Terry Tempest Williams: “Survival Becomes a Spiritual Practice”

The author and activist talks about millennials, climate change, and how she can’t imagine being alive at “a more thrilling, challenging time.”

Terry Tempest Williams lives with her husband in Utah, but I met her in Vermont, near Dartmouth College, where she teaches part of each year. The lush foliage of a damp New England spring is nothing like the desert terrain she grew up with, she told me when we sat down together during my brief visit last May. She relishes the many species of trees, birds, and plants, but sometimes all the green makes her feel closed in, and she yearns for the dry, open country of home.

It’s her deep connection to place and to wilderness that Williams is known for. Her books celebrate the prairie dog, migratory birds, and the natural history of the Utah desert. But she also writes about her Mormon faith, about the cancer that took the lives of her mother, brother, grandmother, and other members of her extended family—and about her belief that above-ground nuclear testing is to blame.

Williams’ writing is enriched by a practice she mentioned several times in our conversation: “ground truthing.” She doesn’t settle for secondhand accounts. She insists on being a witness. She meets those devastated by the Rwanda genocide and by the oil spill catastrophe on the Gulf Coast. She joins the long-term protest blocking the Utah tar sands mine in a remote part of her state, supporting the young people’s encampment. She seeks out a firsthand connection with the wild too: She knows the flock of meadowlarks living near her home well enough to distinguish each bird by the slight variations in its markings.

These intimate encounters invite readers into the joy and pain of life in a deeply troubled world.

Sarah van Gelder: When you come here to Dartmouth to teach, what do you tell your students about where we are, what this moment is about?

Terry Tempest Williams: I don’t tell them anything. I listen. I’m so moved by this generation: how wise they are, how open they are, how curious they are, and in many instances, how broken they are.

This generation doesn’t have illusions. They’re interested in source, be it in growing their own foods or issues of sustainability. They’re well-traveled, and yet I think many of them are now cleaving closer to home, figuring out where to take root. And maybe I just lied, Sarah. I do say one thing. Their question is always, “So what do we do?” And for me, it’s not “What can we do?” but “Who are we becoming?”

van Gelder: What do you tell yourself about what it means to be alive at this particular moment?

Williams: I was reading Ed Hirsch’s book A Poet’s Glossary. I think we’re in a “poetic crossing.” Can I read you his definition?

van Gelder: Sure.

Williams: He says a poetic crossing is: “The movement within a poem from one plane of reality to another, as when Dante crosses over from the earthly realm to the infernal regions in The Inferno. A poetic crossing, which follows the arc from physical motion to spiritual action, requires the blacking out of the quotidian world and the entrance into another type of consciousness, a more heightened reality. It is a move beyond the temporal, a visionary passage.”

I feel like that’s where we are. I think there are so many of us, certainly yourself at the helm, who are recognizing this as a transitional moment. But to think about it as a poetic crossing, that speaks to my soul. We’re moving from one plane of reality to another, and what is required of us is spiritual.

van Gelder: Do you find that having a conversation that gets to the spiritual core is difficult when religion is such a fraught and divisive arena?

Williams: It’s such a great question, Sarah. I don’t view it as religious. I think the fact that religious institutions are taking on climate change as a moral issue is great news. I love that we have a pope who is coming forth with an encyclical about climate change, and I love that we have His All Holiness the Patriarch Bartholomew I [of the Eastern Orthodox Church], who said, “A sin against the Earth is a sin against God.”

But personally, it becomes a spiritual issue, and I absolutely have no answers. I just know what it feels like to stand in the vitality of the struggle, which is a phrase that I have adopted from Gertrude Stein.

van Gelder: What does it feel like?

Williams: That we know nothing. That the world is completely shifting under our feet, that it’s sand instead of bedrock.

I’m so aware of my own complicity in these issues, my own hypocrisy, and yet I see the choices that we’re given. On one hand, I’m fighting against oil shale development in the Colorado Plateau and tar sands mining in the Book Cliffs, one of the wildest places in the lower 48. And yet, as my critics say, I’m on planes talking about how important home is—and I’m away from home!

van Gelder: Recently you’ve been talking about the tar sands protests in Utah, and I have to say, I didn’t know this was happening until I heard it from you.

Williams: You know, Sarah, you are not alone. Most people don’t know about this. There’s been so much attention focused on the Alberta tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline, as there should be. But meanwhile, we have a tar sands mine in the United States—in the state of Utah, in the Book Cliffs. That is terrifying. It’s in wild country with wild horses and huge elk herds and mountain lions—it’s in the heart of America’s red rock wilderness. And the state of Utah is moving toward a vote to expand the mine.

It takes about five hours to get up there on a very precarious road. You get up to the top where the tar sands mine operation is, and you are met by a superhighway! You can’t believe it. It’s a four-lane, paved freeway that the county commissioners want to call the “National Parks Highway.” They paved that road so that it could be a direct line from the tar sands down to Vernal, which is one of the largest sites of natural gas development in the country, then on the other side, a direct byway down to Moab. From their point of view, it’s a paved highway from Dinosaur National Monument to Arches National Park.

van Gelder: Tell me about the protest encampment. Have you visited?

Williams: I have. Activists from Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising have created a permanent protest vigil at PR Springs, now known as the Colorado Plateau Defense Camp, located directly across from the mine. Activists have been arrested repeatedly. It began in 2013 with a small group of brave and committed young people, and I honor and admire what they’re doing. The resistance is growing with leadership from the Living Rivers Alliance, led by John Weisheit, a former river guide on the Colorado River, who has filed a lawsuit against U.S. Oil Sands, the Canadian company behind the operation. Water is a primary issue. It makes no sense on multiple levels, from carbon emissions to the drought conditions we are facing now. And, of course, the moral issue of climate change.

It’s really terrifying. It’s really hidden, and there is an immense barbed wire fence surrounding the mine, and it looks like a prison. But when you go around the side road—my family are great hunters, so I know the back roads—you look up there, and it’s unbelievable the land that has already been removed. And I think, “This is in my own home ground, and I hadn’t known about it.”

My father, who understands this industry, is saying it’ll never happen because the water usage is so immense, we are in drought, and the price of oil has dropped. But if you look at the road and what they’ve already done— millions of dollars already spent—U.S. Oil Sands and Utah politicians are banking on remoteness and that nobody cares, and so far that’s borne out.

van Gelder: Does this issue cut differently across the right-left spectrum in the Southwest than some other places?

Williams: I’m going to say that it does. My father is as conservative as you can get, and he says the oil companies have gone too far. He’s saying that tar sands mining is not the answer. And he is a very strong advocate, believe it or not, for climate justice.

My dad had had a chronic cough, and he went to see his doctor, who said, “Mr. Tempest, your cough is a result of climate change.” [laughter]

My father calls and goes, “Terry, are you sitting down? You will not believe this. I am a victim of climate change!” And I thought, “Who is this doctor? I want to kiss his hand!”

The point is it became deeply personal. My father went to hear James Balog, and he saw the film Chasing Ice with the time-lapse photography showing the glaciers recede. My father’s own experience going up to Glacier National Park for decades bears that truth, also.

So he calls up all of his Mormon study group, and he hosts a special screening of Chasing Ice in his nephew’s basement. Dad led the discussion saying that climate change is human-caused, and we have to get off our duffs and start talking about these issues. And, you know, these were senior people within the Mormon community: attorneys, doctors, contractors, the full gamut. It was a beautiful thing to see.

So does it cross conservative-liberal lines? I think it does because it becomes a human issue. And that’s where I stake my hope. If I’m seeing change within my own family, then change is occurring.

van Gelder: Obama just made a decision to allow offshore drilling in the Arctic. Why do you believe he made that decision?

Williams: It just feels like a case of political schizophrenia. On one hand, he’s saying he wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the coastal plain. Two, three months later he’s giving the OK for Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

So why is Obama doing this? I think the simple answer is money, corporate control. We in this nation view corporations as individuals, and yet we as individuals do not have the same voice and privilege that the corporations do.

I loved Rebecca Solnit’s line, “Privilege is a landscape as level as the Andes.” And I think, for the most part, all of our presidents are dealing in privileged landscapes, not vulnerable ones.

I think it comes down to direct action. That’s why I applaud what’s happening all over the country—whether it’s the Utah Tar Sands Resistance or the kayak activists in Seattle or the activists in West Virginia with mountaintop removal or the two activists in a tiny lobster boat who blocked a freighter carrying a load of 40,000 tons of coal heading for a power plant near an industrial inlet between Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We’re seeing direct action everywhere. I think it’s a beautiful thing, and I think we’re only going to see more of this kind of political engagement because our lives are at stake, our planet is at stake, and the people in power refuse to acknowledge this. This is the open space of democracy.

van Gelder: Yeah, I was thinking about how there are so many ways in which people are not that unlike other animals, and yet we’re so much more powerful.

Williams: Are we?

van Gelder: We’ve changed the Earth to fit our animal desires for stuff. Right? I mean, it’s not that different than your dog deciding he wants to eat too much. We have that same animal notion of getting and hoarding, and we have the power to turn the entire planet over to that enterprise. Now do we have that next layer of wisdom to know when not to do those things? It seems like almost a test for us as a species.

Williams: And what would it look like if we were to pass that test?

van Gelder: It would be a lot of humility, a lot of discernment. Finding joy and satisfaction from things that are not material. And then being willing to make the sacrifices it takes to insist on a different kind of a world, even when some powerful interests want to keep the old one intact so that they can continue to benefit.

Williams: You know, I think about those words that you’re bringing to the conversation: humility, discernment, sacrifice. I think it circles back to the notion that survival, now, becomes a spiritual practice. And that’s where I find my calm returning. That’s where I return to the place where my voice deepens, and I’m no longer residing in the hysteria of politics. That’s where my grounding is.

And it comes back to this: Have I had eye contact with another species today? Be it a chickadee or a praying mantis in the garden or our dog? Or each other?

And I think it also has to do with slowing down so we can listen and hear and remember who we are and who we are not.

van Gelder: It seems to me that some of your writing could be described as channeling the world’s pain. Your willingness to witness and be openhearted in your witness and then to struggle to find the words—I’m wondering if that exhausts you.

Williams: Am I tired of Orrin Hatch? Yes. [laughter] Am I tired of Utah politics? Always. But am I tired of listening to people’s stories about hard things? No, because I believe this is where we share that burden, which is ultimately a blessing. Becky Duet, one of the women that I met during my time down in the Gulf—her story breaks your heart. She lost everything as a result of the oil spill. She lost her business. She lost her health. She lost her community.

I go down. I do a story. I return home. My perception changes, but my life doesn’t. Becky lives there. She stays. It’s her home, her family, her life. Every day, she struggles to even stay upright, and yet she’s still speaking out. That’s courage and commitment with a cost.

It’s so humbling to have her as a friend. Is it a burden? No. Do I get tired? How can you say you’re tired? We’re so privileged. Am I tired of cancer in my family? Yes. Is it heartbreaking? It never leaves you, and it’s all around us. But that’s life, and that’s death, and that’s real. And I want what’s real.

van Gelder: I just read the letter you wrote from the climate march last fall. You sounded so happy!

Williams: There has to be joy, right? People think, “Oh, this is so dire.” It is dire. But there has to be joy. There has to be humor. There has to be friendship. There has to be what I call spiritual and emotional muscularity. And that was apparent everywhere at the march.

I love the haiku from Issa: “Insects on a bough, floating downriver, still singing.” I feel like that’s me. All of us. Yes, it’s serious. It’s deadly serious. But we’re still alive! And there is so much beauty that surrounds us. We live in a singing world from crickets to whales to yellow-rumped warblers. We can’t forget this, or we will forget what it means to fully be alive.

van Gelder: What’s next for you?

Williams: I don’t know. I rarely have a plan. I just want to pay attention and follow my nose. I can tell you that I’m writing about national parks. I thought this would be an easy book, that it would be joyous and celebratory. But as I started peeling the layers, I realized, “This, too, is a shadowed landscape.” This is about displaced people. This is about racism. This is about choosing what species die and what species remain. Our national parks have used the heavy hand of privilege to protect some of our most beautiful, wild, iconic places from Yosemite to Yellowstone to Acadia National Park.

What I’m coming to realize is that this book is about how America’s national parks mirror America itself in both shadow and light. Our national parks are breathing spaces at a time when we as a nation are holding our breath. Why else do close to 300 million people a year flock to them?

So how do you celebrate what remains with an acknowledgement of the crimes that were committed? I don’t know.

Take Glacier National Park, as an example. In the next 15 years, scientists predict there will be no glaciers in a park that is named after them. This land, Blackfeet Nation’s land, was taken. Today, the Blackfeet are in a lawsuit with the government over co-governance, and they will win. At the visitor’s center, the flag of the Blackfeet Nation flies alongside Old Glory. So here’s a park that abused the Blackfeet, stole their land, and named it after glaciers, and now its very identity is being turned inside out.

I think this is where we are. We’re in this time where everything is being turned inside out, including us. Do we have the stamina to not walk away, to stay in this hard place of transformation? I think we do. And to me, that’s evolution. I can’t imagine being alive at a more thrilling, challenging time where what is called for is acts of imagination, direct action, and stillness.

This interview with Terry Twilight Williams first appeared in Yes! Magazine.

By Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of YES! Magazine. Follow the Edge of Change Road Trip and connect with Sarah on Twitter @sarahvangelder.