The writer-activist on the qualities of silence, bearing witness to trauma, and seeking sustenance in the world’s fragile beauty.
Photo courtesy of Devon Fredericksen.
“I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” This is what Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her the week before she died of cancer at the age of fifty-four, bequeathing three shelves of colorful, clothbound volumes. Williams waited a full month after the death to open them, only to discover that each one was blank, containing page upon page of emptiness.
Williams uses this enigmatic gift to explore the nature of voice and silence in her most recent work, When Women Were Birds. “What was my mother trying to say to me?” she asks in the interview that follows. “Why did my mother choose not to write in her journals? Was she afraid of her voice? Was she saying, ‘Use your voice because I couldn’t or wouldn’t use mine’? Was she saying, ‘I’m giving you my journals because I want you to fill them’? Or were her empty journals an act of defiance by a Mormon woman who was told: the two things you will do in your life are to keep a journal and to bear children”?
For thirty years Williams wrote in the journals, and then at fifty-four turned her attention to exploring these questions. The resulting considerations of expression and silence pick up on many of the themes that course throughout her work, namely women, relationships, faith, and environment, and how they are inextricably linked. “How can you differentiate a woman’s body from a toxic landscape that has been rained upon by atomic fallout? My mother’s body. The body of the desert within the Nevada Test Site. No separation. Both have been altered by a violence rendered on the land.”
Setting foot in her house reifies this absence of boundaries, the space seems to embody this idea. Large windows turn the living room into an extension of the red Utah landscape, a perennial backdrop to her prose and activism. The front door stays open year-round. Winston, her Basenji—a wild Congolese dog breed—recently dragged the freshly severed hipbone of a deer under the dining room table.
Although Williams and I are all but strangers, the day unfolds as if shared by old friends. She admits to writing each of her books as though composing an intimate letter to a stranger, and likewise in person she has a warm, confiding candor. We sit cross-legged on the floor and comb through a basket of old family photographs. When speaking, Williams chooses her words carefully, as if each word is a river stone that she rolls around in her palm, testing its weight, deciding if it feels right. The way she speaks mirrors her writing—fragmented, aligning pieces of ideas like a mosaic.
A fifth-generation Mormon and author of numerous books whose subjects span activism, family, and meditations on place, Williams has also been the recipient of the Wallace Stegner Award and a Guggenheim fellowship, among other honors for her writing and peace activism. Over the course of our time together, we discuss the qualities of silence, bearing witness to tragedy, and the tenuous bridges that lead to a more sustainable future. She tells me that a good friend recently said, “You are married to sorrow.” And she replied: “I am not married to sorrow. I just choose not to look away.”
—Devon Fredericksen for Guernica
Guernica: How do we—as women—find our voice?
Terry Tempest Williams: That is the question, isn’t it? And would you believe me if I told you that at fifty-seven years of age, I don’t know? Even as a woman who has a voice in the world, I struggle to find it, to use it, to keep it, to stretch it, to take risks with my words. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think the most powerful women among us struggle with how to use their voice. Because I think what every woman knows, is that when she speaks her truth she is at risk—whether it’s Hillary Clinton or a rural woman in Rwanda.
I believe the first time I found my voice was when I crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site in 1988. It was one year after my mother died. It was one year before my grandmother would die, and I found myself the matriarch of my family at thirty. With the death of my mother, grandmothers, and aunts—nine women in my family have all had mastectomies, seven are dead—you reach a point when you think, “What do I have to lose?” and you become fearless. When I crossed that line at the Nevada Test Site as an act of protest because the United States government was still testing nuclear bombs in the desert—it was a gesture on behalf of the Clan of the One-Breasted Women—my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts. And I didn’t do it alone. I was with hundreds of other women who had suffered losses in Utah as a result of atomic testing, as a result of our nuclear legacy in the West. I crossed that line with Jesuit priests, with Shoshone elders, with native people who had also lost lives because of the radiation fallout in the Shivwits’ lands.
I have found my voice on the page repeatedly when a question seized my throat and would not allow me to sleep.
It goes back to community. I first heard my voice when my friend David Quammen said, “Tell me how you are.” And I looked at him and I said, “David, I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women.” That was the first time I had uttered that phrase that ultimately changed my perception of the women in my family. Suddenly, I saw them as warriors, not victims. I think it’s in our conversations that we hear something come out of our mouths that we didn’t know we believed. I think in the name of community we find our voices when we take stands that we didn’t know we had the courage to take. I have found my voice on the page repeatedly when a question seized my throat and would not allow me to sleep. But I have to tell you—I have to re-find my voice every time I pick up my pencil. It’s usually out of love or loss or anger. And the question then becomes: how do we take our anger and turn it into sacred rage and find a language that opens hearts rather than closes them?
Guernica: You work also addresses qualities of silence. How is that related to voice?
Terry Tempest Williams: When Women Were Birds is a book about my mother’s journals. My mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank. My mother left me her silences. Paradox. I thought I was writing a book about voice. What was my mother trying to say to me? Why did my mother feel she could not write? Why did my mother choose not to write in her journals? Was she afraid of her voice? Was she saying, “Use your voice because I couldn’t or wouldn’t use mine”? Was she saying, “I’m giving you my journals because I want you to fill them”? Or were her empty journals an act of defiance by a Mormon woman who was told: the two things you will do in your life are to keep a journal and to bear children? I will never know. But the paradox is that I thought I was writing a book about voice. In the end, I may have written a book about silence.
There are different qualities of silence. There’s the silence that sustains us, that nourishes us, the silence where I believe our true voice, our authentic voice, dwells. But there’s also the silence that censors us, that tells us what we have to say does not want to be heard, should not be heard, has no value. And that if we speak, it will be at our own peril. This kind of silence is deadly. This kind of silence is deadening to who we are as women. And when a woman is silenced, the world is silenced. When a woman speaks, there is an opening.
Guernica: Speaking of voice, after you protested at the Nevada Test Site, you testified before Congressman Jim Hansen at the Congressional Subcommittee hearings in Cedar City. What was that like?
And maybe that’s what we do as women, over and over we ask ourselves, “What is the essential gesture? What is required of us in this moment in time? And to be fully present and embodied in that moment?”
Terry Tempest Williams: I can tell you each time I have testified before Congress it has been a demeaning experience. And I think they want it that way. The risers are for the anointed, meaning those elected—the senators, congressmen, and congresswomen—and there were no women present, I can tell you that. The citizens are positioned lower, in physical space. That intimidates. You have four minutes to speak, so you’re always mindful of: how am I going to say what I want to say in this constrained time? You feel like you’re on the witness stand, and there’s some part of you that thinks, “Am I telling the truth?” Or, “Am I being cross-examined?” And you are. So for me, it was a really difficult encounter. And then, to be speaking from your heart, with as much passion, as much intelligence, with as much authority as you can muster—about Utah wilderness, well, to have your congressman look at you from the riser, with his glasses sloping down his nose and say, “I’m sorry, Ms. Williams. There is something about your voice I cannot hear…” it diminishes you. It did me. I don’t think he was talking about the microphone. And for me, I see everything in metaphor anyway. I think what he was saying was, “I do not understand what you are saying.” On one hand it can be viewed as a rude or patronizing dismissal. On the other hand, the Congressman did me a great favor, because I wasn’t articulating what I wanted to articulate. It wasn’t until after that happened that I thought, “You may not be able to understand what I’m saying as one voice, but perhaps you can hear what I’m trying to say with a chorus of voices.”
That’s when Steve Trimble and I came together as writers in Utah and sent a letter out to twenty of our friends who do care about wilderness in the west, particularly America’s red rock wilderness in Utah. It was then that we asked for help in the name of community: “We need you to write the most powerful thing you’ve ever written. We can’t pay you and we need it in three weeks.”
We received twenty of the most powerful essays, poems, and stories that I’ve ever read. And it was later published as Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness. Did it make a difference? I think what mattered was the attempt. I always think of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, how she understands that as women, as writers, whoever we are, whenever we speak, whatever we write, it’s the attempt that matters. It’s the gesture that matters. I think about that crucial idea of the essential gesture. And maybe that’s what we do as women, over and over we ask ourselves, “What is the essential gesture? What is required of us in this moment in time? And to be fully present and embodied in that moment?”
Guernica: Your life seems to be marked by a number of these gestures. You have borne witness to the aftermaths of numerous atrocities. You went to the Nevada Test Site and protested. You have visited Ground Zero after 9/11, Rwanda after genocide, and the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. What drives you to visit these places?
Terry Tempest Williams: Call it ground truthing. Bearing witness. I wanted to see for myself if what we were being told was true. And what I repeatedly find out is just the opposite.
I guess somewhere along the line, after watching woman after woman, after family member die—long extended deaths, legacies of the atomic west—I could no longer avert my eyes.
Guernica: How so?
Terry Tempest Williams: Take the Gulf of Mexico, for example. I went on Day 100 after the BP oil spill. I remember that morning reading the New York Times, above the fold, right-hand corner, it said, “80 percent of the oil is gone.” Move on. Mother Nature is absorbing it. End of story. Five hours later, I was in a plane with a barefoot pilot. We were 800 feet above the Macondo site, ground zero. And for as far as we could see, for as wide as we could see, for as long as we could bear it—all we could see was oil.
Who benefits from saying 80 percent of the oil is gone? Who benefits from saying that the M23 rebels who have overtaken Goma are now leaving? Who benefits when we hear in the United States that genocide [in Rwanda] was “just a civil war” that lasted April, May, June? Nobody told us that it went on for ten years.
And who benefits when, over and over and over, I was told that the cluster of cancers in my family were “a coincidence,” an accident? When the government opened new hearings in 2004 regarding the nuclear tests that occurred decades earlier, the hearing in the public library in Salt Lake City was absolutely packed. I think there were three or four spillover rooms. People had genealogy lists—dozens and dozens and dozens of family members who had cancer, who had died of cancer, who were dying of cancer. My brother was one of those ill at the time.
I went to the Nevada Test Site because I wanted to see what happened. I went to the Nevada Test Site because I felt that this was a time, a moment, when I could lay my body down. And if civil disobedience is part of the American tradition of freedom, then I could also be part of that American tradition of respectful dissent.
I think of my father and I think if he were here with us, he would say, “Terry had every sign of being perfectly normal.” I guess somewhere along the line, after watching woman after woman, after family member die—long extended deaths, legacies of the atomic west—I could no longer avert my eyes. The cost is too high.
I think Obama has been a terrible disappointment environmentally. It’s very sobering to realize, as a westerner, that under the Obama administration, we now have more active oil and gas leases on public lands than we ever did under Bush and Cheney.
Guernica: How do you deal with these experiences, how do you process what you’ve witnessed and learned?
Terry Tempest Williams: It goes back to that question: how do we take our anger and transform it into sacred rage? How do we create a language that opens the heart instead of closing it, a language that creates community rather than divides it? To bear witness is not a passive act. It’s an act of consequence that leads to consciousness. It matters. I am curious. I want to know why. I was raised with a scripture that says, “The glory of God is intelligence.” And to me our greatest intelligence is following our instincts, trusting our intuition. I didn’t want to go to Rwanda. I was terrified to go to Rwanda. But I realized that if I said no to Rwanda, I would be saying no to my own spiritual growth.
Rwanda changed my life.
Crossing the line at the Nevada Test Site changed my life.
The Gulf changed my life. I’m still in contact with some of the people I met there who I interviewed, Becky Duet among them, who runs a convenience store in Galliano, Louisiana. She now is riddled with an autoimmune disease that they cannot diagnose. She has been on chemotherapy for the last two years. She can barely walk. She has lost her business. She called me and said, “Terry, can I tell you what we’re seeing in the bayou now? One-eyed shrimp.” She told me how night after night as members of her Cajun community were sitting on their porches they were being sprayed with dispersants by U.S. Coast Guard planes.
These are the stories we don’t read about in the newspapers or hear on the television. These are the conversations that we are not having as a society, at large. We have to hear them from the people in place. Who benefits when these stories are not told? And who gets hurt?
And it was Becky Duet, who on a full moon in July, with her son, Jordan, took me out fishing for redfish in the bayou. We held the fish in hand, glistening. It was here in the depth of her local knowledge that I realized the gift she was giving. We were sisters. For me, it’s all about relationships—to the land, to each other. It’s the stories we keep and then, give away. It’s in this bedrock of experience that authentic wisdom dwells, how our world keeps expanding, evolving. This is where I find our humanity, again and again. That’s when we really stare dignity, grace, hope, and faith in the eyes.
Guernica: Women, land, the environment. You’ve said there can be no separation between these three.
Terry Tempest Williams: I’ve seen this linkage between women, health, and the environment within my own family. Nine women in my family have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. How can you differentiate a woman’s body from a toxic landscape that has been rained upon by atomic fallout? My mother’s body. The body of the desert within the Nevada Test Site. No separation. Both have been altered by a violence rendered on the land—nuclear radiation released from the testing of bombs.
Wangari Maathai [the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan activist] was my great mentor. I met her when I was twenty-nine years old in Nairobi, when I was attending the 1985 Women’s Forum during the UN Decade for Women. It was Wangari who spoke and spoke out loudly saying, “Women’s issues are environmental issues are issues of social justice. No separation.” I left the conference and followed Wangari into the villages in Kenya where I saw rural women literally gathering seeds in the folds of their skirts, planting trees, stabilizing the soil, stopping deforestation, so they wouldn’t have to spend eight to ten hours a day in search of water and wood for fuel to feed their families. That sparked a revelation in me. Seeing the world whole through women. Raise a woman’s status and you raise the status of the whole community.
Guernica: What makes for effective activism in this age?
Terry Tempest Williams: I don’t think there is anything as powerful as an active heart. And the activists I know possess this powerful beating heart of change. They do not fear the wisdom of emotion, but embody it. They know how to listen. They are polite when they need to be and unyielding when necessary. They remain open, even as they push boundaries and inhabit the margins, understanding eventually, the margins will move toward the center. They are tenacious, informed, patient, and impatient, at once. They do not shy away from what is difficult. They refuse to accept the unacceptable. The most effective activists I know are in love with the world.
A good activist builds community.
I used to ask the question, “Am I an activist or a writer?” I don’t ask that anymore. I am simply a human being engaged.
Guernica: When I first met you during your book tour for Finding Beauty in a Broken World President Obama had just been elected, and I remember feeling that the energy in the room—from hundreds of environmentally minded people—was palpable. We were hopeful that a new era of change was around the corner.
Terry Tempest Williams: I think Obama has been a terrible disappointment environmentally. It’s very sobering to realize, as a westerner, that under the Obama administration, we now have more active oil and gas leases on public lands than we ever did under Bush and Cheney. I remember in those years, 2001 to 2008, when I would visit the Bureau of Land Management offices in Wyoming and ask, “Tell me what your energy policy is.” And behind closed doors the BLM employees would quietly say one word: “Cheney.”
Obama has been worse. Another conversation that we are not having. In the fifty years conservationists have been protecting the Arctic, no president has ever said “yes” to drilling in the Arctic, except President Obama. We now have drilling in the Arctic seas.
I am extremely concerned.
But our national conversation is changing. Fracking is an example of this shift in consciousness. We can thank New York State for that, as they have real political power and presence. We do not in the states of Utah and Wyoming. It didn’t matter for decades that a town like Pavillion, Wyoming, had no drinking water, that the water had been fouled by the energy companies drilling for natural gas. In August, 2010, the EPA finally stated their water is undrinkable. And in a perverse twist of colonialism, you now have Encana, the company that tainted their waters through hydrolic fracking, providing water for those citizens. That was not on the national radar. Fracking meant nothing when it was happening in the American West. Now, thanks to eastern activists and filmmakers like Josh Fox who made the film, “Gasland,” people are aware. I’m grateful. I attended one of the fracking rallies at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. There were 5,000 people (more people than in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming) chanting, “Frack no!” And I thought, “Where am I?” Because in the states of Wyoming and Utah it is the resignation of “Frack yes!”
Activism. Civil disobedience. Laying our body down. This is what it is coming down to be, stopping a Canadian pipeline or mountain top removal or illegal oil and gas leases in the state of Utah. Most of us are familiar with the story of Tim DeChristopher, who served two years in prison for exposing the bogus nature of the oil and gas leases on Utah public lands. He kept raising his paddle as “Bidder 70,” upping the price of the leases until he owned $1.8 million worth of land. Tim is now out of prison. He’s now in a halfway house in Salt Lake City, Utah, soon to be released, on parole for three years. Tim put his body on the line and paid a price for putting his beliefs into action.
Guernica: With theses new risks and forms of engagement, how would you describe this time in history?
Terry Tempest Williams: I think we will look back at this time in history as a time of great transition. I think about a particular bridge in the Penobscot area of Maine. When we would drive from Bucksport to Belfast, we had to cross this bridge. For years, we would cross this rickety, rusted green bridge, and every time we crossed it, we would hold our breath and think, “I hope we make it across.” You’d see these large cables that were holding the bridge up, splitting, sagging, and the car would start rocking. And then, whew! Thank god, you’d be on the other side. We’d all sigh with relief.
And then, some time down the line, we noticed a new bridge was being built. We were still driving on the old bridge, but I was mindful each time we crossed the old bridge, of the beauty and the design, and at times, the precariousness of this new bridge that was under construction. I kept thinking, “I hope we make it to the new bridge before the old bridge falls down.” And then, one miraculous day, the new bridge was built and we were driving across it. The old bridge was no longer in use.
I feel like that’s where we are now. I feel like we are building this new bridge. I hope we can finish it in time. There are these two parallel realities that we’re facing: the old consciousness and the new consciousness. What will bring us together? Disasters? Economic crisis? Our awareness?
This planetary consciousness—of equality for women, of equality for all species, asks that we pay attention to ecosystems, and recognize that a healthy environment is a healthy community is a community of empowered women. Climate change knows no boundaries. Wealth means very little in the midst of a tsunami. So I think it’s these kinds of conscience-raising moments that are going to bring us into a global awareness that we’ve never seen before. But I don’t think it’s going to be without costs. And we’re already seeing those costs. Change or die—as they say.
I saw that art is not peripheral, beauty is not optional, but a strategy for survival.
Guernica: I appreciate the title of your book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World and the fragmented ideas you tie together to build a mosaic of words that create a larger story. But with so many bits and pieces of tragedy and devastation, how do we manage to do what that title offers?
Terry Tempest Williams: Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find. For me, we find this beauty through relationships, with people in place with other species. Integrity is the word that comes to mind. Integrity and presence.
A friend of mine said to me not long ago, “Terry you are married to sorrow.” I looked at him and said, “No, I am not married to sorrow, I just choose not to look away.” To not avert our eyes to suffering is to trust the power of presence. Joy emerges through suffering. Suffering is a component of joy. Whether we are sitting with a loved one dying or witnessing dolphins side-by-side watching the oil burning in the Gulf of Mexico, to be present with the world is to be alive. I think of Rilke once again, “Beauty is the beginning of terror.” We can breathe our way toward courage.
When we were working in the village of Rugerero with Rwandan women who had lost everything from war, I saw a light in their eyes return when their children began picking up paintbrushes and painting the walls of their homes. Joy entered in. Creativity ignited a spark. In that moment, I saw that art is not peripheral, beauty is not optional, but a strategy for survival.
In Rwanda, USAID was saying, “How can you dare to paint a village when people are hungry?” But beauty feeds a different kind of hunger. And when there’s so much ugliness in the world that we’ve created, I think it’s essential, that whether it’s pausing in a garden with a trowel in hand, or walking up to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, or picking up a paintbrush with children, our soul seizes beauty and is sustained.
Finding beauty in a broken world is acknowledging that beauty leads us to our deepest and highest selves. It inspires us. We have an innate desire for grace. It’s not that all our definitions of beauty are the same, but when you see a particular heron in the bend in the river, day after day, something in your soul stirs. We remember what it means to be human.