A Writing Life and a Life Engaged:
A Conversation with Terry Tempest Williams
IN 1991, TERRY Tempest Williams published Refuge: An Unnatural History of Place, based on the trauma occurring both to her land and to her family, the rise in the water level of the Great Salt Lake that was threatening the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on its usually parched shores, juxtaposed with her account of her mother’s struggle with ovarian cancer. Indeed, in “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women,” the epilogue to Refuge, Williams links the high incidence of cancer in her family — which in the years since the publication of her book has also struck her—with the atomic bomb testing going on “upwind” of Salt Lake City in the 1950s and 1960s, an example of how the effects of American Cold War policy towards the Soviet Union ended up physically injuring even our own citizens.
A naturalist by training, Williams’s work is indeed about place — for the most part the deserts and canyons and red rock country of Utah—but it is above all about human connection to land. Whether gazing at the issue of feminism from within Mormon culture or — as in her recently released book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World — how building a memorial in Rwanda out of the scraps of atrocity can create a sense of new community and bonding, her work attempts to bear witness to the myriad connections between the world “out there” and the world inside us. To read Williams is also to discover a rich land of language, a carefully controlled aesthetic marked by vibrant lyricism and chronicling of personal experience, by structures anchored in precise observation extended and deepened by metaphor. Her many books include The Secret Language of Snow (co-authored with Ted Major, (1984), Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland (1984), Coyote’s Canyon (1989), An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (1994), Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape (1995), Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (200l), and The Open Space of Democracy (2004). She has also co-edited Testimony: Writers in Defense of the Wilderness (1996) and New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community (1998). But Williams’s work extends well beyond the page, and she has been a prominent voice in many preservation issues stretching from the Colorado Plateau to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The following conversation took place on November 17, 2005, while Terry Tempest Williams was Theologian-in-Residence at The College of Wooster. During the week, Williams gave a public lecture, “Gender, Spirituality and the Environment,” attended classes, held a roundtable discussion with local Amish nature writer David Kline, and visited Killbuck Marsh to the south of Wooster. In the interview — as in her books — Williams emerges as a writer who gains her power from a connection to the land, and who seeks for us to discover our own connections as well. —Daniel Bourne, Wroclaw, Poland, November 28, 2008
Daniel Bourne: I remember that one of my students who graduated a couple of years ago, a promising young writer and environmental activist, nonetheless harbored some serious misgivings about her commitment to writing, a pressure coming not just from herself but from others within the environmental movement, that her writing somehow detracted from her true work in defending the natural world. Have you ever felt such pressures, either in yourself or coming from other people, that you’re just fiddling at words when there’s more important work to be done?
Terry Tempest Williams: I feel my work in the world is as a writer, and I think that each of us can approach an ethical stance in our lives with the gifts and the talents and the passions that we hold. My passion is for writing, and I believe in the power of language to effect change. When you read Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail, and you read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, you realize that we have a deep literary tradition in this country that has contributed to an ethic of place. So I feel that writing is my work, and there’s no separation between my work as a writer and my work as an activist and my work as a human being trying to understand what it means to live in place. It doesn’t mean that my words are adequate. It doesn’t mean that my language doesn’t fail me, because it does, repeatedly. But it’s the attempt that matters. The attempt to try and tell a different story. The bearing of witness to what we see in the world around us and the questions that we ask.
DB: Can you think of any situations in which your writing has had some sort of concrete outcome?
Williams: That’s a good question, Dan. You know, I think timing is everything. When Vice President Dick Cheney was refusing to open up the proceedings of the Energy Task Force and reveal what was taking place behind closed doors at the White House in the winter of 2002, oil exploration was already going on four miles outside of Utah’s Arches National Park, in Dome Plateau, one of the wilderness study areas in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. Four of us went to the site where this exploration was occurring. And we bore witness. We were outraged that this kind of exploration was going on without an Environmental Impact Statement, without public process, without any hearings. It was going on secretly with a mandate from the Bureau of Land Management. The priority had been set by the Bush Administration: give oil companies preferential treatment. I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times that was called “Chewing Up a Fragile Landscape.” It appeared on a Thursday in February, ran on the editorial page, and I believe it did make a difference, because it exposed in a tangible way what the energy policy of this country looked like. In Washington D.C., our energy policy may be formed behind closed doors, but in Utah it is a ground-thumping experience. I’m talking about 80,000 pound thumper trucks that were roaring across the fragile desert. The following Monday, there was an internal review issued by the Department of the Interior, a lawsuit was filed and we, meaning the American people, won that lawsuit. I think my writing helped to give support to the awareness of the backdoor deals that were happening as well as why the democratic process still matters.
DB: I was very much taken last night when you talked about that one incident from Refuge in which you were going with your friend out to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. You were looking forward to stopping by the place with the burrowing owls where you and your grandmother would visit years ago—
Williams: Every year.
DB: Yes, every year. Then, all of a sudden the site was gone, replaced by that “Canadian Goose Gun Club.” I must admit that when you confronted those guys in the pickup later on and gave them the finger, I found that to be a particularly satisfying moment for myself as a reader — that you were in some way standing up for the owls as you said. But I also realize that you probably felt even more powerful when you were writing about this episode later, and that it was through the writing itself that you felt this power.
Williams: You know, I hadn’t read that story in years, but because of the subject of the talk that I had been asked to give, here at The College of Wooster, “Gender, Environment, and Spirituality,” it made me realize my own growth as a human being. At fifty, I don’t think I would give them the finger, which I did in my late twenties. At that particular moment, however, I felt powerless. It was the only gesture I could muster. I must say it was not very effective. That’s why I wanted the students to realize that many years later when I crossed the line of the Nevada test site and chose to commit civil disobedience, this act was the same gesture, born out of anger and defiance, but it was also certainly a more thoughtful gesture that had a tradition and a weight behind it. Committing civil disobedience after reading Thoreau’s essay was a conscious decision and it was done in the solidarity of other women within the anti-nuclear peace movement. Nadine Gordimer writes about “the essential gesture.” What is the essential gesture of any given moment? Think about Gandhi and the Salt March, or the Civil Rights Movement in this country and the power of Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus. Your question’s an interesting one. I write the lived experience. What was the feeling of writing about the owls? I think that that’s the essence of reflective activism, of going back and saying, “Now, what happened and why?” To realize the truth of our lives and to reflect on that and say, “And what did that mean? And how has that changed me?” And I think that’s the power of writing. Self-reflection is its own form of advocacy, of living a life of intention, of greater attention.
DB: Did the burrowing owls ever come back, or were they eradicated?
Williams: They are gone. I’ve never seen them at that site. I’ve seen them in other sites, but in terms of that lineage of owls, I don’t know what happened to them.
DB: I have an aunt and uncle who live about a mile north of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. They were alfalfa farmers, growing the alfalfa from irrigated water drawn out of the Arkansas to feed all the mega-cow lots outside Lamar in eastern Colorado or Garden City in Western Kansas. But whenever we would go to visit them, they would always seem to take such pride in the non-irrigated part of their land, which would always feature prairie dog holes and burrowing owls and the odd rattlesnake or two. And it seemed as if all those animals out there, if not an accepted part of the family, were at least an accepted part of the land. Yet at the same time, my aunt and uncle would get hopping mad at the state government for wanting to protect the few owls left living in the trees along the river. In any protective measure, they saw a reduction of their own freedom.
Williams: I think we’re all complicit in the ongoing press on the planet. I just met with a student named Claire to find out what my ecological footprint is. It’s a series of twenty questions she was asking people for a sustainability project. I learned the average American uses up four and a half Earth’s worth of natural resources. It makes me think hard about my own carbon footprint. “What if I made a decision as a writer not to be in a plane for a year? How would my life change?” I was talking with the students about this. I think if we’re interested in seeing the world change, we have to begin with ourselves; you know, how might we change our own lives? As Americans we’re complicit in this ecological crisis, and I certainly find that it’s a crisis of conscience in my own mind. So your story makes perfect sense.
DB: I too often wonder that with all of this travel, the travel that you engage in, the travel that I do, whether it might not just be better to stay in one place. And that’s when I start looking at someone like David Kline — the Amish farmer and nature writer who lives near Wooster — and how I really admire him for the way that he lives his life in place as a way not just to preserve his surrounding resources, but to focus his own intellectual curiosity so as to make his writing and ideas in general all the more powerful.
Williams: I think these are the questions that we need to ask. Where can we be of use? And I struggle with that. Is my highest calling within my own community with my own family and my own neighbors and town, or is it working with students in Wooster, Ohio and bearing witness to the different things that we see? Even traveling to Rwanda. I just don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
DB: A question I often ask in these interviews is a very basic one. When did you “wake up” as a writer? When did you become aware of the fact that you’re willing and capable of devoting your life to words and writing? I remember the chapter in Red where you describe your secret reading of Aldo Leopold while you were a teenager on a family trip to Dinosaur National Monument and how that even now you continue to hear his voice whenever you write. Were there any other such moments?
Williams: That’s a good question. I recall a mentor of mine, Ed Lueders, who said, “You’re never a writer until someone calls you one.” I’ve always written. I always kept a journal as a child. That’s part of Mormon tradition, to keep a record. But when my first book, The Secret Language of Snow, a children’s book, was accepted for publication, I didn’t tell anyone but my husband for one year because I was so embarrassed. Growing up as a Mormon girl, you didn’t speak out, you certainly didn’t raise your voice, and you rarely used it. And so suddenly my voice was going to be public, my own personal ideas and opinions exposed. That was a terrifying thing to me. I was embarrassed by it, even though I was thrilled to think that my love of nature would be shared. Every time I sit down to write, even now, I wonder if I can do it, if I have the guts to really say what I want to say. Courage is a critical component of writing. So I think it’s a matter of a life in process, and I’m always mindful of my own limitations, and I struggle on the page to say what I feel, and that’s always a tremendous challenge. Writing is a life engaged. As writers, we are constantly evolving, aren’t we?
DB: So you’re constantly waking up as a writer—
Williams: Every day.
DB: I’m fascinated by what you said though about all Mormons keeping a journal or a record. Did you ever see anyone else’s journal. Did you have a sense of yours being different from theirs — that they were just going through the motions whereas you were taking it seriously?
Williams: I came from a family with three brothers, so my journal was kept under lock and key. (Laughs.) It was a private place, it was a place that I did not want shared. But you know, Dan, I remember my mother, right before she passed away, she said, “Terry, I want to leave you all my journals, and I’ll tell you where they are.” She had them hidden. And then she said, “When I’m gone, I want you to read them.” I didn’t know my mother kept a journal. After she died, I found her journals, dozens of them. As I pulled each one off the shelf, every one of them was blank. It broke my heart. What I realized is that she had wanted to keep a journal — all these attempts — but she did not dare. Because . . . why? Who knows why? Fear of speaking, fear of recording what she really felt, the fear of having someone know what she felt, but here she was, dead at fifty-four, and she bequeathed me her journals and they were all empty. What that said to me was, “Write. Write your story. Speak, and be fearless in that expression.”
DB: I was going to ask you if you had ever encountered your grandmothers’ journals, especially the one who taught you a love of birding.
Williams: I have all her notebooks. I wouldn’t call them journals so much as notebooks; and they are so rich. They’re everything from a recording of her dreams to classes that she took to reading notes. Mimi’s journals, notebooks, were a record of her intellectual life and her spiritual life. And they’re treasures, they really are. But then I remember she said to me, “Just burn them. They don’t have meaning to anyone else.” And in a way I think that’s true. I mean, they have meaning to me, and I’m sure historians would disagree because they do speak to a time and place, but I really think the pleasure of writing is in the moment, the finding out what you think, and then moving on.
DB: I know that in Red you had mentioned Aldo Leopold and Mary Austin as being two very strong influences on your writing. I really hadn’t even heard of Mary Austin before I read your book, and it got me to thinking about nature writing and gender, about whether you think you end up writing about nature differently than men do. Do you have a sense of that being the case, in comparison between you and Abbey, let’s say, because you in general write about the same landscape?
Williams: You know, it’s not something that I think about. I love Abbey, and he’s had a huge influence on me. He was a larger than life figure that I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and knowing, and I continue to read his work and wonder what he would be saying now. But in terms of comparison, I don’t think of that. I think that’s the work of scholars who in many ways know our work better than we do, even though we may not want to admit that. We see the work from the inside out. They see it in a larger context. So I don’t, I don’t think about what it means to write as a woman. Again, this is full of paradox, because last night when I was forced to think of those three words, “gender,” “environment,” and “spirituality,” I realized that gender was much more dominant in my work early on, where I really was thinking, “What does it mean to be a woman writer? How do I think about nature? And how do I think about the subjugation of women and the subjugation of the Earth?” I remember reading Susan Griffin’s Woman in Nature. It was a revelation to me. Everything she wrote I felt. The book scared me. It now feels that my preoccupation with gender early on was trying to figure out who I was as a woman, which I think is natural. Now I’m more interested in what it means to be a human being in place, in association, and hence that’s why last night in the lecture, I really talked more about the importance of community. I think community can absorb the notion of race and gender. It doesn’t make it disappear. Our differences are still there, but I believe that in a conscious community, our gender, our race, our gifts and talents that we offer, as well as our weaknesses, contribute to diverse communities, to communities engaged even in the name of social change.
DB: Last night, you made a comment that, as a woman, it has been important that you have shared a new experience or come to a new understanding with the accompaniment of a friend, someone to share this process of discovery with you. Can this be true about writing, though? When you’re dealing with the page, aren’t you totally alone?
Williams: Great question. Again the paradox. As a writer, I am interested in creating community, but in the process of writing, I’m taken out of community. And it is a solitary experience. In many ways it’s a lonely experience. And so it’s this dance, call it even a balance, that you go out in order to go in. There’s the external experience and then there’s the internal process in the act of writing. And then it’s shared again when it becomes a book. You honor that relationship between reader and writer, which I think forms its own community. Some of the people that I feel the closest to I’ve never met, I’ve just read their books; Auden being one of them. I just was reading the introduction he wrote to Hart Crane’s poetry. So powerful, so beautiful, and I felt like I had just sat down and had tea with him. So, again it’s paradox, balance, dance — however we want to view it — between a writing life and a life engaged; and, as you say, the act of writing is a solitary one.
DB: Do you ever show your work to others while you’re writing it?
Williams: I do. A handful. I have my cousin, Lynne Tempest; I’ve never sent anything out into the world without her looking at it. She’s the toughest reader I know. She’s an editor and she’s fierce. I know she loves me, I know she has my best interests at heart, and she can absolutely slay me, and I can take it because I know she cares about language and she is a pragmatist. She’ll say, “Terry, there’s every idea you’ve ever thought of in your life in this one paragraph. Now, do we really need to have it all right there.” I don’t know what I would do without her. My husband is also a really good reader, but that’s more complicated because I don’t know whether I trust him on that particular day or not.
Williams: (Laughs.) But ultimately, I do trust him. Most importantly, I have a great editor that I’ve had for twenty years, Dan Frank, and I trust him immensely. And I also love working with new editors because they bring a freshness and a lack of familiarity to my writing that I think serves the work.
But I do have one more thought. I remember when I was working at the Museum of Natural History and I was writing Refuge after hours. I didn’t realize that my cohort was in his office working with the door open. I write out loud because I love the sound of words and the rhythm they create, the incantations of words. I write as I speak. One day he said, “Who do you talk to at night in your office? You must have the best friend who just sits and listens to you. I mean, you go on and on and they never say a word.” And it was so embarrassing to say, “I’m writing. I’m just talking to myself.”
DB: So your colleague thought you were on the telephone?
Williams: He thought that I was talking to someone in my office, which is so hilarious, I didn’t even know he was next door. But I do find it very helpful that if I’m giving a talk or if I’m teaching, the articulation of the ideas I’m working with when shared really helps me to hear that story for the first time. Speaking within a particular time frame is also a great editing tool, and that helps me as a writer.
DB: Going back to Abbey quite briefly, do you feel like his gender or his gender politics blinded him to nature in some way?
Williams: That’s a really interesting question. I never felt that was Ed, and maybe it’s because I considered him a friend and I felt his goodness. Abbey had a large public persona, whether it was self-created or whether readers projected it onto him. But, I found Ed, the times that we were together, I found him unbelievably thoughtful, at times very quiet. I also recognized him as unpredictable and charming in his charisma. He was of his time, he was of his generation, and I think a lot of what Ed did was for shock value. I remember hiking up Mill Creek Canyon together and I asked him what he was working on. He said, “You know, I’m thinking about running for governor, I hear there has been a low voter turnout in the past couple of years.” In other words, I think Ed was all about shattering complacency. He was writing at the height of the women’s movement, and I think he was getting a rise out of a lot of women. He knew exactly what he was doing. He teased out any sacred cow. But I think if you really read his work, everything he writes is a love affair with the land. I think it was part of Ed’s humor and his propensity to goad, to go for the response, any response. He loved igniting people’s passions, which he did, repeatedly.
DB: So much of these gender attitudes and politics seemed to be more directed at shaking up his audience rather than at his subject matter.
Williams: Again I don’t know how you can separate the two. And I don’t think that I’m very objective. Clarke Abbey, his wife, is a good friend of mine. They had a shared partnership so that the Ed I knew was not the bombastic, sexist reactionary. I saw him at a time in his life when he was a father and a husband and certainly a very powerful, predominant presence on the Colorado Plateau who was advocating through stories, fiction, and nonfiction to protect and preserve the land. The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired Earth First, to make my point.
DB: In Red, you bring up how language and landscape interconnect so crucially. Are there certain words that seem to be essentially connected with the red rock of Utah, words that might seem to live there and only there in the way that certain plants or animals do?
Williams: That’s a great question again, certainly from someone such as yourself who has migrated to the Plateau and understands it. It makes me think of Leopold when he said, “landscape shapes culture.” It makes sense that individual environments, individual landscapes have their own vocabulary or inspire their own mythology. I had an interesting experience after I finished Red. I was aware that the language in Red is staccato, is spare and lean. I wanted the language to mirror the landscape. You know, if you’re living in the desert, if you’re living in a land of little water, as Mary Austin describes, then how does the language reflect that aridity? And then I went to Costa Rica. I figured, alright, I’ve just finished essays on Red, of living in the desert, being in the desert, being in the presence of drought; what would it be like to now go to the greenest place I could imagine, which would be the cloud forest in Costa Rica? I went by myself for three weeks. I wanted to see the Resplendent Quetzal. I wanted to see green, I wanted to be wet, I wanted to feel that diversity of plant life and to be completely dwarfed by trees. And I was. I found that my language, just writing in my journals, became very florid. The sentences were long and lingering. It was a completely different vocabulary than I had experienced living in the desert, with its own rhythm and syntax.
DB: But what about individual words?
Williams: You’re saying, “Are there individual words that really are associated with specific places.” I’ll have to think about that. I mean, off the top of my head what comes to mind is Milan Kundera. In The Art of the Novel, he says that each writer has his or her own vocabulary, and that if you look at your own vocabulary, the words you keep using in spite of yourself, give you a clue to your own creed as a writer. And I recognize some words that I use over and over again: “bone,” “wind,” “erosion,” “water,” “red,” “red rocks,” “wild,” “gift,” “silence,” “sand,” “stone,” “community.”
DB: This leads me into my next question. Something that I have always found to be very powerful in your books is your use of lists. The chapters named after birds in Refuge, the lists of wilderness places in Utah that begins the “America’s Red Rock Wilderness” chapter in Red, the list of supporting congressman and descriptions of the area proposed for protection under the Red Rock Wilderness Act at the end of the book. I know you talk about your love of making lists in Refuge, but do you have any other thoughts of where this list making might come from?
Williams: It’s interesting. My niece, Callie — who’s now in law school — graduated in English, and they were reading Leaves of Grass and studying Whitman in one of her classes on American Romanticism. She called me and she said, “Terry, I figured out who has influenced you” and I said, “Who?” and she said, “Walt Whitman.” I was so stunned. I realized she was exactly right, that in those early years of studying literature in college, the American Romantics, in particular Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, and Melville influenced me greatly. Recently I’ve been reading Whitman over and over again, Leaves of Grass, his essays, Democratic Vistas, his essays on war, and I realized that the incantation you hear in Whitman, his lists as he catalogs the Earth even in “Song of Myself,” is American scripture for us, at least for me. As a writer, I think he is one of my most significant influences, to the point where I didn’t even recognize it. My niece had to bring it to my attention. And when I went back to my early edition of Leaves of Grass and reread favorite stanzas, she was exactly right. I also think that being a naturalist, you’re constantly making a list of the plants and the birds you see. We call them checklists. It’s a recording of life, phenological reports, a daily accounting of natural occurrences. So it is a way of recording what’s around you, like a journal. And I love facts; I would just say that as well. I want the facts and the color of nouns to evoke one image, one word. To evoke a sense of place.
DB: How do you view Mormonism’s track record in regards to the environment? What is there in Mormonism that teaches a reverence for the earth, and what do you find problematic in its approach? (Laughs.) There’s a big question for you.
Williams: It’s a complicated question. Early on, I think that the pragmatism of the Mormon religion was very impressive, as exemplified in Brigham Young. When you look at the early sermons, so to speak, speeches, talks that were given over the podium at the tabernacle in the 19th century, they were talks about sustainability. They were talks about the right use of water and the perils of overgrazing or waste. There was a great sense of frugality in the early days of Mormon religion. Mormon life gave rise to the United Order with the notion of communitarianism, how we share, how we take care of one another, how one person’s burden is carried by the next, the internal welfare system, even the Young Women’s Retrenchment Society — you know, guarding women against vanity and flattery and consumption. But that’s changed. Mormon religion now mirrors American culture at large, and we see the Mormon religion now as one of the largest corporations in the world with great financial holdings. So it becomes another arm of capitalism, if you will. Even so, I think the notion of shared earnings, tithing, the giving one-tenth of what you earn to the Church is a powerful model of a communitarianism that we can all learn from, and these aspects of Mormonism are still very important to me. In terms of the Mormon church policies and stances on the environment, I think they’re minimal. I hope that’s changing, however, and we’ve tried to be part of that change. Those members in the LDS faith who care enormously about the land and want to see this as part of the whole greening of Christianity in general, that creation care or caring for the land, is an acknowledgment of a higher being, that the health of the land is our own. This is in perfect alignment with Church teachings. It’s proven, it’s practical, it’s pragmatic as well as idealistic. We created a book in 1995 in response to the Utah wilderness debate. There was a presumption that if you were Mormon you were Republican and you were anti-environment. If you were Democratic, it was assumed you were non-Mormon, pro-environment. But we wanted to say, “That’s not true. Caring for the land, caring for wilderness, the environment, nature, is a bipartisan issue, it’s a spiritual issue.” So we created an anthology called New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community. We asked 40+ members of the Church to write an essay about how nature had inspired their religious views, or conversely, how their religious views have contributed to a sense of place. In front of each essay was a corresponding scripture to illuminate the ideas. We wanted to give Mormons cover for caring about the Earth, that this was indeed within the realm of our religious belief.
DB: When I was in southern Utah in the summer of 2001, I attended a meeting of the Southern Utah Sierra Club. I learned that there are some divisions between northern Utah and southern Utah, that the southern Utahans sometimes felt that their efforts in preserving the Red Rock Desert and other areas in the southern part of the state were often sacrificed, that their land would get swapped for the preservation of forests in the Wasatch range and elsewhere in the north. Since you’ve moved farther south from Salt Lake City to Castle Valley near Moab, have you been aware of such divisions, of such conflictive mentalities within the state’s environmental activists?
Williams: I think the whole environmental community within this country is changing at such a rapid rate and in deep as well as subtle ways. In the thirty years that I’ve been involved, the level of discussion has changed. Early on it was all about single issues focusing on protection, it was all about wilderness and individual species, it was defined in the courts and by science. Now I think we’re seeing that environmentalism isn’t just a political process but a spiritual one. It has to take communities into consideration. There has to be consensus building, it can’t just be wilderness alone without talking about the impact on the economic nature or the communities involved. It’s much more complex. And I think the whole movement generally is benefiting from these kinds of hard conversations. In Utah there has certainly been the notion that there were the urban environmentalists in the north who were dictating what was happening in the rural communities to the south. It almost sounds like north/south global politics, doesn’t it? But living in southern Utah is very different than living in Salt Lake City. I realized that it was very easy up in Salt Lake City to make pronouncements on the page and publicly speak out about what wilderness we should protect. Living in Castle Valley, however, you are talking about these issues with your neighbor and they may not feel the same way you do, and you know that you have to rely on each other. The neighbor that kills coyotes next door to you is going to be the first one with a shovel and a hose to help fight the fire that’s in your field. And as a result, it’s a much more honest discussion, in a way. And I liken that to, you know, local environmental issues versus those issues that are cared for in Washington. In a sense we need both. We need those lobbyists in Washington who are holding the line with Congress on bills that are being passed, like America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. But we also need to be mindful within our communities as to what the impact of these policies are, turning what is abstract into what is real. And that happens by participating on the ground, in our communities, neighbor to neighbor. By the same token, I will ask the question, “Was it wrong for President Bill Clinton, in 1996, to declare the Grand Staircase Escalante Wilderness without talking to the local communities in Utah and then choosing to announce this legislation on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona?” I think he could have done it more gracefully. By talking to the people and certainly by being in Utah when he announced that Utah wildlands were being saved through the new creation of a National Monument, he could have pre-empted much of the criticism. Was it a wrong decision policy-wise? I don’t think so. We have a history in our country of environmental courage. When Grand Teton National Park was set aside, it was a national monument first. Cliff Hansen, who was the governor of Wyoming, said that while the boys of Wyoming were out fighting for their homeland in World War II, their land was being stolen right out from under them in Jackson Hole when it was changed over into a national park. But fifty years later at the celebration of Grand Teton National Park’s anniversary, Hansen said it was the best decision that was ever made. He admitted he had been wrong. History most always sides with preservation.
DB: The first time I went to southern Utah, I had already read Refuge, a book that was indeed a vibrant and complicated introduction to the desert world I was experiencing, despite its location farther to the north. Needless to say, I was still very much in its thrall. So, imagine my surprise when I mentioned your name to a local environmental activist in Boulder, Utah, and he promptly denounced you, saying how in the story of your going to the Anasazi State Park in Boulder to get away from your worries about the illness of your mother, there was just another example of white people disturbing the bones of Native American dead and the feelings of living tribal people in order to feel better about themselves, that your finding refuge and meditation there was at these others’ expense. Any comment?
Williams: (Pause.) You know, I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a writer. I think of Larry Davis, who at the time, was the director of the Anasazi State Park. He is an archaeologist. I write about him in a disguised way in Coyote’s Canyon in a story called “Buried Poems.” He probably has done more to unite that community in Boulder, Utah, a very contentious community, as you probably know, by his appreciation of the bones, even disturbed as they may be in the process of science or archaeology or anthropology. Through his grace of storytelling and the preservation and stewardship of that resource, I believe he’s done more to educate the local population, granted, white, of what history can mean and why wildlands are important, because they carry those bones. Another white person disturbing the bones of Indian people? I don’t see it that way. When I think of the work we did at the museum, we were trying to piece together the past. Now, politically it’s not even correct to say “Anasazi” because it is a Navajo word that means “Ancient Enemies.” So we are learning. Craig Childs has written a really fine essay in High Country News on “Ancient Puebloan people,” noting that this is still a living culture. They did not “disappear,” as anthropologists once believed. So we’re constantly growing. We’re using terms and discarding them, finding new ones, and talking to their descendants. I think again it’s an evolution.
DB: My friend also had problems with the state park there in Boulder in regards to this controversy within archeology about dealing with the bones. During one of my trips out to Utah I stopped at Dixon Mound State Park in western Illinois just a few miles to the east of Nauvoo. I guess Dixon Mound was one of the first sites to be challenged about the display of Native American bones, and they’ve turned so much of the museum space now into a discussion about the complexities of the controversy while at the same time taking all of the bones off display and re-interring them with the help of local native peoples there.
Williams: Again, we’re learning. You know, archaeologists aren’t excavating those mounds in the same way that they did five years ago, ten years ago. Many of them are being left alone, so that twenty years from now, a hundred years from now, with different tools and different points of knowledge, they will learn different things. Working at the museum, I have witnessed the Repatriation Act, where so many of the objects we had in the museum have now been returned to the community, rightfully so. Bones are very powerful. I mean, just having come back from Rwanda, I feel this particularly. One of the national priorities of Rwanda now is to create shelters for the bones held in the homes of the genocide survivors. They view this as a security issue, on a par with shelter for those that are living. So I think that whenever you talk about bones, the dead, about rituals and customs, these are very delicate issues, and again, evolving issues. And I completely honor the way Indian people have said, “These bones belong to us, they must be returned to be buried appropriately, in the sacred manner that they deserve, rather than being kept as curatorial objects.”
DB: We’re of course dealing here with this notion of cultural ownership, the right to write about the experiences — the stories — and the land of others as well. Have you ever stopped yourself from writing or publishing something because you decided it was not your story to tell?
Williams: Many times. And I think that’s the power of the reflective process, the editorial process, the revision process. There’ve been many times when there was an extraordinary story, but I didn’t tell it, I didn’t write about it out of respect for the people involved. Even my own family. Especially my own family. There’re stories that I could have added to Refuge that would have been very powerful and insightful, but they are private. For example, I would not write about the temple ritual that we went through even though I am now no longer an orthodox Mormon. That’s a sacred ritual that I would never speak of, in the same way that I would never speak of certain ceremonies that were shared with me inside Navaho culture, when I worked on the reservation. There are experiences that I’ve had in Rwanda, stories I heard of unspeakable horrors, that I would never write about because it’s not my story and, out of respect for the people who did tell me, I will hold them only in my heart.
DB: Even before Red was published, I had already read your response to September 11th, your essay “Scattered Potsherds” in William Heyen’s anthology September 11th: American Writers Respond. At the very end of your piece you say your prayer is to “to gather together, to speak freely and be questioned, to love and be loved, to feel the pulse, this seismic pulse, that will guide us beyond fear.” I’m wondering what has transpired in your neck of the woods, or your neck of the desert, rather, since then. How do you view our world post-September 11th in terms of environmental policy?
Williams: One word comes to mind: exploited. I think after September 11, the fear of this country was exploited. I think the agenda of this administration, in terms of going to war, was exploited. I think we were lied to, and if you were to see the landscape of the Interior West, meaning Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, you would see the physical exploitation of this post-September 11th mindset — oil and gas, derricks everywhere, whether it’s in Pinedale, Wyoming, whether it’s in the Powder River Basin in Montana, whether it’s in the Colorado Plateau of Utah or southwestern Colorado—it’s shocking, when you fly over. The West looks like a pincushion right now with the oil and gas development that’s going on. That’s how I see it, not to mention the fact I think people are still afraid to speak. We are being ruled by terror, not just outside of this country but inside this country. The mantra that I keep hearing in my own mind is, “There are many forms of terrorism, environmental degradation is one of them.” I think we’re now seeing that this administration did lie, that we went to war under false pretenses and we have a president whose public approval ratings as of this morning are 37% and dropping. So I feel hopeful that at least people are waking up.
DB: I do, too, but I also worry that even with that waning popularity level, if he were to stand for election tomorrow he would still get voted in again — because of the fear factor.
Williams: I don’t feel that anymore. I feel that the lies are being exposed. And maybe this post-September 11th period has actually been one of awakening. That’s my hope in speaking out. I mean, I certainly know as a writer that my writing has shifted. You know, most of what I’ve been doing in these last five years of the Bush Administration has been writing for newspapers because it’s more immediate, and I’ve also been thinking about what democracy really means, the “open space of democracy.”
DB: Last night, you mentioned “a sacred rage.” This term, though very appealing to me, also worries me in that it could justify almost any action. I wonder, indeed, how you stand about various forms of eco-terrorism, of monkey-wrenching as they might call it in the Great Basin. Do you feel there is a point at which you have to cross over from civil disobedience into something that involves some sort of physical application of force?
Williams: That’s a great question. Even as I spoke those words last night, “sacred rage,” I think we’re seeing in this country the dangers, the perils of fundamentalism in any form. There are those who would say environmentalism in its extreme, which I represent to some, is a form of fundamentalism. But I would argue that it is not, that it’s not fundamentalism, but it’s fundamental to what it means to be human and to be able to embrace true issues of national security and peace. It is figuring out what is a balanced economy, figuring out that social issues, economic issues, political issues ultimately are environmental issues, which in turn are issues of justice. With any social problem, if we ask enough questions we find that the core element is the land, our relationship to the land. Do I think there may come a time when I think violence is justified? That’s what I hear you asking, like monkey-wrenching, spiking trees, these kind of things? I do not advocate violence in any form. On the other hand, you know, if this week Congress decides to put in a provision for drilling for oil in the Arctic, would I be willing to lay my body down in front of the bulldozers up in the Arctic? I would. I would and I think there are a lot of people who would join me. And I do think there’s a time for action that, although violence is not a desired response, may result in violence. We saw this in the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t think John Lewis ever intended being hit over the head by police with a club when he crossed the bridge at Selma, but that’s what they did to him to secure their own sense of justice, while John Lewis wanted to expose the injustices that were going on in terms of segregation and racism. Would that happen environmentally? I think it’s possible, and I think we’re seeing it now. I think we saw it with the WTO demonstrations and I think we just saw it again in Venezuela, but I do think there comes a time when enough is enough, and we have to take the stance that Gandhi has shown us, or Martin Luther King, that we do gather in the name of justice, and that we will commit acts of civil disobedience, and we hope it doesn’t lead to violence, but nonetheless we have to be able to put our bodies where our principles are.
DB: Another phrase you used last night was, “I write to release myself from captivity.” Could you explain that a little bit?
Williams: That was such a fascinating class that I attended earlier in the day, to look at narratives of captivity, and it made me think that writing has been my own point of liberation, that my own work forms a part of these captivity narratives, even within my own orthodoxy as a Mormon. I think Refuge allowed me to open up the narrative of what it means to be a woman within Mormon culture. Pieces of White Shell allowed me to open up a narrative of “What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place?” I believe writing has the capacity to free us from the conditioning that has a hold on us. So I always view a pen in hand as a point of liberation. A tool of liberation.
DB: Have you ever been able to abandon a memory after you have written about it, not in a sense to forget about it, but that it no longer hurts to think about it.
Williams: I think writing can create a sense of healing because you have the luxury to process it over time. So often I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it down and all of a sudden I’ll be surprised as to where my hands led me. With Rwanda, you know, I came home with seven journals, and I transcribed them, actually typed them up from my own notes. I had to go through that process before I could even begin to write about what happened because it was so beyond my imagination. A large part of me was just recording what I saw at the time, and wasn’t processing it. You know, there is always the lived experience first and then you record it and reflect on what you encountered, saw and felt as you write in your journal, and then you create an essay from those reflections and images; hopefully an artistry of language emerges on the page. Each essay conveys the essence of a truth born out of inquiry.
DB: So what are you working on now?
TTW: I am writing a book I began in 2000, called “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” The mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, the Utah prairie dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park, and a genocide memorial in the village of Rugerero on the border of Rwanda and the Congo create the scaffolding for this inquiry. What I am learning is that mosaic is not just an art form but a form of integration. I am seeing that the act of bearing witness is not passive and that finding beauty in a broken world is a matter of creating beauty in the world we find ourselves in.
DB: One last question. Is there anything I should have asked but didn’t?
Williams: I just think that for me as a writer the most important thing is that dance between solitude and engagement. That’s where I believe our stories live. We engage in the world, we come back with a story, and as a writer we try to tell that story. And in telling the story, it requires that it be surrounded by silence and reflection and then it can come back into the culture and create a solitude, a space of reflection within the reader that can lead to a heightened state of awareness. The degree of our awareness is, in fact, the degree of our aliveness.
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