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.
Were books a big part of your childhood?
My family are great readers and there were books all over our home. At night, we would sit on our father’s lap and he would read to us. One book in particular, stands out. It was called Scarface, The Story of a Grizzly by Dorr Yaeger. It was a true adventure story from a bear’s point of view. He read us Bambi, he read us The Yearling… My mother loved novels and would talk to us about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
My grandmother was a voracious reader and a scholar of Carl Jung so whenever we would stay overnight at her house we would know that in the morning we would be asked what dreams we had had – and then, she would help us interpret them. For most of my adult life I thought that Carl Jung, Maria Louise von Franz, Alan Watts – I thought they were Mormons. Little did I realize they were some of the world’s great contemporary thinkers in human psychology.
You were brought up in a religious Mormon family.
Did the religious aspect of your upbringing influence what you read and how you thought about things?
Community was central. We were raised by neighbors and family. Everything was seen in the context of the larger social system. Sundays were spent in church. Children went to Primary, a type of religious school on Tuesday afternoons. Wednesdays were spent in what was called MIA – the Mutual Improvement Association – for young people. Thursdays were Relief Society for Women. Religion was a daily affair. In the era that I grew up, the Church was the hub of our wheel, socially and religiously.
Our family, I have to be honest, were not great Bible readers or Book of Mormon enthusiasts. Whenever I would hear the word “genealogy” I would groan because it felt so boring and belabored with the weight of our ancestors and yet our genealogy was alive, sitting around our dinner table. I knew five of my great-grandparents. I knew our history; it was a living history. And my great-grandparents would talk about their grandparents who walked across the Plains for religious freedom. My husband’s great-great-grandfather was Brigham Young. Brigham Young’s teacup sat on the mantle of his household. So, our history is a living history and an evolving and adaptive history – again, tied to the land. It was all intimate, intermingled, and integrated with our past.
What I can tell you is that Mormons are great storytellers rooted in a deep oral tradition and that may have had the most impact on me. How we tell our stories, how we come to know who we are by our histories – personal tales become part of the collective identity. These are the stories spoken about around the dinner table. We invent our mythology as an act of solidarity for a people persecuted for the peculiarity of our beliefs. The stories become the conscience of the community – A story becomes the umbilical cord between the past, present, and future. It keeps things known.
Did you begin to write things down early on?
I kept journals because that’s where I felt safe. Each one had a lock and key. I had three brothers. I hid my journals. That’s where I think I found my voice, not spoken but written. Especially as a female.
And what were you writing in the journals?
I was writing observations, descriptions. I was also writing in code, which I think is interesting. Strangely enough, I remember one specific entry: My parents were arguing over when we would leave on vacation. My mother said, “We’re going,” and I remember walking into the bedroom, shutting the door, retrieving my journal, opening the lock and writing “Decisions, decisions, decisions. We’re finally going to Jackson Hole.” Code. So I think I learned early on as a writer to be careful. I also learned rhythm has its own suggestive power.
In many ways I think I still write in code. Rhythm, repetition, imagery, how we describe the world, were all ways that I survived in a very patriarchal culture where children were meant to be seen not heard. Women in particular, in past generations, mine, included, growing up, did not have a voice, especially a forthright voice.
I also think there’s a perversion here in the assumption that journals will be read. I had read my great-grandmother’s journals, my great-great-grandmother’s journals, my grandmother’s journals, and logic would tell me that I didn’t really want people to know what was going on, what I was thinking. So I found my own obscure voice. I already was protective of myself and my family. And the irony now as a writer, however many decades later, is that my journals – which I still keep; I have hundreds of them – are much less personal than my books are because I believe my journals will be read and that my books aren’t.
There is a sense of self-censorship.
Not so much “self-censorship” but finding a hidden language. Letting symbols work for you, saying what you choose not to reveal. It’s very odd and it’s particularly poignant that when my mother died of ovarian cancer – I remember lying in bed with her, rubbing her back, it was a wicked January day, and she was facing the window – she said, “Terry I’m leaving you all of my journals, but you have to promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” (She was a very private woman for reasons that you and I just talked about). A week later, she died; a month later, I found myself inside the family home and I thought, “Now, finally, I will know what my mother was thinking, feeling, believing.” The journals were exactly where she said they would be. Three shelves of them, all hand-bound beautifully. I opened the first one: it was empty. I opened the second one: it was empty. The third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth; shelf after shelf after shelf – All my mother’s journals were blank.
Yeah, these are the complexities within the atmosphere where I was raised, the culture that formed me, shaped me. Mormon women are encouraged and expected to do two things: keep a journal, a record of your life; and bear children. My mother did both, except her journals were empty.
I don’t know what she was trying to tell me. It will forever remain a mystery. Was she saying, “Fill them,” because I couldn’t? That seems too simple. Or was it an act of defiance? “Sure, I’ll keep a journal. But I will never write in it….you’re not going to know what my thoughts are”? I mean, in a way she left me a beautiful Buddhist koan. I keep turning it over like a kaleidoscope. I will never know my mother’s intentions.
That’s an amazing story.
And it’s deeply tied to my own story as a writer. It is the centerpiece of my latest book, When Women Were Birds. Voice and silence are mirror images that reflect back on one another. We speak our words. We withhold our words. We edit our words. We reimagine them.
Growing up in this Mormon society, in a patriarchal culture, did you become defiant or dare to express opinions that maybe weren’t expected of you?
I didn’t. My father, if he were here, he would say, “She was completely normal until she was fourteen!” What he means is that it was then, I stopped being a “tomboy.” I was a good child, a good student, didn’t rock the boat. But I watched everything. The landscape, nature, the birds, the mountains, they were bedrock for me.
The other side of what you are asking me, was I ever defiant, is that as a child growing up, I was very aware of injustices. I was very aware of things spoken within my religious community that did not feel right. My grandfather – Jack, we called him – was not Mormon and I was raised to believe that if you weren’t Mormon you wouldn’t go to the highest order of heaven known as the “Celestial Kingdom.” I thought, “I don’t want to go somewhere where my grandfather isn’t.” My grandmother was not an active member of the church, she had left the church, but I wanted to be where my grandmother was, watching birds. So this was the beginning, the crack of erosion, that exposed and created the space for an emerging social conscience. My mother died from ovarian cancer when she was thirty-eight years old; I remember hearing people at church say she must’ve done something wrong and I didn’t believe that. So this erosion…
When I was growing up in the 1960s I was watching the Civil Rights movement. I was aware that I belonged to a religion where African-Americans could not hold the priesthood, could not have the same kind of power that white men could have. Women were also not allowed that same power of the priesthood. That did not feel right to me. I was also aware that native people – Indian people, of which there are many in the American Southwest: Hopi people, Navajo, the Dine’, Pueblo people, Ute’s, Goshutes, on and on – all Native Americans – were known to my religion as “Lamenites,” who bore the curse of Cain on them, as did African-Americans. I did not believe that.
When I was in high school, I read Walden; I was reading Hiroshima about the atomic bomb; I was reading everything I could get my hands on about African-Americans, about Indian people, about “Other”. I had a brilliant English teacher, Mrs. Beth Rich, who took us to hear a poet – a black poet, Maya Angelou – read on Temple Square. I did not realize at the time, but would later learn that liberal Mormons who believed African-Americans deserved to have the priesthood, worked behind the scenes to invite Maya Angelou to read from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on that Mormon hallowed ground, which was a deeply political act.
All of those elements played into my worldview, particularly as a writer now: engaged, enlivened, and passionate about issues of social and environmental justice.
When you went to college, you were an English major and a Biology minor.
You were reading voraciously, but when did you begin writing in other forms than just your journal?
I was always writing. I don’t ever remember not writing. Words, words, words. I was in the literary club, I was writing poetry, essays, reviews. I took lots of creative writing classes, I wrote for my high school yearbook. I was enrolled in AP English classes – I was constantly writing, reading, thinking. But I had this other love, which was science and biology. I remember when it became time to declare a degree at the University of Utah, I asked the English department, “Could I get a joint degree in English and Biology, call it ‘Environmental English’ because I have all these credits in Advanced Invertebrate Zoology, Ornithology, Field Ecology, Botany.” and they looked at me and said, “Are you serious? Of course not.” And then, I went to the biology department and made my case once again, “I have all these classes on Trancendentalism, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, Frost, Virginia Woolf, that all have to do with landscape. Is there any way I can get a degree in ‘Literary Biology?’” And that was worse. So I ended up getting a BS in English and they said, “You’ll never go anywhere or amount to anything in the Academy.”
I ended up teaching in a private school in Salt Lake City, very conservative, and later returning to graduate school, again, at the University of Utah, getting a Master’s Degree in Education/Cultural Foundations by focusing on the oral tradition, storytelling, within the Navajo community. The Dine’ (as they call themselves) sent me back home to my own community. It was at that point, when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, that I realized the story we were really living with, which was that nine women in my family had all had mastectomies and seven were dead as a result of nuclear testing. I identified them as “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” And that’s where I think my writing developed an edge, a politics, when I realized that I don’t know how to write the truth of what I see as a woman living in the American West without engaging the environment, culture, religion.
I committed civil disobedience and crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site as a gesture of conscious protest against nuclear testing. The physical line I crossed as I was arrested became a metaphorical line, as well. I would not remain passive as a writer or American citizen, any more. My act of faith became an act of resistance. And my religious faith changed into a faith in an engaged citizenry.
How many years after graduating from college would you say that it was before you actually began to explore those issues?
I would say it was happening simultaneously. One action was informing another. I was in my twenties. I was writing about the destruction of prairie dog habitats as my senior thesis; I was writing about storytelling – what stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place – when I was working on the Navajo reservation, which ended up being my graduate thesis. Then I was working at the Utah Museum of Natural History when my mother had a reoccurrence of cancer and that’s when I think my writing took a different turn that I just referenced on behalf of “The Clan of One Breasted Women.”
You were married when you were in college, right?
Yes. I was married at nineteen. Brooke, my husband, was twenty-three, and that was very typical for Mormon youth. The interesting thing for me, though, is that Brooke and I recognized each other (consciously or unconsciously, hard to say) as Mormon refugees. He had been working as a park ranger in Zion National Park. I had been working at the Teton Science School in Grand Teton National Park. I was testifying before Congress at age twenty, twenty-one, during the Alaska Lands Bill hearings. I hitchhiked my way to Denver. During that time, Brooke was a boatman running rivers down Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. So we were on this similar path. Brooke was reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and proposed to me just outside the auditorium where Edward Abbey, the great desert writer, was about to speak. We were bound by our shared love of wildness and wilderness from the very beginning.
Wow, married at nineteen.
I know! Yes, married in the Mormon Temple, surrounded by our extended families. We were married June 2nd, had our honeymoon on June 3rd, and on June 4th, we were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, teaching at the Teton Science School for the summer.
You started out in a partnership early. That must’ve had an impact on each of you, on what you were writing and what you were doing. It sounds like he was a partner in your feelings about the world and in activism from the start.
Very much so. In fact, we met when I was working at Sam Weller’s Bookstore – Zion Bookstore – in Salt Lake City. He came in with a woman I knew (and keep in mind, I was nineteen) and I was behind the counter. He looked like this wild desert rat all tanned and blond, so he caught my attention. He’d been a month down Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park and he put on the counter all of my favorite books: Black Elk Speaks, Portraits of North American Indians by Edward Curtis, books by John McPhee; again Edward Abbey’s books, books by Wallace Stegner, Ken Kesey. And I thought, “Who is this man?” Then he turned to his girlfriend at the time and said, “My dream in life is to one day own all the Peterson Field Guides.” And she looked at him and said, “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Without thinking I said, “I already have them.” We were married six months later.
Come on, that’s a great story.
And a true story. It has been a great partnership for almost forty years and some might say, an unorthodox one. There have been great spaces in our marriage, great freedom in our marriage, because we both value wildness in the land and in each other. I would say in our marriage that Brooke and I have given birth to each other. We cherish one another’s solitude and our shared life that is constantly evolving. Not always easy, but always dynamic and rich.
You called yourselves “Mormon refugees.” What is your relationship with the Mormon church now?
We are no longer “orthodox,” or “active,” but it’s similar to how my Jewish friends talk about their relationship to religion. Culturally, we will always be Mormons; it’s one of the lenses through which we see the world. We were just with our families in Boston during the marathon and it’s a communal existence. There were fourteen of us walking the streets together. There’s something very beautiful about a deep family connection and I cherish that. You know who you are and where you come from, and what you belong to. Mormon people, Utah Mormons, in particular, have a strong sense of place that is rooted to their identity. But that comes with complications, like any meaningful relationship. You just have to find your own way, which is what Brooke and I have tried to do with our own integrity.
I’ve never forgotten listening to Octavio Paz – he came to speak when I was a student at the University of Utah – He said, “If you are interested in a revolution of the spirit, an evolution of the spirit, it requires both love and criticism.” I have never forgotten that and I think that I have employed both qualities within my writing.
That’s beautifully put, very beautifully put. The first book that you actually published was a children’s book, isn’t that right?
It was, with Ted Major who was the director of the Teton Science School. It was about winter ecology and the various words for snow within the Inupiat language.
How did you come about the idea of writing for this audience and writing this book?
It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. I’ve always loved storytelling, I’ve always loved fables, I’ve always written, and I’ve always loved the natural world. For me writing became a tool for how I could share that passion for the natural world.
Was publishing an early dream for you? Was it important?
You know, it’s complicated. When I found out that this book, The Secret Language of Snow, would be published by Sierra Club Books and Pantheon – I didn’t tell anyone for a year.
I was embarrassed. I thought, “I should not have a public voice; women don’t speak and I don’t want that attention.” And yet I must have wanted my work out in the world because I wanted people to care about nature the same way I did. It was my own personal paradox. Of course, I was thrilled to be able to have a book out in the world, but I kept that to myself.
First and foremost, all I really ever wanted to do was teach so I was teaching at a private school in Salt Lake City, I was teaching at the Teton Science School, I was a naturalist teaching in Grand Teton National Park. Passionate – wild – about the natural world. Publishing was an extension of teaching, another way to get that word out.
I was not a Mormon missionary but you could say I was a missionary for nature.
And have continued to be. I think it’s so interesting what you’re saying about the resistance to having a public voice because of the way that you were raised. When you published your memoir, that must have been a very big step for you. To put not only your stories, but your family’s stories out there. Did you struggle with yourself about writing that material?
I did struggle. I still do. For seven years, I struggled writing Refuge, a book about the rise of Great Salt Lake, the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the death of my mother from cancer – and I still struggle, even as a woman fifty-seven years of age, having just published When Women Were Birds, which could be viewed as a sequel to Refuge. I’ve never been comfortable with having a public voice and every time I have to speak or do a reading you will find Pepto Bismol tablets in my bag. I don’t think I’ve ever let that go. I am trying, believe me! And yet there’s something that propels me beyond myself and beyond my own fear and that’s a desire to share my love of the land, a desire to explore these issues of justice, and to extend our notion of community beyond our own species. That overrides whatever terror I might have.
It’s not that I don’t love what I do, it’s just that I don’t do it easily. Maybe nobody does. Writers are by nature, introverts.
I remember right before Refuge was published, I called my father and said, “My book will be published next month, what do I do. People will read it as gossip in our community?” And I’ll never forget, he said, “Don’t worry about it, nobody’s gonna read it anyway.” And I think there was great comfort in that, actually.
Then of course people did read it. Maybe not in the Mormon community, but people certainly did.
But the other thing that happened (and this is why I love my father; he’s the Marlboro Man without the cigarette): When Refuge came out (and it just so happened that it came out the same day as my birthday, September 8th – what was it? 1991? A long time ago), my father called me at 6:30 in the morning, which is pretty early. Brooke and I were still in bed, and he said, “Happy Birthday, Terry, you need to come over and get your present.” And I said, “Well, thank you Dad, but now?” And he said, “Now.” So Brooke and I hauled ourselves out of bed and went over to my father’s house, it was about four miles away. He was standing in the driveway holding this small plastic container and I thought, “Oh, a little make-up kit for my book tour,” you know? And I opened it up and inside was a Lady Weston, a pearl-handled pistol.
A pearl-handled pistol?!
Yeah. I think what my father was saying unconsciously without being aware of it was, “You’ve written this book. It’s vulnerable. You’re vulnerable. Protect yourself.”
Guns are part of the culture I’ve grown up in. I think what was unusual was that my father had to give it to me on that day, at that time, in the way that he did with a certain amount of urgency.
And how did your father, your family, and your immediate community react to the book?
That’s a complicated question. I had given my family many, many, many, many drafts of Refuge so by the time that it came out they knew what was in it, and I had also deferred to them. There were passages that I had written that I took out because they were not comfortable with the material. There were other passages that I kept in, that they disagreed with, but after long, painful conversations, they came to understand why I wanted them to stay in the book.
So, in my family it’s always been a conversation, not always a comfortable one, and not without consequences, but that is the path I have chosen with them. We talk. We agree and disagree. And I really have to say I honor my family because they have been exposed and there have been things that I have written that they were not happy about and it has created ruptures in relationships. But I can tell you after thirty years of writing, my relationships are intact and that means a lot to me.
I know there are writers that choose not to engage their families in what they write. The point is, I still struggle with my family because they are central in my life and to my life as a non-fiction writer. And it’s never gotten easier and it’s always complicated and there’s always ethics involved. By what authority do we write? By what authority do we claim this story? My answer is: By the authority of our own experience.
You were reluctant to have a public voice but now you do – when you speak, people listen. That comes with certain power. What were you were striving towards when you were just starting out? What was your idea of success then and what is it now?
You know I don’t think about success very much.
I think success for me is having the freedom to say what I want to say in the way that I want to say it. I think growing up within a patriarchal culture I knew what it felt like not to have a voice – success for me was about having a voice and being able to speak about the truth of our lives, openly, honestly, authentically – being true to myself.
And growing up in the American West, I think what has motivated me as both a writer and an engaged citizen is watching these wild lands we love being destroyed, developed, and undermined by our politics of extraction and the power of the oil and gas industry. I don’t even have the words to express the heartbreak I feel now in the Colorado Plateau, where we live in southern Utah, in the whole Interior West for that matter, from Utah to Colorado to Wyoming. In my lifetime, the open spaces we once took for granted are now disappearing, ravaged by our nation’s thirst and hunger for oil. Where you once could see the curvature of the earth uninterrupted, now what you see are oil rigs, roads, and burning slag piles. Much of the land looks like an exposed nervous system with roads running every which way to support this energy infrastructure on our public lands.
So again, back to your question, success for me was trying to get public attention focused on landscapes that nobody cared about, that were viewed as expendable, only as places to be exploited for corporate pursuits. Or to give voice to species such as prairie dogs being poisoned, shot at, viewed simply as vermin. That is why I write – to shift perceptions, to write out of my love and loss, to lay claim to the open space of democracy and all that is wild.
Or in the case of the women in my family, when I realized I belonged to “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” as a result of nuclear bombs being tested in the desert, I needed to bring both dignity and awareness to their deaths and the deaths of thousands of others caught downwind of the Nevada Test Site. The Cold War created its own casualties.
The muscle behind my pen has been love and outrage seeking restorative justice. One of my challenges has been, “How do I take that anger and turn it into sacred rage?” So, I guess success for me was being able to ask the tough questions, to stand for what I believe in, and to be able to speak and act in the name of community.
And, in that sense, also being heard.
Yes. You hope you are heard. And that out of one voice, many voices can join together to make a difference. But I also have to say, as a writer, we cannot ignore the private changes that occur on the page, the internal changes that take place between the reader and the writer. I know the books that have changed my life personally, quietly, over time.
During all this time when you were writing, how were you supporting yourself? What kind of jobs did you have?
I’m a firm believer that all writers should have day jobs and I’ve always had one, sometimes, many. I began as a teacher. I worked for fifteen years at the Utah Museum of Natural History as curator of education and I continue to teach now. I’ve been really lucky to be able to write and teach and travel as an author and lecturer.
But I think my identity has never been tied to being a writer. It’s what I do, it’s not who I am. Who I am is an engaged citizen in the world.
You teach now.
I teach at the University of Utah in the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program. Two of the classes I teach are very dear to me, one is called “Art Advocacy, and Landscape” and it’s about how we perceive things, how we make change, how art creates a lens of understanding that can heighten our engagement with the world. We focus on storytelling be it through literature, film, music. We invite artists from various disciplines to work with our students. It explores how art can bypass rhetoric and engage the heart. It also isn’t afraid to look at the role of spirituality in social change, not just politics. I also teach a class called “An Ecology of Residency.” What does it mean to be a resident of the world? What does it mean to be “of place”? And we have an outdoor campus in the Centennial Valley in Montana where we explore these ideas on the ground in real time and space on the edge of the Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge where there is a mosaic of land issues from endangered species to ranching to the reintroduction of bison in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Here at Dartmouth, I teach a writing class each spring, within the environmental studies program called “Writing Our Way Home.” More than a writing class, I view it as a class in translation: How do we take these big stories of our time – climate change, biodiversity, endangered species, food security – and write them with a language that opens hearts rather than closes them? How do we tell a story that we feel not just report? How do we tell a story that evokes a sense of place and purpose?
You’re interacting with a lot of young people who are themselves in their late teens and twenties. What kind of advice can and do you offer them?
My students are my teachers. My students are my greatest source of hope. They are my living, breathing, beautiful faith. They are my joy. My advice is really for my generation. I think we need to listen to young people. And when we can, create openings for them.
My encouragement to young people is to speak and to recognize the power that they hold, the authority that is theirs, and to not be afraid to demand and to ask for a livable future and all which that implies, in the name of environmental justice, in the name of social justice, in the name of an ethical stance toward life.
And to figure out: What is your gift? What is your joy? What is it that you’re passionate about? And how can you be of use? What is the piece of the mosaic that you hold?
I’m also a great advocate for studying something other than writing, so that you have a particular lens that you can see the world through. I think that’s so important – to know something, to have studied it, pondered it, and examined it thoroughly – be it ornithology, geology, sociology, anthropology. To work in the field. To get your hands dirty. To not simply trade in abstractions, but to have learned a particularly vocabulary within a vocation. Good writing is grounded in specifics. You have to know a subject to be able to write about it. Again, it’s about finding your own authority and sharing it within one’s community.
And that would be another thing I would stress: I think it’s so important to create community in the work that you do because the writing life is a lonely life, it’s a solitary life. I think that in whatever work we engage in, work shared is always a blessing. For me, the work in building community has been the most rewarding. A book can create community, working to protect a piece of land creates community. Committing civil disobedience creates community.
That’s beautifully put. And did you build a community, certainly of fellow activists but also of fellow writers, early on?
Yes, and the writers that I’m closest too and the writers that I admire most are writers that care about these larger issues.
When your mother was diagnosed with cancer and you realized that you were part of a “Clan of One-Breasted Women,” you found your subject and with it you found your voice. I think for a lot of young writers one of the difficulties can be finding your subject matter.
I think that’s right. I rarely know where I’m going, I just want to pay attention to where I am and to write out of that moment. It seems to me, that our task is to become writers of presence, writers engaged in the moment at hand. The degree of our awareness becomes the degree of our aliveness and that translates to an intensity, an authenticity, on the page. Writers pay attention. Our subject matter finds us. Patience is required.
Is there something that you think that it would have been good for your younger self to know, I mean the self who was writing journals in code, before you were embracing the fact that you did have a public voice?
What a provocative question. I think if I had known as a young woman what I know now I would have been too terrified to go forward. So I’m very content not to have known what the future held. Again, I think it’s about being present, about paying attention. Looking back, I am grateful for each step taken. I can see now, the courage that many of those steps took, but I didn’t see it at the time.
I guess if you pressed me, I would have wanted my younger self to know that there is a joy that emerges from sorrow, a deepening of the self that serves us later on, a fearlessness that emerges out of difficulty. And I would have wanted her to know that she would find a community of vibrant people who are making a difference in the world. It would have been helpful for her to know that she was not alone “in the vitality of her struggle,” that beautiful surprises were to come out of her desire to forge a different path.
The gift of my mother dying so young was the understanding that all we have is the present and if we are truly attentive to the moment at hand, then we will have the courage that we need to go forward.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Marion Ettlinger