AN INTERVIEW WITH TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS

An environmentalist who writes from the heart

:TERRY WAS BORN in 1955 in California into a family of Mormon faith. When she was two years of age, the family moved to Salt Lake City area where she spent most of her growing-up years. It was there that she experienced first-hand the unforeseen impact when the natural world is violated in ignorance and without feeling. Atomic testing took place at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1962. These tests exposed many to the fall-out from radiation including members of the Tempest family. Nine members of her family developed cancer. Seven died. Terry knows about loss, not only of beloved family members but about so much in our natural world. “So much has been lost” she wrote in The Hour of Land.1 Then she put it bluntly: “The irony of our existence is this. We are infinitesimal in the grand scheme of things, a tiny organism on Earth. And yet, personally, collectively, we are changing the planet through our voracity, the velocity of our reach, our desires, our ambitions, and our appetites. We multiply, our hunger multiplies, and our insatiable craving accelerates.”2

Photo from Terry Tempest Williams’ web site
for her book The Hour of Land.

It is not surprising that Terry became an environmental activist who has been on the front-lines of this movement for most of her life. She has especially advocated for the protection of public land. In every one of her seventeen books and other writing, as well as in countless presentations, one theme reverberates: her passion for the natural world. She emphasizes that this planet is the one place we all have in common; that this is our home. She sees everything as connected and considers us an integral part of all there is.

On October 17, 2020, I had the opportunity to speak with Terry during a prearranged phone call. From the other end of the line, her gentle, warm voice greeted me with the standard question: “How do you pronounce your name?” We chatted for a few minutes but it wasn’t long before we spoke about public lands, and I asked what she considered the top priorities.

With conviction now audible in her voice Terry stated: “I see three things.

First: we need to ban fracking, and stop oil and gas leasing on public lands. Earlier in the election campaign, Joe Biden promised that he would ban fracking on public lands, but more recently he has backtracked on that promise. We need to keep the pressure on to stop that. The energy extracted from our public lands produces 24 percent of the global warming emissions. Twenty-four percent!”

Terry mentioned that twelve national parks are seriously threatened by extractive industries. One, Chaco Cultural NHP has a methane hot spot above it. The others are Mesa Verde National Park (NP); Theodore Roosevelt NP; Hovenweep National Monument; Canyonlands NP; Great Sand Dunes NP; Grand Tetons NP; Big Cypress NP; Sequoia NP; Dinosaur NP; and Carlsbad Cavern NP. They are surrounded by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands where oil and gas leases are becoming a growing concern.*

The extractive industries threaten: air quality; wildlife; natural and cultural landscapes; public health; and the visitor experience of a natural place to name but a few.

Most importantly, in her book Red:Passion and patience in the Desert, Terry asked, “Who can say how much land can be destroyed without consequence? Who can say how much land can be used for extractive purposes until it is rendered barren forever?”3

Terry continued the conversation: “Second: We need to educate people. Education is crucial. When I was teaching at the Harvard School of Divinity during the last four years, I was stunned to learn how few people understand the differences between public lands such as national forests, the BLM lands, refuges, preserves, and so on, and what these lands are all about. And these are all educated people. But look at where the seats of power are: in the east. They do not have an understanding, like we do in the west, of why public lands matter.

“We need to work to educate people not only on a national level but also on a state level. We need to inform, educate, illuminate as to what these public lands are and why they matter.”

In The Hour of Land Terry added another reason why education is necessary. She wrote, “We have not conveyed our view of a larger community in the Leopoldian sense well enough – a community that includes plants and animals, rocks and rivers, whole communities, not fragmented ones – a community of other species that is indifferent to us but that we are not indifferent to. Wilderness is not a place of privilege but rather a place of probity, where the evolutionary processes of life are free to continue.”4

Also in Finding Beauty in a BrokenWorld Terry revisited her focus on the need for a Leopoldian perspective and points out that we do not yet have an ethical approach to our relationship with the land. The land still continues to be regarded in economic terms, as property. We look to how it can be used but do not consider our obligations.

As we continued our conversation she went to the third point she wanted to make: “We need to build bridges connecting people of color, the 71 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in this last presidential election, and those who have different beliefs than largely white progressives. This shouldn’t be about Republicans or Democrats, right or left, but who we are as human beings in relationship to beauty and the natural world and the places we call home (and all who care about these places). We need public lands to be about all people. The conservation movement is broadening its base to include more people of color and to provide marginalized communities greater access to wildlands adjacent to cities. Public lands are for the public. During the pandemic, open spaces have become even more important. This is about health; the health of the Earth, of all species.

“We also should not forget that before these were public lands they were native lands. As white people, we have to own our violent past where too many national parks displaced indigenous people. In Utah, the fight for Bears  Ears led by Indigenous leaders from five Native Nations − Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ouray Ute – has been a powerful shift in leadership and the beginning of a new collaboration between the tribes, conservationists, and the government. Those of us from organizations like Southern Utah Wilderness

“We also should not forget that before these were public lands they were native lands. As white people, we have to own our violent past where too many national parks displaced indigenous people. In Utah, the fight for Bears Ears led by Indigenous leaders from five Native Nations − Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ouray Ute – has been a powerful shift in leadership and the beginning of a new collaboration between the tribes, conservationists, and the government. Those of us from organizations like Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club became allies, alongside many different groups who came together to advocate for the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. In 2016, President Obama designated 1.3 million acres as protected. It was a handshake across history. Then, less than one year from Obama’s proclamation, Donald Trump gutted the monument by 85 percent, making it vulnerable to oil and gas exploration. This was an enormous set-back.

“I asked Willie Greyeyes, an indigenous elder, ‘What do we do with our anger?’ He looked at me and said, ‘It can no longer be about anger. It has to be about healing. If you have a sliver in the bottom of your foot, and you don’t know where the sources of your pain is, it will only fester, you can never heal.’

“The American government has never apologized for the cultural genocide of America’s Indigenous People. Bears Ears National Monument was seen as an opportunity for healing. That opportunity was severed, but I believe with the Biden administration it will be restored.

“We need to listen to Native People in a deeper way and follow their lead in sacred land protection. We need to deepen the quality of our listening with sensitivity to those who have been marginalized. Marginalized people and people of color have been kept out of the environmental conversation for too long.

“We can be inspired by the power of the democracy of open spaces. We need to ask ourselves what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be in relationship with other species? All the issues we are facing from Covid-19 to the ecological and climate crisis to racial injustice and a democracy at risk, all are interrelated. I believe our public lands offer us a breathing space where we remember what binds us together rather than what separates us. It is here we can come to a deeper understanding of our shared humanity, alongside the fact that we are one species among many on this beautiful planet we call Earth.”

In addition to the three points she made when we spoke, she wrote in The Hour of Land, “Most of the issues confronting our national parks today are political. Our national park management plans tend to blow with the political winds from one administration to another.”5 Elsewhere in The Hour of Land she mentioned, “Our institutions and agencies are no longer working for us. It is time to reimagine the wilderness movement as a movement of direct action, time to reimagine our public lands as sanctuaries, refuges, and sacred lands. Time to rethink what is acceptable and what is not.”6

Nearing the end of our conversation, we talked about the current pandemic: Covid-19 ‒ how could we not? This minuscule virus that pulled the global rug out from under has all of us in its unforgiving grip. Terry had some thoughts on this as well, “I hope that this will create a pause within us as we contemplate how we want to live our lives recognizing the old structures are no longer working for us. What might we create together? How can we approach our lives and each other with more compassion? Can a sense of renewal come out of this? I know personally, I can never go back to my previous life. I want to be home more and traveling less.” Terry and I agreed we need to find a balance between wildlands and our use of them. We have a lot of work to reconcile this inherent tension. Terry added, “I believe that it is our nature to want peace. We must call forth our moral imagination as we rethink our relationship to Nature. The power of the pandemic is a humbling agent – we will have to yield to its power. The Earth will continue. Whether we will continue as a species is more uncertain, is our choice.”

One last question before we signed off: “What about hope Terry, what gives you hope, given the current turmoil?” Terry hesitated then replied softly, “For me it is no longer a matter of hope, but knowing where hope dwells. Consider the catastrophic forest fires of this past summer. The trees were burning. But even as they burned, they were dropping their seeds. The natural world continues to teach us about regeneration.”

Interview by Birgitta Jansen

* For further information see: National Parks Conservation Association:npca.org/campaigns/parks-in-perilReferences may be found in the Notes section of the Desert Report website at www.desertreport.org.