A Conversation With Terry Tempest Williams

Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Naturalist, writer, and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams has written numerous books including the esteemed Refuge (Pantheon, 2000) and her most recent books Leap (Pantheon, 2000) and Red (Pantheon, 2001). Williams is currently on the board of directors of the Murie Center and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. This month she is also a featured speaker at the 2003 Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California. She spoke with us from her home among the red rocks of Castle Valley, Utah.

Q: You recently returned from the Arctic. What was that experience like?

A: The Arctic was life-changing in ways I am still trying to understand. It had been a 30-year dream to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a dream I had been holding ever since I met Mardy Murie at the Teton Science School when I was 18 years old. Mardy gave a slideshow of the trip she and her husband, Olaus, took to the Sheenjek River in 1956. It was this trip taken with friends like George Schaller that inspired the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its protection in 1960. After imagining this landscape for so long, to actually stand there and breathe in that kind of vast, pure, raw, wild beauty, well, it took the Arctic from a place of abstraction to a place of the real. When the plane dropped us off in the heart of the Brooks Range, the first thought that came into my mind was that I was perfectly safe. Never have I felt that kind of calm and deep peace.

Q: What did you think about the wildness there?

A: My husband, Brooke, and I have spent the majority of our lives seeking out wild places, and I think both of us, in those short two weeks, realized we had never really been in a truly pristine place until then. We saw no other human beings or virtual signs of humanity until we flew into Kavik, a small outpost on the North Slope, at the end of our trip. To stand on a knoll in the tundra at 2 o'clock in the morning with the depth of Arctic light creating double rainbows as thousands upon thousands of caribou move across the coastal plain is to stand in the presence of the divine with total awe and humility. No words. That kind of motion creates an emotion that binds us to all life. We remember what we are connected to as a species. We forget we belong to a world of such complete wholeness. We live in such a fragmented world, even a fragmented state of mind. We forget what is still possible, what still lives and breathes on this planet with no thought of modernity or global economies or war.

Q: How do you feel about the proposed oil drilling in the region?

A: The shortsightedness is stunning. Our lack of restraint is chilling and the diabolical environmental agenda of the Bush administration should outrage all Americans who care about the health and integrity of our public lands. We no longer have the luxury of not becoming involved in these issues. So much is at stake. Our voices matter. If we let our congressmen and congresswomen and senators know how we feel, they are obliged to represent our views. This is how the Arctic National Wildlife has been protected in the past and this is how these sacred lands will be preserved in the future. Call it The Open Space of Democracy.

Q: What do you think we should be focusing on in terms of the environment?

A: I feel like we are at a time of great creativity if we choose to embrace it as such, if we choose to engage the will of our imaginations and imagine another way of being in the world. Democracy requires our participation. The land trust movement in this country is a beautiful example of how we can find hope within our own communities because it bypasses government and creates a diverse and truly bipartisan conversation on behalf of the land. We dare to define community to include all life—rocks, rivers, plants, and animals, alongside human beings. Whether it is the Castle Rock Collaboration in the red rock desert of southern Utah or the Blue Hill Heritage Trust in coastal Maine, these small groups made up of neighbors and friends from all walks of life are having an extraordinary influence on our creation of an ethic of place. I believe radical change occurs through the care of our relationships.

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