Land & People

A Conversation with Terry Tempest Williams

by Susan Ives

Writer Terry Tempest Williams says she is "mentored by the land." A self-described "child of the nuclear West," Tempest Williams, now 39, was trained in biology at the University of Utah, became a field instructor at the Teton Science School in Wyoming, a teacher on the Navaho Reservation, a "grassroots" writer, and is today naturalist-in-residence at the Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City.

Her books, among them Refuge and An Unspoken Hunger (Pantheon), describe a deep connection to the landscape that is at once personal and universal. Desert Quartet An Erotic Landscape will be published in fall 1995.

Her voice is soft, but does not conceal the intensity of her words. Tempest Williams speaks and writes fiercely for and about the land, and its human and nonhuman dependents.

Q In your writing and speaking you communicate a very strong sense of personal landscape. Are there places you knew as a child that gave you this awareness?

A I am deeply rooted in Utah's Salt Lake Valley. My family, Mormon, has been in the Great Basin for six generations. My ancestors' bones are buried here, and mine will be too. I grew up on the edge of Salt Lake, on the east bench of the Wasatch Mountainsthey were my backyard; there was no separation between my home and the foothills. The scrub oak and sage influenced me most. Rattlesnakes were common, mountain lions and deer, too. And the birds were sheer pleasure: black-capped chickadees, blue-gray gnatcatchers, scrub jays, and California quail. My grandmother gave me a copy of Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds when I was five years old. I pored over those color plates and dreamed about the birds long before I saw them. And always, to the west, there was the Great Salt Lake, shimmering like a mirage.

Q Many people don't really develop a connection with nature when they're growing up. What do you think will result from that? Will we forget our relationship to the land?

A In a way, your question is the question of our time. We are animals; we have an ancestral memory that ties us to the land, but we are losing our frame of reference as we become more urbanized and less connected to natural sources. I recently heard an interesting discussion among some biologists and sociologists who were saying that maybe we are sub-speciating. Maybe there are those of us who are becoming more urban and those who still need and yearn for wild places. Physically we may look the same, but internally there may be great differences. Perhaps we're evolving into Homo sapiens urbanis and Homo sapiens eroticas. I wonder.

So, yes, my greatest fear is that we are losing our relationship with the land. We no longer possess a biological literacy. If we do not stop and reflect upon what we are losing, both physically and spiritually in terms of our relationship with the natural world; if we do not concern ourselves with a higher standard of conscience instead of a higher standard of living; then I fear we will be faced with a future of interminable loneliness.

Q How do you think people can regain that frame of reference? Can Homo sapiens urbanis reconnect with nature?

A A sense of place develops out of staying home, slowing down, staying put, and digging in. I really believe that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. Only then can we begin to extend our notion of community to include all life: plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and human beings. If we don't have a commitment to home, then I see no way in which wildness and culture can intersect.

There is great power in being in place, in knowing the watershed we belong to, in knowing the geologic processes that have shaped the geography, in learning about the indigenous people who once lived there and who live there now. I fantasize that one day every school will have a bioregional curriculum and that by the time students graduate, they will be able to pass the "placement test"they will know the migrating birds, reptiles, and mammals of their area; they will know the annual rainfall, the growing season. We need to relearn the most simple things that go back to the science of the soul, so that we are not faced with our own isolation but rather with a wonderfully sweeping sense of communitya community that is dynamic and alive.

Q What about kids who live in big cities, who don't have the opportunity to connect to the land?

A We're not just talking about wilderness. We're talking about the ground beneath our feet, and for a lot of us that's going to be pavement. So we have to broaden our definition of landscape, expand what it might include. I've been with kids who've never seen the Milky Way, who are terrified of silence and darkness. But those same kids have a fierce sense of the landscapethey are a part of the city's landscape, their neighborhood's, with its own cycles and relationships.

At the same time, we have to remember what New York City would be without Central Park, what San Francisco would be without Golden Gate Park or the Presidio, what cities in general would be like without green spaces. Living in Utah, it's easy to believe that we have unlimited land, and that it's not necessary to preserve open spaces in our cities. But now I see the consequences of that way of thinking: the city grows, the stress level rises; we live at a pace of madness during the week and vanish to wild places on the weekends. The Trust for Public Land has great vision in preserving public lands where most people live. Beauty is not optional. Natural balance is essential to the creation and maintenance of healthy lives.

Q You have now in your state what is in many ways a classic struggle over land use.

A I see in my own state what I recognize to be true all across the American Westthat we are in conflict over the wise use of land. It is interesting that what binds us as human beingsthe landis ultimately what is separating us. In Utah, and in many rural communities, there is a strong "wise-use" movementeven some militia memberswho view environmental protection as detrimental to their lives. I think we are seeing the manifestation of people's fear. They fear change, and change is all around. We are seeing a diminishing of our natural resources, and that is going to impact people's lifestyle and livelihood. Environmentalists say we need to preserve what's left; ranchers say preservation threatens their existence. I have empathy with local economies, but I think this is a question of long-term versus short-term vision. We need to apply our imagination to our communities and think in hundred-year increments.

My sense is that as a people we do value the landthat the land is sanctuary, a place where we can remember who we are and who we are not, a place where solitude inspires kindness and forgiveness. Our dreams are the same dreams: healthy communities, good schools, good neighbors, good health care. But it is very sad, because somewhere along the line we become fractured over ideologies. I think the story "Buried Poems" reveals my own hope that we can find common ground.

Q You travel around the country a lot. What is your impression of what people are thinking about? What encourages or discourages you?

A I am encouraged by people's stories and by their commitment to their own communities. And I'm discouraged by their belief that they can't make a difference. People have a passion to do something, but they believe that it won't really matter. I think this is a serious problem in our country. Cynicism stops us short of what we're capable of. Social change is a result of belief.

Q You recently spoke to the graduating class of the School of Natural Resources at the University of California. What is it you think those graduates need to know, or learn, in order to do their jobs?

A These students were graduating from one of the most powerful public institutions of higher learning in the world, with the trained minds that our culture values most. I wanted to tell them not to be fearful of the passion that led them into their field in the first place, not to forget the sources of their affection, of their intelligence: the land itself. Caring for the land is a feeling and it resides in our gut. We are animals and we know that, but we forget in our rational life. Science has done much for us, but in science's attempt to be inclusive, it becomes exclusive. As resource managers they will have to have something that carries them deeper than their science. They will have to have a spiritual commitment to that high ideal that they are really stewards of the sacred. I wanted to urge them to be strong and brave. These are difficult times for federal employees on the ground.

Q Some of your writings suggest that you feel that women have a special connection to the land, a special responsibility.

A I think we have a responsibility simply because we are human beings, but it is no greater just because we are women. I think women have assumed the role of protectors. It comes from seeing the world whole, even holy. There is no delineation between health issues, social issues, environmental issues. I once asked a woman in Iowa involved in groundwater issues why it is that so often women are the leaders in community movements for social and environmental justice. Two of her children had died from leukemia. The water on their farm was poisoned from chemicals. She said, "I think it is because women allow themselves to suffer. Because we are not afraid to feel too deeply, there is nothing we won't commit to, if we believe it is just."

Q Is that how you see your role as a writer?

A One writes out of one's ethical stance, and I can't imagine a literature without a basis in social concern. In a sense, the storyteller becomes the conscience of the community. I think one also writes out of a love of mystery and wonder, and for me it is always the questions that propel me: "What are we afraid of? How do we find refuge in change? What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place?" I am a Western writer, writing about my most beloved landscape. I write out of a fierce regionality, but I believe my concerns are not just Western concernsthey are human concerns. How do we live a dignified, compassionate life? I try to write sharply, specifically, so that the ideas and landscapes are not abstractions but rooted in real places with real people. And it is always a strugglea joyous struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.

Q Was there a single event in your life that moved you to become a writer of persuasion?

A I don't think there was one moment. I think it is about love. I have always loved the land and wanted to share that, but there was a turning point. This was when I watched, one by one, the women in my family die of cancer. I later learned from my father that we had witnessed nuclear tests in the 1950s. I realized that, living in Utah, we were all downwinders, what the Japanese call hibakusha, "explosion-affected people." I still haven't resolved this; it is an ongoing struggle. It's something I prefer to think about as fiction, yet I know it is not. I think many of our writings are born out of some deep sense of loss, trying to make sense of what makes no sense at all. One of the powers of art is that the creative process allows us to take our anger and turn it inside out until it becomes sacred rage. This is the task of the writerto hold up a mirror against the injustices of society and create a prayer of beauty.

This may or may not be possible, but I think it is a worthy goal.


Land & People, 1995
Susan Ives is Director of Public Affairs for TPL.

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