At Artful Dodge, we often have the wonderful opportunity to sit down and talk with the best of American writers. The following conversation took place on November 17, 2005, between Daniel Bourne, our editor-in-chief, and Terry Tempest Wiliams. At that time Williams was Theologian-in-Residence at The College of Wooster and during the week of this interview, Williams gave a public lecture, “Gender, Spirituality and the Environment,” attended classes, held a roundtable discussion with local Amish nature writer David Kline, and visited Killbuck Marsh to the south of Wooster. In the interview—as in her books—Williams emerges as a writer who gains her power from a connection to the land, and who seeks for us to discover our own connections as well.
Daniel Bourne: I remember that one of my students who graduated a couple of years ago, a promising young writer and environmental activist, nonetheless harbored some serious misgivings about her commitment to writing, a pressure coming not just from herself but from others within the environmental movement, that her writing somehow detracted from her true work in defending the natural world. Have you ever felt such pressures, either in yourself or coming from other people, that you’re just fiddling at words when there’s more important work to be done?
Terry Tempest Williams: I feel my work in the world is as a writer, and I think that each of us can approach an ethical stance in our lives with the gifts and the talents and the passions that we hold. My passion is for writing, and I believe in the power of language to effect change. When you read Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail, and you read Henry David Thoreau’sWalden, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Wallace Stegner’sWilderness Letter, you realize that we have a deep literary tradition in this country that has contributed to an ethic of place. So I feel that writing is my work, and there’s no separation between my work as a writer and my work as an activist and my work as a human being trying to understand what it means to live in place. It doesn’t mean that my words are adequate. It doesn’t mean that my language doesn’t fail me, because it does, repeatedly. But it’s the attempt that matters. The attempt to try and tell a different story. The bearing of witness to what we see in the world around us and the questions that we ask.
DB: Can you think of any situations in which your writing has had some sort of concrete outcome?
Williams: That’s a good question, Dan. You know, I think timing is everything. When Vice President Dick Cheney was refusing to open up the proceedings of the Energy Task Force and reveal what was taking place behind closed doors at the White House in the winter of 2002, oil exploration was already going on four miles outside of Utah’s Arches National Park, in Dome Plateau, one of the wilderness study areas in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. Four of us went to the site where this exploration was occurring. And we bore witness. We were outraged that this kind of exploration was going on without an Environmental Impact Statement, without public process, without any hearings. It was going on secretly with a mandate from the Bureau of Land Management. The priority had been set by the Bush Administration: give oil companies preferential treatment. I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times that was called “Chewing Up a Fragile Landscape.” It appeared on a Thursday in February, ran on the editorial page, and I believe it did make a difference, because it exposed in a tangible way what the energy policy of this country looked like. In Washington D.C., our energy policy may be formed behind closed doors, but in Utah it is a ground-thumping experience. I’m talking about 80,000 pound thumper trucks that were roaring across the fragile desert. The following Monday, there was an internal review issued by the Department of the Interior, a lawsuit was filed and we, meaning the American people, won that lawsuit. I think my writing helped to give support to the awareness of the backdoor deals that were happening as well as why the democratic process still matters.
~As usual, images from the internet were chosen by asst. editor, Ananya Shrestha. To read the rest of the interview, as published in Artful Dodge 48/49, visit: http://artfuldodge.sites.wooster.edu/content/back-issues ~