Q&A: Terry Tempest Williams
A lifetime resident of Utah, environmental writer and poet Terry Tempest Williams writes from her own experiences as a Mormon woman living in that state. She has authored six books, as well as "An Unspoken Hunger," a collection of essays, and two children's books.
Her work has been anthologized widely and reproduced in The New Yorker, The Nation, Outside, Audubon and Orion and she's best known for "Refuge," a book that tells the parallel tales of the degradation of the environment and her mother's battle with cancer.
She's been inducted into the Rachel Carson Honor Roll and has received the National Wildlife Federation's Conservation Award for Special Achievement. On May 2, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Utah -- a huge step for the university to make for that state's own "wayward" daughter.
Eugene Weekly: What is the most pressing environmental concern we face?
Terry Tempest Williams: The Bush Administration. There are many forms of terrorism and environmental degradation is one of them. We're being hit on all counts. It's not enough that last month the Senate voted not to drill in the Arctic -- it went back to the House floor and passed. Bush said he's going door to door himself. I believe our country is being run as a business, not as a democracy and they don't understand that this is a public process. Whether it's Bush/Cheney's energy policy behind closed doors or the desire to exploit everything they possibly can on every possible level -- the environment, social issues or the economy -- I think it's devastating. Now there's this atmosphere of war where we aren't allowed to criticize our president. To be called a traitor or a patriot -- this is one of the darkest times we're faced in this country.
What light do you see that will get us out of this scenario, besides the 2004 elections? What do you think the individual can do?
Speak. Shatter the silence. Question everything. Redefine. Reimagine patriotism. Reimagine hatred and take back the language. I think we can do this each in our own ways, each with our own gifts. I realize that since Sept. 11 I've been writing mostly for newspapers. Books are too slow and they don't get read. I've wanted to be part of the dialogue and this dialogue is taking place daily and on a national and local level, that's where we are having this public discourse. It's critical that we engage in this form of democracy; it literally is happening at our kitchen table. That's an exciting thing to see. We're struggling. I'm struggling. I don't know whom to believe I don't know what to believe. And everyday I hear myself saying over and over again, "I don't know."
We watch Saddam toppled and we're told this is in the same category as Stalin and Hitler and I think, "Am I losing it?" But on the other hand, I believe it is an occupation. It's about American Imperialism and I do think they have their eyes on Syria, this fundamentalist government. On one hand they tell us they're liberating Iraq, and on the other hand we're watching the erosion of democracy in our own country. There's this paradox going on. I wonder how the PATRIOT ACT will go over in Iraq as the first document of democracy.
I believe we are in this atmosphere of terror and that they are imposing and propogating and elevating fear to create compliance and complacency. It's all the more critical for us to be highly attentive and to really ground ourselves, to stay in the center in the thick of our lives and in the thread of our own communities. That's the only place I know where hope truly lives. And the only place we can have an impact is within our own community.
I was arrested in Washington during the Code Pink rally. That's certainly not something we anticipated, planned, or expected. There was a wall of Washington, DC police that saying "You cannot come into Lafayette Park" and "No, you cannot stand in front of the White House and protest this war." That was a week before it started. And we looked through their arms and saw pro-life protesters standing in front of the White House with ghastly images and that appeared not to be a problem. Again, the incredible irony and paradox. There is no room for diplomacy.
What can citizens do who want to change this administration's priorities and agenda?
I don't know. We can vote. It seems really important that the 2004 election be held with as much integrity as possible. A great idea as given by Granny D at the Code Pink rally. She said, "Vote absentee in your state and then become a swing state suffragette and go to the states that are close and help get the vote out." I thought that was really smart.
She also said -- again, we listen to our elders, she's what, in her 90s -- she said the Green Party needs to be patient with this next election and that yes, the Greens can organize locally and build up state legislatures and start from the ground up but this next election we have to try to get a democratic candidate that can defeat George Bush. Otherwise, we have four more years. I thought that was a brave thing to say. And that may be controversial, but I agree.
Who would you support for the Democratic candidate?
I'm waiting. It may even be a Republican candidate. I don't know. I'm looking for someone who has a vision and who dares to speak out against these corporate ideas of democracy. I still have great faith in democracy. I have great belief in the power of community. And I also have a strong belief in dinner parties. In people's homes, where you create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable speaking their minds and are literally nourished. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had them in our own homes where we are safe and we can have these dinner parties of real discussion among our friends and also invite people with different ideas so we can listen? If we can teach ourselves how to listen to the other viewpoint, what a great idea. If we can get democracy around our own dinner tables.
I'm also thinking of the whole idea of shadow. Whether we like it or not, George Bush is our shadow: arrogance, impatience, entitlement, greed capitalism; we are all complicit in that. I'm interested in looking at what that shadow means. This is a time of reflection, contemplation, calming down and settling. As a writer, I'm trying to find places that test my own courage and comfort.
We are a nation at war. Can we have the courage to stay in that place of darkness and not be undone by it, not be undone by despair? I have enormous faith in the capacity to transform. This is a powerful time in the evolution of the human psyche -- like the Renaissance and the Reformation. Look at the global response of humans to this war. That is powerful. It's never happened before.
It's interesting to me that we started this conversation talking about the environment, but we couldn't help but talk about the war.
These are core issues at the heart of the land. We can't separate them but we have separated them and that's the problem. So when we talk about the Earth, the animals as one consideration -- when you talk about issues of water and politics, every being has a right to clean water, we incorporate conversations about democracy.
We need to be able to treat each other well in order to treat the animals and plants well. It's a cycle, the embrace. We need to see our limitations as human beings. I don't think the Bush Administration sees any limitations. And how do you create democracy without humility?
This country was founded on the idea that anyone, well, white people, could come here and be equal. And be welcomed. And tame the land.
We have to speak out now on behalf of our community and on behalf of the land and say they're the same thing and say "No, we are not rolling over" and "No, this is not a corporate enterprise." This is democracy in the fullest sense and we must have regard and reverence and those are the cornerstones of a just society.
Terry, why aren't more people out on the streets striking, protesting, and refusing to pretend that life goes on as normal, at least for the duration of the war?
Again, it's those words, I don't know. We have to ask ourselves, "What do I have to give?" and then, "How do I give it?" Whether it's as a writer, an organic gardener, as a teacher, a social worker, a mother or father, we can exercise that courage and insistence, resistance, and say there's another way of being, another way of seeing, and I do think that counts. And numbers count. In many ways it comes down to that.
Aria Seligmann is the associate editor of the Eugene Weekly.