so how do we use this moment as — as a creative conversation to see the world whole, even holy?
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you also say a lot of things about fear in your writing that I think are very useful in a positive way. I mean, not just naming it but casting it in a different light. I mean, for example, this was in an interview, you said, “Our line of fear is ultimately our line of growth.” Again, that’s a simple statement and I think we know it to be true in our personal lives, but it’s something that we can appropriate with courage in our common life.
MS. WILLIAMS: And we don’t know what the end result is going to be. To me, that’s my definition of faith. Hope seems besides the point these days for me. Krista, you know, I think it’s interesting — when you read that line back to me what I thought about was my fear, you know, our fear in our community in Castle Valley of losing our land. And that happened about 10 years ago in sharp relief when the School Trust Lands, which is something all of us living in the American West understand — it’s a checkerboard system where each square acre of land is owned by what we call the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration. And the money gleaned from that piece of land goes into the school coffers to benefit schoolchildren.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. WILLIAMS: You can imagine if you’ve got a checkerboard system and people want this big block of land to go to wilderness, they’re saying, “You’re robbing the children of their future.” So there’s been lots of trades in Western public lands. It’s complicated. In the simple moment, School Trust Lands was selling a large chunk of land for development. What that meant is that our water would be compromised as well as what we felt was the integrity of this community that was trying to survive in the desert. Long story short, our fear brought us together. Very disparate people, let me tell you, I mean, we’re talking local, state, federal, militia. We’re talking people growing their own drugs of choice. We’re talking very, very diverse.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. WILLIAMS: I won’t get into the point because I’ll get in trouble with my neighbors but the point is, you know, we were called the People’s Republic of Castle Valley. Everyone’s there because, as my father would say, we’re all misfits. Anyway, we banded together. We created a little land trust called the Castle Rock Collaboration. We had no power, no money, no authority, and quickly we organized. Everyone figured out what their strengths were. There was a wildlife biologist, there was a photographer, there was a water specialist, and we were able to fundraise. We were able to raise close to $2 million. We were able to purchase all the lands on the east side of the road and protect them and put them in safekeeping. Ultimately, what became a private concern, you could say a selfish concern, became a regional concern. And, you know, that’s a story where our line of fear actually led to our growth as a community with our own political power — with a very diverse audience and community that really only knew how to fight each other.
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MS. TIPPETT: Terry Tempest Williams mentioned two terms: “ecotone” and “hibakusha” — the surviving victims of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We have more on both of these ideas at our website, onbeing.org. There you can also read Hideko Tamura Snider’s account of surviving the nuclear fallout as a 10-year-old Japanese girl. Alongside that, we offer Terry Tempest Williams’ essay about her family and the issue of nuclear fallout in the American desert. It’s called “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” All that at onbeing.org.
And in the past couple of years, we’ve collected a series of conversations — with ideas and tools to heal our fractured civic spaces, even as we continue to disagree on huge questions of our time. You can explore those other shows and voices on our website, like: Frances Kissling — a veteran pro-choice activist who’s building relationships with her political opposites. Or the philosopher Anthony Appiah. His parents’ marriage helped inspire the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and he’s studied how unimaginable social change happens. He shares his down-to-earth take on how to disarm moral hostilities in America now. Find links at onbeing.org.
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Coming up, Terry Tempest Williams on beauty as an act of survival, and the radical act of staying home. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. My guest, Terry Tempest Williams, is a naturalist and a writer with a long Mormon heritage. She combines social, artistic, and spiritual reflection with observations from the natural world. Her books include The Open Space of Democracy and Finding Beauty in a Broken World. That book traces human fragmentation and its antidotes from Terry Tempest Williams’ experiences in a village in Rwanda — to her observations of prairie dogs in the American desert — to a pilgrimage she took to the Italian city of Ravenna to learn the ancient art of mosaic. She writes, for example, of this lesson from her teacher there, Luciana:
READER: “Luciana stands next to me and cuts several gold tesserae and shows me the line to follow to make the stems of lilies. She encourages me to break up the gold with tesserae made of yellow sandstone. ‘It makes it more interesting to vary the textures,’ she says. ‘Never use too much of any one color, not even gold. In mosaic, it is the tension that ties one tesserae to another.’ I cut and set the lines of gold. […]
“She asks me to move and sits down in my seat and instantly begins cutting more tesserae and placing them where they should be. […] ‘See here,’ she says, running her finger across the arching line just above the first lily on the left. ‘You must pay attention to what the ancient mosaicists did with color. It may not make sense to you, but stand back and squint.’
“I follow her instructions. It’s true; what appears illogical or abrupt close up blends from afar. A chartreuse tessera that jars my eye when it’s close becomes a glint of light on the dark green stem. It’s as though sunlight has entered the room. […] Back at the workshop, I sit down and finish the upper right hand corner of the lilies, cutting tesserae in the shapes of triangles, a new skill I have achieved in the last few days. My eye is more acute in recognizing patterns that serve the whole. I am learning to watch and study.
“I am also learning to trust the motion that comes through color and interstices, not in the controlled, static placement of each cube but in the joy of odd arrangements and unpredictable moves of choice. I believe in the beauty of all things common. Lilies. Stone. Cut glass. I believe in the beauty of all things broken.”
MS. TIPPETT: Something that’s just coming through so clearly in this conversation as you tell your stories is the fact — it was something that you said to me when we first began to speak, that being from the West and that the dynamics in the West and that the dynamics that pit this part of the country maybe in particular against other values in parts of the country, that that’s really real. That’s a part of the difference and diversity and complexity that’s out there right now. I mean, because what you’re describing is the issues that you’re facing that are out there in the West are existential with a special sharpness, right? I mean, it’s about land and water and schools and survival. It’s going to create a different mentality and different energies.
MS. WILLIAMS: And we’re right in the jaws of change.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. WILLIAMS: You know, the West that I knew growing up is not the West that I’m living in now. And there’s good humor, there’s rancor, there’s violence, there’s love. It’s just, you know, it’s a very dynamic place. But I don’t think it’s any different than maybe, you know, other issues that are happening in other communities, except for that it’s on a scale that really boggles the mind. When you talk about 9 million acres of wilderness up for grabs in the state of Utah, you know, that’s hard for my friends in New England to understand.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. Right. Right.
MS. WILLIAMS: You know, that when we talk on these big global scales, national scales, it becomes very abstract.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. WILLIAMS: I think where the real grist is, is in our local communities. It’s where the leadership is. It’s where most is at stake because it’s where we call home.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, here’s something else you’ve written that I think speaks to that. “Experience opens us,” this starts, and I think what you’re talking about is taking — what I’m seeing right now is we need — you and I have been talking around this, not just nice words and a phrase like “civil discourse”; we need experiences of those things. Right? We need to know they’re possible. We need to know how to build on them. So here’s what you wrote: “Experience opens us, creates a chasm in our hearts and expansion in our lungs, allowing us to pull in fresh air to all that was stagnant. We breathe deeply,” and here’s the part I really like, “and remember fear for what it is: a resistance to the unknown.”
MS. WILLIAMS: Right. And we’re back to uncertainty.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. WILLIAMS: And being present and not averting our gaze. And it is a risk because you don’t know how you’re going to respond. But I really believe if we’re present to the moment at hand extraordinary things happen. That’s the creativity. That’s the mystery. That’s the point of connection. That’s the ecotone between the known and the unknown.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you are a very poetic writer and a literary writer, but in recent years you’ve done a lot of op-ed writing. You’ve written a lot more — I’ve read that you’ve made an intentional choice to write for newspapers, to engage in that kind of writing and discourse. It surprised me a little bit, and I just want to hear about your experience in those forms, which are more common, at least in terms of how we think we resolve our differences.
MS. WILLIAMS: You know, I love newspapers. I love that — and I realize most people now are reading online but whatever form a newspaper takes, it’s a daily dialogue. I love print. I love newspapers that on one minute you’re reading Frank Rich and the next minute your puppy’s peeing on his words, you know. And I love that — you know, I wrote a column for years in the Deseret News, which was the Mormon newspaper, and I loved that, you know, as a writer that spent seven years staring, watching a painting at the Prado in Madrid, that you are forced to write out of your own life that week against a deadline and you can’t be very precious about that. And you know that whatever you think, “Oh, this is really a beautiful line,” it’s going to be wrapping up somebody’s fish the next day. You know, I think it’s just moving the conversation forward with really simple things told through storytelling.
You know there — what do I do with my anger? I write op-ed pieces, you know, and — and they’re not pretty but you hope, again, that you’re telling a story that will move people to action. And you hope that it can enter into the bloodstream of national thought or of local thought. You know, I’ve never seen anyone read a book of mine and I don’t suspect I ever will. You know books are very different. They remind me of bristlecone pines. They grow over time. It takes a long time to sprout them. Whereas, I love that newspapers, letters to the editor, blogs, you know, they belong to the moment. And we need both.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. WILLIAMS: We need both the considered and the momentary.
MS. TIPPETT: So on the other end of that spectrum of you, your book Finding Beauty in a Broken World took the ancient art of mosaic. That’s one of the ways you got into thinking about meaning in a fragmented world. The book starts in Ravenna. It’s very beautiful. So here are some of the things you said. And I wonder if you could reflect on how these observations help you think about how we live now. “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken. A mosaic is a conversation with time.”
MS. WILLIAMS: I think we’re struggling. You know, how do we find beauty in a broken world? How do we make meaning out of our lives when at times it seems like there is no meaning? You know, how do we take these fragments and make something beautiful with them?
MS. TIPPETT: As wonderful as a word as healing is, which has been evoked in these days and was invoked by President Obama after Tucson, I wonder if mosaic, building a mosaic might not in fact be a more realistic image, at least in the moment.
MS. WILLIAMS: That’s interesting, Krista. You know, I have a friend, Linda Asher, who’s a translator of Milan Kundera. She was an editor for years at The New Yorker, in international fiction in particular. And she said something very provocative the other day where she said, “I’m not sure eloquence is enough. I’m not sure language is enough.” And that really stopped me because for me words are everything, and I know for her words are everything. But she said, “You know, that’s too easy. It’s like being too beautiful.” And she brought it back down to the notion of action. And I realized, I said, “Thank you for reminding me.” And I think that was the power for me in making the mosaics. It took me out of my head into my hands, into creating something real with other people. I mean, mosaic by its very nature is a collaborative process. And, you know, beauty is not optional, but it is a strategy for survival.
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MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, naturalist Terry Tempest Williams. A piece she wrote for Orion magazine after the 2010 Gulf oil spill took the title “The Gulf Between Us.” It exemplifies her merger of activism and reflection. She writes: “I simply wish to bear witness to the places we traveled and the people we met, and give voice to the beauty and devastation of both. To bear witness is not a passive act.”
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MS. TIPPETT: You’ve said sometimes the most radical act is to stay home.
MS. WILLIAMS: And I think that’s right and it’s certainly my challenge. Because I realize I’m complicit. What is the gulf between us? You know, that oil that I saw for as far as I could see? That’s me. It’s my family’s livelihood. You know, how do you reconcile the contradictions? I guess that’s what I’m thinking about. You know, how do we ground ourselves in these enormous oscillations of this point in time? And be present and useful?
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you have been part of what I would say has been a growing movement, awareness about the natural world. I mean, you’ve been steeped in it, I think, from childhood. I just wonder if you think about — if you’d reflect on how that whole sphere of waking up to the natural world and our place in it, which has many dimensions, what that experience is teaching us that might be useful in this political moment? This cultural moment?
MS. WILLIAMS: Talk to me just a little bit more about what you mean.
MS. TIPPETT: Um, so, OK. So for example, I’m trying to think. I think it was Bill McKibben who I spoke with sometime in the last year and he was talking about how, you know, farmers markets are something that we’re rediscovering for all kinds of reasons that make sense in terms of how we’re thinking about farming and food and — and regional economies. Right? There are all these practical reasons but that perhaps one of the most important things that’s coming out of that is that we’re rediscovering community. That in fact the exhilaration and the gratification of that is as much that you bump into your neighbors and that you talk to people. As opposed to having this abstract dehumanized experience of buying food. Right?
MS. WILLIAMS: You know, I think about Great Salt Lake growing up as a child. You know, you went to it once. You ran in, you screamed, and you ran out. And you drove home pickled because kids have scratches on their legs and, you know, it was a horrible experience. Today, what, I’m 55, in 50 years in my lifetime Great Salt Lake is being celebrated, and every year in May we have a Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. You know, that would’ve been unthinkable then. You know, and the connectivity that’s being made of the birds in Great Salt Lake are coming down from the Artic, or going down to Mexico, even into the Gulf of Mexico. So that when we see a tragedy like the oil spill in the Gulf, you know, that doesn’t just affect people who live in Louisiana or Alabama or Mississippi.
MS. TIPPETT: People know their connection to it.
MS. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Those are, you know, I heard one of my nieces say, “Those are our pelicans too.” So there’s that connectedness that is local that extends beyond our home ground. I think there’s something that we are losing that I really grieve and I worry about, and that’s where I think it does come back to education. You know, I think we’re losing an ecological literacy, a biological literacy, that we no longer know the names of things. You know, great blue heron, long-billed curlew, cinnamon teal, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal. If we don’t know who we live among, then when they vanish, there’s no one to mourn that loss.
I think it’s very important that, that we establish a phenology so that we know that when the coyotes are howling, you know, with their young in August, it’s also when the young meadowlarks are hatching. The interconnectivity again, we go back to this same thing of how it all comes down to relationships, to place, to paying attention, to staying, to listening, to learning of, of a heightened curiosity with other. And we can go the route of love of other or we can go the route of fear. And I think too often we go the route of fear and we shut down. Because if we open to love, then we’re going to get hurt and we’re going to get angry.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a really important point to make, that love is not something squishy and romantic.
MS. WILLIAMS: It’s fierce. It is absolutely fierce. But the other side of love is that empathy, and, you know, I — I always wondered why when someone died in my father’s neighborhood in his community, he always went the next day to their house. He didn’t call; he just showed up. And I thought what an amazing thing, because I think so often when we hear someone’s died or we want to give them privacy or we don’t want to bother them or impose. And it was only last night I heard him say to Louie, “Yes, today is the anniversary of my wife’s passing but tomorrow is the hard day because when I woke up I was alone and there was no one there.” You know, that’s love. And the other side of that love and loss is that empathy rooted in action, where my father is there on that next day with his friends. That’s what I’m talking about. And so I think it’s about making commitments to do the real work, the hard work, because ultimately that’s where I have found the most joy.
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MS. TIPPETT: You wrote in The Open Space of Democracy, you wrote about a 2003 commencement address you gave at the University of Utah. And you mentioned in that one of your early mentors, someone, an environmental activist from Alaska. She said: “Don’t worry about what you will do next if you take one step with all the knowledge you have. With all the knowledge you have there is usually just enough light shining to show you the next step.” What’s your next step?
MS. WILLIAMS: I love that quote from Mardy Murie who so many of us regard as the grandmother of conservation who did such beautiful work in establishing protection for the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. And I think about that every day, you know, just enough light shining on the next step to show you the way. I’m thinking about voice, Krista, which is a side angle, I think, to what we’ve been talking about, you know, in terms of deeper discourse and meaningful conversation. And I’ll end with a story. Um, and it’s taken me 24 years to be able to bring this to consciousness.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, just say first — you say voice. What do you mean? What do you mean, voice? And how is that a side angle, something different from discourse?
MS. WILLIAMS: When my mother was dying, I was in bed with her, rubbing her back and she said, “Terry, I’m leaving you my journals.” And I didn’t know she kept them. And she said, “But you must promise me one thing: that you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And I gave her my word. She passed. A month went by. My father was gone, my brothers were out of the house. I was cleaning and I thought, “Today. Today’s a good day to find my mother’s journals.” And I found them exactly where she had said they would be, hidden in the closet. Three shelves filled with journals, each one handpicked, each one bound in cloth, gingham, denim, flowered, so on and so forth. And I took a deep breath — my mother was such a private person — and I thought, “Finally, I will be able to know what she was thinking, where she was.” And I opened the first journal and it was blank. I opened the second journal; it was blank. As was the third. All of my mother’s journals were empty.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you understand that?
MS. WILLIAMS: I don’t. And that’s the mystery, that’s the, you know, I don’t know. And that’s what’s got me thinking about voice. You know, what is it? How do we find it? How do we keep it? How do we use it?
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MS. TIPPETT: Terry Tempest Williams is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. Her books include Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and The Open Space of Democracy.
And, since this interview, she’s published a book, When Women Were Birds, that takes her mother’s puzzling blank journals as an inspiration. That story confounded our staff and led us to wildly varying interpretations. What do those blank journals say about voice to the rest of us? What do you think? Join in what we took on as a kind of thought experiment at onbeing.org. There, as always, you can download this interview and listen again. You can also hear the unedited conversation. Terry Tempest Williams shared more about her Mormon upbringing, including its mystical interpretation of the natural world. And she told me a story about working in Rwanda — helping to create a mosaic memorial out of the rubble of war and learning more about beauty as a matter of healing and survival. Again, that’s onbeing.org.
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On Being, on air and online, is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Stefni Bell, and Susan Leem. Dave McGuire is our senior producer. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time, I speak with Jane Gross. She created The New Old Age Blog at The New York Times. She speaks eloquently about caring for aging parents, an experience so common in our time. We hear the wisdom she’s gained through her journalism and through her experience with her own mother. Please join us.