The Politics of Place:
An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams

By Scott London

Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams

The connection between language and landscape is a perennial theme of American letters. Nature has been a well-spring for many of our finest writers — from Whitman and Thoreau to Peter Mathiessen and Edward Abbey. Terry Tempest Williams belongs in this tradition. A native of Utah, her naturalist writing has been richly influenced by the sprawling landscape of the West. It also draws on the values and beliefs of her Mormon background.

Terry Tempest Williams was thrown into the literary spotlight in 1991 with the release of her sixth book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It describes how the Great Salt Lake rose to record levels and eventually flooded the wetlands that serve as a refuge for migratory birds in Northern Utah. Williams tells the story against the backdrop of her family's struggle with cancer as a result of living downwind from a nuclear test site.

For Williams, there is a very close connection between ourselves, our people, and our native place. In the words of the Utne Reader magazine — which recently described her as one of today's leading "visionaries" — her writing "follows wilderness trails into the realm of memory and family, exploring gender and community through the prism of landscape."

Scott London: You've said that your writing is a response to questions.

Terry Tempest Williams: Yes. I think about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer, I believe that it's our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty. The questions serve us in that capacity.

I can tell you that in Refuge the question that was burning in me was, how do we find refuge in change? Everything around me that was familiar had been turned inside out with my mother's diagnosis of ovarian cancer and with the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge being flooded. With Pieces of White Shell, it was, What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place? With An Unspoken Hunger it was really, How do we engage in community? Am I an artist or am I an activist? So it was, How does a poetics of place translate into a politics of place. And in A Desert Quartet the question that was burning inside me was a very private one: How might we make love to the land?

Pico Iyer describes his writing as "intimate letters to a stranger," and I think that is what the writing process is. It begins with a question, and then you follow this path of exploration.

London: At a recent talk you surprised a lot of people in the audience by saying that you don't consider yourself a writer. That was a very puzzling thing to hear from someone who has written eight books.

Williams: Yes. Well, it feels so presumptuous somehow. I know the struggle from the inside out and I would never be so bold as to call myself a writer. I think that is what other people call you. But I consider myself a member of a community in Salt Lake City, in Utah, in the American West, in this country. And writing is what I do. That is the tool out of which I can express my love. My activism is a result of my love. So whether it's trying to preserve the wilderness in Southern Utah or writing about an erotics of place, it is that same impulse — to try to make sense of the world, to try to preserve something that is beautiful, to ask the tough questions, the push the boundaries of what is acceptable.

London: One of the underlying themes of your work is the power of place and the importance of a land we can call our own. Tell me about your own homeland.

Williams: I think the whole idea of home is central to who we are as human beings. What I can tell you about my home is that I live just outside of Salt Lake City in a place called Emigration Canyon. It's on the Mormon trail. When Brigham Young came through with the early Mormon pioneers in 1847 and said "This is the place," that's the view we see every morning when we leave the Canyon and enter the Salt Lake Valley. So I feel deeply connected, not only because of my Mormon roots, which are five or six generations, but because of where we live. There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not mindful of the spiritual sovereignty that was sought by my people in coming to Utah.

London: You once said that one needs a sense of humor to live in Salt Lake City.

Williams: That's very true, and increasingly so given the political climate that we see in this country, and especially in Utah. I also think that's true in the American West in general. You can't take yourself seriously very long because you are immediately confronted with big weather, big country, and there is a sense of humility that rises out of the landscape.

London: I've been to Utah several times. The last time I was there I drove through on dusty back roads. I've been to the Sahara and even that seems more hospitable than some parts of Utah! It's so windy, desolate, and barren. I wonder how a landscape can inspire such reverence and poetry in one person and seem so God-forsaken to another.

Williams: I think it's what we're used to. Home is where we have a history. So when I'm standing in the middle of the salt flats, where you swear that the pupils of your eyes have turned white because of the searing heat that is rising from the desert, I think of my childhood, I think of my mother, my father, my grandparents; I think of the history that we hold there and it is beautiful to me. But it is both a blessing and a burden to be rooted in place. It's recognizing the pattern of things, almost feeling a place before you even see it. In Southern Utah, on the Colorado plateau where canyon walls rise upward like praying hands, that is a holy place to me.

London: In An Unspoken Hunger you say, "Perhaps the most radical act we can commit is to stay home." What do you mean by that?

Williams: I really believe that to stay home, to learn the names of things, to realize who we live among... The notion that we can extend our sense of community, our idea of community, to include all life forms — plants, animals, rocks, rivers and human beings — then I believe a politics of place emerges where we are deeply accountable to our communities, to our neighborhoods, to our home. Otherwise, who is there to chart the changes? If we are not home, if we are not rooted deeply in place, making that commitment to dig in and stay put ... if we don't know the names of things, if don't know pronghorn antelope, if we don't know blacktail jackrabbit, if we don't know sage, pinyon, juniper, then I think we are living a life without specificity, and then our lives become abstractions. Then we enter a place of true desolation.

I remember a phone call from a friend of mine who lives along the MacKenzie River. She said, "This is the first year in twenty that the chinook salmon have not returned." This woman knows the names of things. This woman is committed to a place. And she sounded the alarm.

London: What do you think happens when we lose a sense of intimacy with the natural world around us?

Williams: I think our lack of intimacy with the land has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other. What we perceive as non- human, outside of us, is actually in direct relationship with us.

London: You were talking about the concept of "community." What does that mean to you?

Williams: Community is extremely intimate. When we talk about humor, I love that you know when you're home because there is laughter in the room, there is humor, there is shorthand. That is about community. I think community is a shared history, it's a shared experience. It's not always agreement. In fact, I think that often it isn't. It's the commitment, again, to stay with something — to go the duration. You can't walk away. It's like a marriage, only I think it's more difficult to divorce yourself from community than it is to a human being because the strands are interconnected and so various.

London: You mentioned Pico Iyer. He has described home as the sense of a bleak landscape — something that inspires the sort of melancholy that only a truly familiar place can evoke. That seems so very different from what you are saying.

Williams: Having lived in Utah all of my life, I can tell you that in many ways I know of no place more lonely, no place more unfamiliar. When I talk about how it is both a blessing and a burden to have those kinds of roots, it can be terribly isolating, because when you are so familiar, you know the shadow. My family lives all around me. We see each other daily. It's very, very complicated. I think that families hold us together and they split us apart. I think my heart breaks daily living in Salt Lake City, Utah. But I still love it. And that is the richness, the texture. So when Pico talks about home being a place of isolation, I think he's right. But it's the paradox. I think that's why I so love Great Salt Lake. Every day when I look out at that lake, I think, "Ah, paradox" — a body of water than no one can drink. It's the liquid lie of the desert. But I think we have those paradoxes within us and certainly the whole idea of home is windswept with paradox.

London: If we go back to your book Refuge for a moment, your "refuge" was tied both to a place and to a people, and you were losing them both. You called it an "unnatural history of family and place." In what way was it unnatural?

Williams: "Natural" in the sense that death is part of our lives — the Great Bear Migratory Bird Refuge was being flooded by the rise of the Great Salt Lake; my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; both are natural phenomena. "Unnatural" in the sense of what is imposed on those cycles. In the case of Great Salt Lake, the state of Utah decides to put in a $60 million pumping project to pump the water into the West Desert — hardly natural. In terms of my mother's diagnosis with cancer, what are the options: chemotherapy, radiation. Natural? It's debatable. Then this overlying cloud, if you will, of nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s which moved all the way up the Wasatch front in Utah. The whole issue of downwind, even being downwinders — natural? Hardly.

The question I'm constantly asking myself is: what are we afraid of? I think it's important for us to follow that line of fear, because that is ultimately our line of growth.

London: "Downwinders," what does that mean?

Williams: Downwinders, meaning those people, individuals, communities that were downwind of the nuclear test site. During those years when we were testing atomic bombs above ground, when we watched them for entertainment from the roofs of our high schools, little did we know what was raining down on us, little did we know what would appear years later. I write about that in Refuge — "The Clan of One-Breasted Women." With so many of the women in my family being diagnosed with breast cancer, mastectomies led to one-breasted women. I believe it is the result of nuclear fallout.

This is not peculiar to my family. There are thousands of stories and narratives in the nuclear west that also bear this out. Natural? I don't think so. That's what I was referring to.

London: In Refuge, you also talk about the connection between your church and the whole downwinder phenomenon. Perhaps you can expand on that a bit.

Williams: I think that what I was talking about was that as a woman growing up in a Mormon tradition in Salt Lake City, Utah, we were taught — and we are still led to believe — that the most important value is obedience. But that obedience in the name of religion or patriotism ultimately takes our souls. So I think it's this larger issue of what is acceptable and what is not; where do we maintain obedience and law and where do we engage in civil disobedience — where we can cross the line physically and metaphorically and say, "No, this is no longer appropriate behavior." For me, that was a decision that I had to make and did make personally, to commit civil disobedience together with many other individuals from Utah and around the country and the world, in saying no to nuclear testing. Many people don't realize that we have been testing nuclear bombs underground right up until 1992. President Bush at that time placed a moratorium on all testing in this country and President Clinton has maintained that.

London: How central is your Mormon faith to your identity as a writer — has it had a big influence on your work and ideas?

Williams: It's hard to answer because, again, I don't think we can separate our upbringing from what we are. I am a Mormon woman, I am not orthodox. It is the lens through which I see the world. I hear the Tabernacle Choir and it still makes me weep. There are other things within the culture that absolutely enrage me, and for me it is sacred rage. But it's not just peculiar to Mormonism — it's any patriarchy that I think stops, thwarts, or denies our creativity.

So the question that I'm constantly asking myself is, What are we afraid of? I think it's important for us to follow that line of fear, because that is ultimately our line of growth. I feel that within the Mormon culture there is a tremendous amount of fear — of women's voices, of questioning of authority, and ultimately of our own creativity.

London: In this culture we tend to draw very distinct lines between the spiritual world and the political world. And yet you don't seem to see any separation between them. You've said that for you it's all one — the spiritual and the political, your home life and your landscape.

Williams: I think we learn that lesson well by observing the natural world. There is no separation. That is the wonderful ecological mind that Gregory Bateson talks about — the patterns that connect, the stories that inform and inspire us and teach us what is possible. Somewhere along the line we have become segregated in the way we think about things and become compartmentalized. Again, I think that contributes to our sense of isolation and our lack of a whole vision of the world — seeing the world whole, even holy. I can't imagine a secular life, a spiritual life, an intellectual life, a physical life. I mean, we would be completely wrought with schizophrenia, wouldn't we?

So I love the interrelatedness of things. We were just observing out at Point Reyes a whole colony of elephant seals and it was so deeply beautiful, and it was so deeply spiritual. It was fascinating listening to this wonderful biologist, Sarah Allen Miller, speak of her relationship to these beings for 20 years. How the males, the bulls, have this capacity to dive a mile deep, can you imagine? And along the way they sleep while they dive. And I kept thinking, "And what are their dreams?" And the fact that they can stay under water for up to two hours. Think of the kind of ecological mind that an elephant seal holds. Then looking at the females, these unbelievably luxurious creatures that were just sunbathing on this crescent beach with the waves breaking out beyond them. Then they would just ripple out into the water in these blue-black bodies, just merging with the water. It was the most erotic experience I've ever seen. We were there for hours. No separation between the spiritual and the physical. It was all one. I had the sense that we had the privilege of witnessing other — literally another culture, that extension of community.

London: You've said that your connection to the natural world is also your connection to yourself. Do you think that's true for everybody?

Williams: We're animals, I think we forget that. I think there is an ancient archetypal memory that still exists within us. If we deny that, what is the cost? So I do think it's what binds us as human beings. I wonder, What is it to be human? Especially now that we are so urban. How do we remember our connection with place? What is the umbilical cord that roots us to that primal, instinctive, erotic place? Every time I walk to the edge of this continent and feel the sand beneath my feet, feel the seafoam move up my body, I think, "Ah, yes, evolution." [laughs] You know, it's there, we just forget.

I worry, Scott, that we are a people in a process of great transition and we are forgetting what we are connected to. We are losing our frame of reference. Pelicans pass by and we hardly know who they are, we don't know their stories. Again, at what price? I think it's leading us to a place of inconsolable loneliness. That's what I mean by "An Unspoken Hunger." It's a hunger that cannot be quelled by material things. It's a hunger that cannot be quelled by the constant denial. I think that the only thing that can bring us into a place of fullness is being out in the land with other. Then we remember where the source of our power lies.

London: One of your great gifts as a writer is your ability to translate your experience of nature into words. Yet nature seems to inspire in us not words but silence — after all, that is one of the most profound reasons for living close to nature, to get beyond words. Do you find that sometimes the words get in the way?

Williams: That is so true, and I love what you just said about silence going beyond words. And, who knows, hopefully there will come a time when I have no words, when I can honor and hold that kind of stillness that I so need, crave, and desire in the natural world. I think you are absolutely right. Isn't that intimacy? When you are with a landscape or a human being where there is no need to speak, but simply to listen, to perceive, to feel. And I worry... (I think I must be worried all the time — maybe that is the other side of joy, you know, holding that line of the full range of emotions.) But we are losing our sense of silence in the world.

My husband, Brooke, and I were in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. We were at almost 13,000 feet. I cannot imagine being in a place where there was greater silence, a deeper silence. But this peculiar sound, when the sun would set, occurred which was almost like these... the only way I can describe it to you is, it was like there was a turbine, a motor. I'm not talking UFOs here, I'm saying it was this very disturbing, low-grade noise that was almost coming up from the valley floor. And we were miles away from any towns or cities. And this is a frequent story that is being told in the American West right now. I know people have been hearing this bizarre low-frequency noise — it's not a benevolent sound, it's a very disturbing sound. I know friends who have been hearing it in Taos, New Mexico. A writer-friend of mine, Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw poet, has been hearing it around her home. And also in Utah. And I wonder what this sound is. Is it the sound of an industrialized society that is in the process of going mad?

So, I wonder about silence. Also about darkness. I love the idea that city lights are a "conspiracy" against higher thoughts. If we can no longer see the stars, then where can our thoughts travel to? So, I think there is much to preserve — not just landscape, but the qualities that are inherent in landscape, in wild places: silence, darkness.

London: Camus said that beauty can drive us to despair. Rilke also said something about that; he spoke of beauty as the "beginning of terror." What is it that is so terrifying about beauty — especially the kind we find in nature?

Williams: Scott, that is such a powerful point. You know, that Rilke quote — "Beauty is the beginning of terror" — I think about that a lot. I remember, Brooke and I were in Sagres in Portugal. In your travels, if you look at Portugal and Spain and Spain is the hair and Portugal is the face, Sagres is the chin. We were right there on this point and Brooke had gone in another direction and I was literally perched with the fishermen on this unbelievably steep precipice as they were throwing these lines of light down into the sea, hundreds of feet, and pulling up these fish for their families. It was so beautiful. I stayed there all day long. I had to fight to not leap off. It was not a suicidal response, it was not out of despair. It was out of this sheer desire to merge. That was terrifying to me, because I thought, "I am going to leap." I finally had to remove myself. And Brooke said, "Let's go on a walk tonight," and I just said, "I'm too afraid, because I have no control over the impulses I feel on the edge of that cliff."

It was at that moment that I realized what Rilke was talking about: beauty as the beginning of terror. It's that realization that we are so small, and yet we are so large in our capacity to relate to the beauty of things. So, again, that paradox. My life meant so little at that moment. It was just much more important to be part of the sea.

London: That terror is also related to a certain pain that we can experience — which you spoke of recently when you said that the pain that we feel when we confront the natural world is a very different one from the mental anguish that many of us live with day in and day out.

Williams: The Japanese have a word — aware — which, in my understanding is, again, that full range — both the joy and the sorrow of our life. One does not exist without the other. And I really feel that. It's the delicacy and the strength of our relations. And I feel it most acutely in those intimate moments — with another person, in a landscape that is beloved.

London: But what about this pain that comes from mental anguish? You write of the "distracted and domesticated" life. Why is that so dangerous?

Williams: Because then I think we're skating on surfaces. I know it in my own life — and I think that is where this frustration comes in. It's not the place we want to be, but it's the place our society requires that we be. There is no fulfillment there. So we become numbed, we become drugged, we become less than we are. And I think that we know that. That is the anguish I hear you talking about. Whereas the pain that one feels in the natural world arises out of beauty. The pain that we feel when we are making love with someone is that we know it will end. It's that paradoxical response of joy and suffering. One, as we were saying, cannot exist without the other. They mirror each other. They live in the same house. And it moves us to tears.

I recently got back from Hiroshima and it was fascinating to me how the Japanese accommodate this paradox. We were talking about this word aware, which on the page looks like "aware," which speaks to both the pain and the beauty of our lives. Being there, what I perceived was that this is a sorrow that is not a grief that one forgets or recovers from, but it is a burning, searing illumination of love for the delicacy and strength of our relations. What was interesting... I would love to just read this. This is a piece that I just wrote for The Nation in their 50th anniversary issue of 1945 and World War II.

[Reading:] Kenzaburo Oe writes in Hiroshima Notes, "Hiroshima is like a nakedly exposed wound inflicted on all mankind. Like all wounds, this one poses two potential outcomes: the hope of human recovery, and the danger of fatal corruption." Shoko Itoh has just completed translating a newly found manuscript of Henry David Thoreau, "The Dispersion of Seeds." She tells me how moved she is by his words, the import of his ideas. "The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men obstructed, and as yet unborn." If, as Shoko Itoh says, "all religions are born of light," then perhaps Hiroshima has given birth to a religion of peace. Aware. The active soul.

London: You have spoken of moving from the age of nationalism into the age of economism, suggesting that we may be standing on the brink of a new age, an age of Earthism. Maybe you can expand on that?

Williams: This is the idea of John Cobb, a theologian at Carlton College. I found that really fascinating. I love the ordered mind of history because it takes us out of the chaos, momentarily, and says, "Ah, so this is the story we are engaged in." I think it's interesting to think about on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, which will be on August 6, 1995, and as we are thinking about World War II and what it means to us now, fifty years later. That was a time of tremendous nationalism in the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany. And what happened as a result? Where did that go to its extreme? Of course, John Cobb tells us it went to its extreme with the Holocaust. That then gave rise to economism: everything seen through the lens of economics — the build-up after World War II. We see certainly it in the American West, we see it all over the world. At what point does economism reach its limit — where, again, we find ourselves at the absolute limit of that era. John Cobb is saying that perhaps we are beginning to see that now as our greed goes completely out of control and everything is seen through money, through corporate power, etc., etc. We know it well. He asked the question, What will be the holocaust that takes us to the next era? — which he describes as "Earthism."

As we sat there listening to this discussion, I thought, "We're already there." We are seeing the holocaust of another order. Exxon Valdez: 500,000 otters dead; 550,000 muirs — sea birds — dead. The rain forests. Our forests in the Pacific Northwest. What we are seeing in terms of the wise-use movement and what they are asking us to do and to let go of in terms of wild lands in Utah, Montana, Idaho.

To me, we are in the midst of such broad-scale destruction, both psychically and physically, that the only thing that can threaten the grip, loosen the hold, of economism, I believe, is a discussion of the sacred born out of our regard and compassion and intelligence for the earth and the creatures on the earth.

London: We tend to take very extreme views of nature in America. We see it as ours to do whatever we please with, or, conversely, as something to rope off and protect from human intervention. Do you think we will ever learn to coexist with nature in a way that benefits both?

Williams: I believe it is possible, and I think we have powerful role-models among us in the American West. Certainly the Hopis, a timeless civilization that understands sustainability and what that means about living in harmony, in tandem with the natural world. We have much to learn from them, and they will survive us, I feel certain about that. When you look at the Pueblo communities along the Rio Grande, when you talk to the Navajo people, the Ute people, and certainly the native peoples of California who still have their communities intact, it is what they have always known: that we are not apart from nature but a part of it.

London: But we don't have much of a history of living in tune with nature.

Williams: You are absolutely right, for us as Anglos who are very new to this landscape, we don't have a history yet. I look at Los Angeles and I ask myself, How can this ever be sustainable? And what are we contributing to that? Because we are all complicit. None of us is without blame. It's so difficult and it's so overwhelming and I think we have to make small choices in our own lives that can loom large collectively. But I worry. I think it's about capitalism, consumerism, our consumptive nature as a species approaching the 21st century. I certainly don't have the answers.

London: How do we address this in our personal lives?

Williams: I think that it's too much to take on the world. It's too much to take on Los Angeles. All I can do is to go back home to the canyon where we live and ask the kinds of questions that can make a difference in our neighborhoods. How do we want to govern ourselves? How do we want to regulate development. We've just started an Emigration Canyon watershed council. We had our first meeting in our living room last week. And what was our goal? Simply to talk to each other, because there is a huge rift between those people in the canyon who want more development, those people in the canyon who want less, and the way that we are bound on this issue is the water — how much water we have. So I think that water is a tremendous organizing principle. Maybe that is one of the places, particularly in the arid West, we can begin thinking about these things.

London: Trying to find common ground.

Williams: Absolutely. And also respecting each other's differences and then figuring out how we can proceed given those different points of view.

London: With all the talk about the ecological crisis we are facing now, environmental policies seem to be losing ground. How is it that such a big gap has developed between what we say we value on the one hand and what we legislate on the other?

Williams: I feel we have to begin standing our ground in the places we love. I think that we have to demand that concern for the land, concern for the Earth, and this extension of community that we've been speaking of, is not marginal — in the same way that women's rights are not marginal, in the same way that rights for children are not marginal. There is no separation between the health of human beings and the health of the land. It is all part of a compassionate view of the world. How we take that view and match it with what we see in Congress with the decimations of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, child care... I think it's an outrage. You and I have spoken about what we can do as citizens, what we can do as a responsive citizenry, and this is where we have to shatter our complacency and become "active souls," as Thoreau puts it, and be prepared to engage in aware — that personal struggle between our grief and our sorrow. But I don't think we have any choice.

When I met Breyten Breytenbach, the South African poet, in Mexico — it was a symposium on landscape and culture — we were talking about this revolution, this evolution of the spirit. As you know, he is an extraordinary poet who wrote True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist and had been involved for years in the anti-apartheid movement, was imprisoned for seven, and he knows the shadow of the active soul. I remember asking him, "What can we do if we are interested in this revolution, this evolution of the spirit?" And he looked at me, dead-eye center, and he said, "You Americans, you have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable."

I think we have to stand up against what is unacceptable, and to push the boundaries and reclaim a more humane way of being in the world, so that we can extend our compassionate intelligence and begin to work with a strengthened will and imagination that can take us into the future.

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It appears in A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006).