Writer Terry Tempest Williams has struck the word “busy” from her vocabulary.
"I think it's an excuse not to engage," she says, calling from rural Maine, where she was visiting Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area. "I feel focused at times; I feel committed to community at times. But I'm just so grateful for the rich life that I have."
One of the wisest—and loveliest—voices for conservation in the Western United States, Williams was on the East Coast for the People's Climate March and the Religions for the Earth Conference in New York City.
These days, she's also teaching, working on a new book about seven National Parks and advocating for the expansion of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. In part, she's committed to protecting more of that landscape because of her friendship with the late Stewart Udall, father to Sen. Tom Udall and former Secretary of the US Department of the Interior during the Johnson and Kennedy administrations. The senior Udall had a hand in everything from the Clean Air Act to the Wilderness Act and remained a fierce defender of the West's landscapes until his death in Santa Fe in 2010.
"I think of his influence continually," says Williams. "Whenever I write, I feel his hand on my shoulder."
Though the park today encompasses about 337,000 acres, Udall originally hoped the park would include a million acres. "I think we owe it to him to see his vision finished and to see his vision complete," she says. Williams is in town this week speaking at a benefit dinner for Conservation Voters New Mexico and reading at Collected Works. SFR chatted with her before of her trip:
I think of you as a Western writer and someone very connected with Utah. What's your relationship with New Mexico?
I love New Mexico. I feel like it's a sister state to Utah. Whenever I cross the boundary, I feel like I'm home in the big skies and piñon landscape. It's another soul spot for me.
When we talk about climate change or any of the other big conservation issues, does incremental change matter? Or do we need great changes?
I think we need incremental; I think we need sweeping legislation; I think we need a change of consciousness; and I think we need personal changes. I think one of the most stirring aspects of climate justice is that it connects all the dots. I have been a wilderness activist all of my life. And what I realize now, profoundly, is that unless we, as public lands activists, connect the dots to climate justice, we are segregating our views. We are segregating our cause. I think that never have we needed a broader definition of what wilderness preservation means for the future…
I was in New York City during the People's Climate March, 400,000 concerned citizens from all over the world, every walk of life imaginable—old people, young people, children, indigenous people. It was so powerful to see the breadth and depth of this movement. And it is a movement about justice. I think we quickly realize that environmental issues are economic issues, are issues of social justice. That's, to me, the power of what this movement has to offer all of us, particularly in the American West. We can no longer afford to itemize our concerns.
In your 1991 book, Refuge, you wrote how your great-grandmother, Vilate, told you: "My darling, faith without works is dead." How did those words shape who you are?
I think, "Faith without works is dead," is very much akin to Edward Abbey's statement, "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." We can say we're going to change the world, we can say we care about climate change, but without direct evidence, without a change in our own lifestyles, without really supporting and working for systematic changes, even in Congress, our words are pretty hollow.
I'm constantly aware of my own hypocrisy. And if I have any moral authority, it's in embracing the struggle, because we're all faced with some really, really hard choices. It's with that spirit of humility that we move forward with a commitment to change...I think it's a time to confront our own complicity in the lifestyle that can no longer be sustainable. And that's difficult.
In When Women Were Birds you wrote: "I will write—I will take my anger and turn it into sacred rage. From their deaths, I must make meaning." You were writing about the women in your family who have died from cancer, but that's a feeling a lot of us have, too. Can you talk to me about that sacred rage?
I've spent a good portion of my life being motivated by anger. When I think of the op-ed pieces I've written, it's largely been out of anger; they're not pieces of literature. I think that our best attempts at conversation are done out of respect and reverence and the capacity to listen. When I'm angry I'm not listening—I'm trying to convince someone that I'm right. Nevertheless, I think anger is a great motivator—anger that is conscious and directed toward justice. To me, that would be my definition of sacred rage. The difference for me is when I'm angry, I'm in my head. When I am holding sacred rage, I feel it in my solar plexus, in my belly, and I can proceed with a greater focus and with compassion for what I feel is not right.
We expect a lot from you. We write your words down, read them over and over. How do you keep yourself whole, resilient?
Living in Utah you don't take yourself very seriously. I can give you a long list of people who do not feel kindly toward me, including people in my own family. Living in Utah, it's easy to keep your feet firmly on the ground.
This interview was edited for space and clarity.
AN EVENING WITH TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS
BENEFITING CONSERVATION VOTERS NM
6 pm, Wednesday, Oct. 15
La Fonda on the Plaza, Lumpkins Ballroom
100 E San Francisco St.
READING HER ESSAY IN WILDERNESS
4:40 pm Friday, Oct. 17
Collected Works Bookstore
202 Galisteo St.