Terry Tempest Williams is a stunning writer, a dedicated activist, and one of the most forceful conservationist voices of our time. She writes only about that which moves her, and what moves her ranges from women’s health issues to nuclear testing and the diminishing wilds of the American continent. She is deeply rooted in and associated with the American West. Her works include Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Patience and Passion in the Desert; The Open Space of Democracy; Finding Beauty in a Broken World and, most recently, When Women Were Birds, which she calls a kind of sequel to Refuge. Her first book, The Secret Language of Snow, a children’s book, received a National Science Foundation Book Award.
Williams’ writing on ecological and social issues has appeared in publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times, and the epilogue to Refuge, The Clan of One-Breasted Women, which explores the connection between the high rate of cancer in her family and nuclear testing in the Nevada desert, the region’s threatened natural landscape, and her own complicated relationship to Mormonism, is very widely anthologized.
In 2006, Williams was awarded the highest honor given to an American citizen by The Wilderness Society: the Robert Marshall Award. She is also a recipient of the Wallace Stegner Award, given by The Center for the American West, and a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. In 2011, she was awarded the 18th International Peace Award given by the Community of Christ Church.
Williams, who is known as much for her compassion as for her passion, has spent her entire life in the classroom and currently teaches at the University of Utah and Dartmouth College.
This conversation took place over the phone on the morning of April 16, 2013, the day after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Williams was in Boston at the time of the call, cheering on members of her family who had run in the race.
How are you?
I’m fine it’s just, you know, the weather system of this day in Boston is…
Oh, it’s terrible.
I don’t how to make sense of it. It’s hard…Our family is at the Boston Marathon, as we speak, so it feels especially, personal. The bombing was very near where we all were the night before. My niece and nephew were running in the race. But, you and I are here with each other, you’re in Stockholm, I’m in the United States, so lets talk.
Are you prepared to do the interview today or would you rather reschedule it?
No I’m completely prepared to talk. This is the world we live in, it’s violent, unpredictable and this is why I write and to me it’s living my life engaged and I can’t separate my writing life from the world around me. America loves to exploit this violence on the television. It’s too much. It’s a relief to be thinking about something else.
I think it’s important that if what we have to share with one another has any meaning we have to place it in this context.
One of the most troubling things is that, today, I literally heard one reporter say, “We’re not interested in why, we are only interested in who, the rest is immaterial.” I just wanted to say, “If we don’t know the why then we will never understand the world we live in.”
The who is in some ways the least important. Anyway, here we are.
Thank you for calling.
Thank you for doing this today. I love to start at the very beginning. You’re an activist, you’re without a doubt a very passionate person and I suppose I’m wondering when this passion began. Were you committed to ideas early on in the way that you have been later in life?
I grew up in the American West, Utah, in particular, part of a traditional Mormon family going back six generations that moved to Salt Lake City for religious freedom. The outdoors in my family was a spiritual landscape, not just a physical one. So I think my passion has always been tied to the land, to nature, to birds. I was given a Field Guide to Western Birds by my grandmother when I was five years old and I would pore over the illustrations in that bird book learning the names of birds, memorizing their feather patterns, where they lived, maps of distribution… And they became kin. So the passion is deeply tied to my family, my religious upbringing, and the geography where I was raised. Utah is home ground.
We lived on the edge of Great Salt Lake with the lake as the horizon line that looked like liquid silver. Spectacular sunsets were mirrored in lake at the end of each day. To our back was the spine of the Wasatch Range, part of the Rocky Mountains. So: mountains, Great Salt Lake, this liquid lie of the West, this body of water in the desert that no one could drink created the physical space with which I lived.
We would make trips out to Great Salt Lake, my grandmother and I, to see the birds, these long-legged birds that would migrate into Utah each spring. Black-necked stilts, white-faced glossy ibises, long-billed curlews, red-wing blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, ducks, geese, swans – I could go on and on. It was as though you lived in the middle of a desert Serengeti here in the American West.
The other influence was my family’s livelihood. The Tempest Company. They lay pipe. They’re ditch-diggers. And, inevitably, they would be laying pipe in very remote areas in the American West, whether it was in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada…
And my father would bring us home creatures: snakes, lizards, dead birds, bones. I remember in particular, a young cottontail rabbit that my father found that had fallen into the trench that became our pet. Then there was the time, he came home from a hunting trip with a horny toad that we were told squirts blood from its eyes. Deer hunting, pronghorn hunting, duck hunting…I would help pull the feathers from the mallards and pintails that my father would bring home and then, we would eat them for dinner.
It was a very active, vibrant childhood that was deeply connected to the land.