Terry Tempest Williams on William Merwin and Becoming an Environmental Activist
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. My favorite question in the world is “What are you reading?” My second favorite question is: “Are you going to finish that?” I ask that of my dinner companions if they pause for even a heartbeat . . . but that’s another story. Whenever I ask people what they’re reading, I’m astounded at the variety of answers. But increasingly I’m finding that people want to talk about poetry—usually a book of poems, but often just one poem, a poem that has been speaking to them deeply over the last days, weeks, or months. Maybe it’s because, now more than ever, to borrow the words of poet Elizabeth Alexander, “we crave truth tellers. We crave real truth.” We live in fractured and fractious times. Cultures have always depended on poets to tell us the truth about our lives as well as the consequences or our actions and inaction. And recently I got to talking about poetry, activism and truth telling . . . with today’s guest.
Terry Tempest Williams: My name is Terry Tempest Williams and I am a writer and an engaged citizen.
WS: Terry Tempest Williams an author and environmental activist with books including When Women Were Birds, The Hour of Land, and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. In 2015, she bought oil and gas leases in Utah in order to keep that land untouched. She is currently a writer-in-residence at Harvard’s Divinity School.
TT: I am from Utah—a sixth generation Mormon. My grandmother’s family on the matrilineal side left Utah in what the early 1900s because of polygamy. And they went into Colonia Dublán where they settled. Her name was Violate Lee Romney and I am related to Mitt Romney. And there they settled until Poncho Villa came through. Our family’s story goes something like this: that the men told the women to take what they could and get on horses, and they rode to El Paso. My grandmother was two years old. She said that her mother left a cake in the oven. Her mother was pregnant with Aunt Bea and they were on horseback with my grandmother holding my great grandmother’s waist and arrived in El Paso as refugees and the United States government gave them a one way ticket to the town of their choice and they returned to Utah.
WS: When Terry was two her family experienced an unimaginable event with terrible consequences.
TT: I was sitting on my mother’s lap. It was an hour or so before dawn. We were driving toward Las Vegas. All of a sudden there was this explosion. My father pulled over to the side of the road, thought the oil tanker in front had blown up and rising from the desert floor was the golden stemmed mushroom cloud raining down on the car. So my history and my DNA is tied to the Atomic West. Nine women in my family have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. Half my family is dead from cancer.
WS: Still, she loved her home in Salt Lake City.It was a very animated living world that I was a part of. And I wanted to know the names of things.
TT: Milkweeds and monarchs. Growing up on Mormont Dr., I remember there were clouds of monarchs that came through and I remember seeds flying. And then I remember the caterpillars and that we would bring them inside in jars and watch the chrysalis be formed, the miracle ensue. And then we would release them. That’s the memory I have of my childhood early on.
WS: Her home life was just as rich as the nature that surrounded her.
TT: My parents were great readers, as were my grandparents. Great readers. We had five generations present; I knew five of my great grandparents, and it was a storied family. I come from a family of great storytellers and books were essential and bookshelves were magical.
WS: Terry’s grandmother presented her with a gift that brought together her love for the outdoors and books.
TT: She gave me Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds at five years of age and I still have it. And there at the bottom of when you open the book, at the bottom of the left hand cover, there’s three red lines. And she said, “Terry, this means I love you.” And every time I opened that book, which I still use, you know, it’s really a journal of the date, the place and the time with which I saw these birds. And most of them were seen with her growing up. I really poured over field guides if you want to know the truth. Whether it was minerals and rocks. I had a suitcase full of minerals and rocks that I’d identify or a field guide to wild flowers. It was a very animated living world that I was a part of. And I wanted to know the names of things.
WS: She found reading—and writing—to be important forms of expression.
TT: I kept a journal because growing up, my parents and the culture I was raised in, children were to be seen, not heard—but I felt like inside I had a lot to say. And so I had journals, the leather kind embossed with a lock and key. And I think early on I learned to write in code because I—growing up Mormon—I knew that we read people’s journals. And so even though I had a lock and key, I didn’t believe they were private. So I wrote in code and I remember specifically there was one—“Work came first in our house, the weather was the determinant”—and I remember we were heading up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and there was a water break, a pipeline break. So we couldn’t go and there was tension in the family. And I remember writing in my journal: “Decisions, decisions, decisions. We finally made it to Jackson Hole.” What I didn’t say is: my mother and father were fighting, we live with uncertainty, work comes first and where is my father? And I think my writing is much more personal than my journals because I don’t think anyone reads my work, but I do think someone will read my journals. Isn’t that strange?
WS: Were there books that you were not supposed to read?
TT: Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
WS: You were not supposed to read Kafka.
TT: I just remember thinking that that was a transgression because it was so powerful. So it wasn’t anything my parents said to me or the Mormon culture said to me. It was more that I realized that serious literature was transgressive and could change your life. And it did. When I was just beginning college, I remember reading the Creation Myths by Marie Louise Von Franz. And I was teaching on the Navajo reservation, the Diné, and reading a lot of Navajo cosmology and anthropology, particularly Navajo Religion by Gladys Reichard. And when I read that book about creation myths, there was the Adam and Eve story alongside Changing Women on the Navajo Reservation, all these creation myths, you know, Demeter and Persephone. And I realized the Mormon church is just another creation story. That these are the way we make sense of the world depending on where we grow up. And I think that’s when I stopped believing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
WS: Terry realized she’d find her true purpose through all different kinds of words, but not through the religion in which she’d been raised.
TT: I think the conditioning that we have as children—religious education—you know, to quote Tara Westover, is very strong. Especially in the Mormon Church. Especially in the era that I was raised in the 50s and 60s and 70s. And especially for a woman, you know, your options . . . you get married, you have children, they put you on a pedestal and you don’t have a voice. And I saw the consequences of that on the women in my family’s bodies. And I made a vow I would not go that path. And I remember working at Sam Weller’s bookstore, a great bookstore, and realizing that my ideas are my children and if I were to one day write a book that would be my child.
WS: When we get back from the break, Terry finds a cause worth fighting for, and later, a poem that reignites her flame.For as long as I have a memory, I have always felt that the land was under siege.
WS: While at college, Terry enrolled in a course that would lead her to her life’s work—though she didn’t know it at the time.
TT: I went to college at the University of Utah. I saw in the Audubon newsletter of which I was a member since I was five that there was a workshop led by Ted Major and Florence Kroll for three credit hours for a weekend. So, as a student you think, I’ll do that . . . going up to Grand Teton. Met an incredible field ecologist and teacher educator named Ted Major, who changed my life. I went back, he handed me some papers to give to David Raskin who was a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. He did the lie detector test for Patty Hearst.
I knocked on his door, he opened it and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “My name is Terry Tempest. I’m here with some papers from Ted Major at the Teton Science School. And he said, “Oh yeah, yeah, how was that?” I burst into tears and he said, “That bad.” And I said, “No, that good.” And he said, “Please, come in here.” And David Raskin looked at me and said—you know, he was President of the Sierra Club at the time in Utah—he said, “It just so happens that we have a grant in environmental studies. And it just so happens that the deadline is today and it just so happens no one has applied.” I’m sure it came out of his own pocket, and he gave me a $500 scholarship to go back to the Teton Science School and I was an intern for the summer and that changed everything. I saw the community of people engaged in environmental issues. I saw their courage. I saw their radical-ness. I saw the power of their questions, whether it was the Craighead’s and grizzly bears in the National Park Service, whether it was starting an environmental education center and the discourse between conservationists and ranchers.
WS: She changed her major to biology from English and went on to get her master’s in environmental education. Soon, she began writing books about the environment.
TT: I had just finished writing Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. I think I was struggling, Will, you know, “Am I a writer or am I an activist?”
WS: At a writer’s conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Terry got her answer.
TT: For me “The Last One” read by William Merwin was a weaving of everything that I had intuited. Suddenly it was there on the page. And when he read that poem, everything came together for me. It was the power of language, the power of voice in terms of our relationship to the natural world. Everything my grandmother had taught us about the collective unconscious and shadow, of that dark side of us that we don’t see or has either been repressed or hidden. And also our responsibility, you know, to speak truth in times of peril. And for as long as I have a memory, I have always felt that the land was under siege. Even in the process of annihilation of our species and the living world, we still want the shadow. We can’t even, it’s not enough to take everything. We still have to take even the shadow, even if it’s our own. And I think about on the one hand, there’s never enough, this voracious appetite that is in us, our species—and on the other hand, the beauty of the poet, of a poem. And how do we take everything that we can destroy with all that we can create and bring these two hands together in prayer. I mean, I feel that “The Last One” is sacred text. It’s the anti-Genesis. I mean, the way his refrain, “and that was one day and that was the next day . . .”
WS: Terry and Merwin began a 30-year friendship that would support Terry through some of her toughest battles.
TT: Love has gotten me into a lot of trouble, you know, because I was fired from the University of Utah. My only ambition Will, was to live in Utah, to live deeply and consciously and to care about the land that raised me and my debts to the people that I love. And in 2003, I gave a commencement address and the last part of that talk was: “Question, stand, speak”. And I remember, you know, there must have been 12 to 15,000 people. It was in the Huntsman Center. Half stood and half booed. And if you’ve ever tried to boo, actually tried, it takes a lot of energy. There were a lot of boos and you know, I think that’s where we find ourselves. And my two senators were there, Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett. Bob Bennett was also our Mormon bishop and neighbor—a wonderful man. I’ll never forget after the speech, you know, neither one of them stood. And Bob Bennett came up to me and said, “Terry, I have one question for you: ‘What are you willing to die for?’” And it took me six months to answer him in a letter. And I remember saying, for me, that’s not the question. It’s not: “What am I willing to die for?” But: “What am I willing to give my life to?” And that would be free speech.
And in 2016, my husband and I, Brooke, we made a decision to purchase two oil and gas leases after a protest of the Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale. Our gesture was to say, these belonged to all of us and we should note that these public lands, before they were public lands, were Indian lands. So they’re complicated. But what we said was, “We purchase these lands. We are not going to develop them for oil and gas until science can show us that those resources are worth more above ground than below given the cost of climate.” Long story short, two weeks after that gesture, I was called into the Dean’s office with the lead attorney saying, “Thank you very much for your service. You are no longer teaching here.” Privately we negotiated. I agreed to an early retirement. I was barely 60—not tenured. It made no sense. Took a cut in pay, and then two nights before I was to sign the contract, I received a note from the attorney and email that said, “We do not think this will work. We’re thinking you’re a danger to our community, to the students. If you do continue, you cannot take field trips. You need to be in Salt Lake City and a four wall classroom.” And I realized I was being placed in a straight jacket.
WS: A steadfast resolution not to be silenced was something Merwin shared.
TT: He was always pushing the boundaries. He was always showing us how to behave. And he was uncompromising. He distrusted institutions, even the institution of Buddhism. And I think it’s that sovereignty of soul and soil that William Merwin gave to me that, again, roots the last one in, in such power for me.
WS: Merwin died earlier this year.
TT: I remember his eyes. I remember his capacity to listen. I remember his encouragement as a young writer to go further, to be more fierce. And I remember all the meals that we’ve shared, whether it was in Maui or Montana or Santa Fe or Mexico or Utah. It’s seamless. I think there are friendships in your life that are more spiritual and with Merwin, I remember in a health crisis, the phone rang. It was William: “How are you doing?” You know, the last time I saw him, what he said to me was, “Pay attention to the grasses. Everything is there.” I also remember going to visit him after my brother Steve had died from lymphoma and he picked us up at the airport. Brooke and I went together to see William and Paula and I just collapsed from grief in his arms and he knew Steve had died and he took us out to this point near his home. It was this huge cliff. And we just stood there, all of us in silence, and watched the waves crash and roll in, the mist, the vegetation, and none of us said anything. And we went to his home. Paula was cooking. Brooke joined her—he loves to cook. And William said, you know, “Come into my study.” I walked in, he shut the door. He said, “Tell me about your brother.” And I just sobbed. I don’t know how much time had passed, you know, and what I said. But what I remember after is he just looked at me in this somewhat detached way and he said, “Terry, this is the place we write from.”
WS: She rereads “The Last One” whenever she needs to be reminded of that message.
TT: Well they’d made up their minds to be everywhere because why
Everywhere was theirs because they thought so.
They with two leaves they whom the birds despise.
In the middle of stones they made up their minds.
They started to cut.
Well they cut everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.
It fell into its shadows and they took both away.
Some to have some for burning.
Well cutting everything they came to water.
They came to the end of the day there was one left standing.
They would cut it tomorrow they went away.
The night gathered in the last branches.
The shadow of the night gathered in the shadow on the water.
The night and the shadow put on the same head.
And it said Now.
Well in the morning they cut the last one.
Like the others the last one fell into its shadow.
It fell into its shadow on the water.
They took it away its shadow stayed on the water.
Well they shrugged they started trying to get the shadow away.
They cut right to the ground the shadow stayed whole.
They laid boards on it the shadow came out on top.
They shone lights on it the shadow got blacker and clearer.
They exploded the water the shadow rocked.
They built a huge fire on the roots.
They sent up black smoke between the shadow and the sun.
The new shadow flowed without changing the old one.
They shrugged they went away to get stones.
They came back the shadow was growing.
They started setting up stones it was growing.
They looked the other way it went on growing.
They decided they would make a stone out of it.
They took stones to the water they poured them into the shadow.
They poured them in they poured them in the stones vanished.
The shadow was not filled it went on growing.
That was one day.
The next day was just the same it went on growing.
They did all the same things it was just the same.
They decided to take its water from under it.
They took away water they took it away the water went down.
The shadow stayed where it was before.
It went on growing it grew onto the land.
They started to scrape the shadow with machines.
When it touched the machines it stayed on them.
That was another day.
Well the next day started about the same it went on growing.
They pushed lights into the shadow.
Where the shadow got onto them they went out.
They began to stomp on the edge it got their feet.
And when it got their feet they fell down.
It got into eyes the eyes went blind.
The ones that fell down it grew over and they vanished.
The ones that went blind and walked into it vanished.
The ones that could see and stood still
It swallowed their shadows.
Then it swallowed them too and they vanished.
Well the others ran.
The ones that were left went away to live if it would let them.
They went as far as they could.
The lucky ones with their shadows.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Terry Tempest Williams and to the estate of W.S. Merwin. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.