Spotlight / The gospel according to Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams

Photo by Zoe Rodriguez photography


“There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention…”


When Terry Tempest Williams writes about the great green spaces of America, from national monuments to urban parks, it is with the voice of a poet-preacher. The environmental activist and author is Just Buffalo’s Babel series lecturer at 8 p.m. Thursday, October 12, at Kleinhans. Her latest book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, explores the history and development of a system that stretches across the country, from west to east, including Glacier National Park in Montana and Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi. The great gift of Williams’ writing is description that captures majesty and mystery while personalizing tales of encounters with rangers and fellow pilgrims—a memoir within a travelogue. A Utah resident whose childhood life and vacations featured the outdoors, she has made preserving such spaces, whether in urban settings like Buffalo, or the great vistas of the Western national parks, her life’s mission.


You work in the grand tradition of writers inspired by nature, and your own upbringing is in that realm. Many Americans are not so fortunate. How do you propose others enjoy the experience of communing with nature?

We can encounter nature wherever we are: our backyards, our city parks, walking to school, or backpacking in the wilderness. It is a matter of paying attention and realizing our communities are made up of many species, not just our own. Just last week, I was walking out our back door, when I looked up and a great horned owl was perched on a low aspen branch right in front of me, not more than five feet away. Our eyes held each other in a direct gaze. It was not without terror. In that moment, I sensed both awe and fear, respect and beauty. For a minute or more we faced each other. We are not the the only species that lives and loves and lays claim on this planet.


How do you maintain your optimism, your essential message of hope, in a political environment that seems to be getting worse?

We will survive this moment, but it will not be without pain and losses and betrayals. There is no hope without action. Democracy requires action, participation, engagement. As we watch this administration undermine decades worth of environmental laws and regulations—from the protection of grizzly bears and sage grouse, to placing twenty-seven national monuments under review to be  reduced or rescinded; or dismantling and discrediting science, including forbidding government employees from even speaking the words “climate change”—we can rise up and speak out against these injustices. We can call Congress, we can write letters and opinion pieces, we can attend community meetings, and we can meet these direct assaults on all we hold dear, each in our own way with the gifts that are ours. But we must act.


As you know, Buffalo is blessed with an Olmsted parks and parkway system. Have you been here before?  What message will you bring to the Babel lecture series?

I have been to Buffalo a few times, once for my brother’s wedding, and once en route to Niagara Falls. What I remember is the feeling I had in Buffalo, that it is a working city. I remember the steel mills on the edge of Lake Erie, I remember the red-brick neighborhoods, and trees. And I remember the gravity of the people. It will be a privilege to return. The world is moving so quickly right now. I hope to visit the Olmsted parks, and talk about the visionaries among us who had eyes toward the future, and how we might work together to keep the open spaces of democracy open.


The description of Alcatraz Island in your latest book, where you talk about the Ai Weiwei art installation that was there, is particularly resonant. Of course, nature is the great artist—do you think artists and naturalists have an inherent affinity, and might do more work together to enhance and sustain our treasured outdoor spaces?

I think artists, writers, naturalists, scientists, and poets are all trained to keep their eyes open, to remain open and porous to the world around us. But I think part of being human is being curious, asking questions, and following our noses to sniff out the answers. I also think it takes time. It takes time to pay attention, to listen, to observe, to stop and feel where we are, what we see, and who we are living among. It takes time to write a poem or paint a picture or craft an essay. Our imaginations need breathing spaces. We all need to slow down and breathe.


What lies ahead, projects for you personally, but also the future of humans interacting in an environment we have made more toxic? What can we do to reverse and repair damage? How can we support and sustain what we have?

It is easy to see that we are in a political crisis when it comes to our relationship with the earth, be it climate change or the loss of species. But I think if we look more deeply, we can begin to understand that we are not just facing a political crisis in this country or an ecological crisis, but a spiritual one. What are the spiritual implications of climate change?  How might we live with great intention on this beautiful, broken planet we call home? For the next year, I will be writer-in-residence at the Divinity School at Harvard. I am humbled by the appointment. To have a year to contemplate and consider these very questions will be a great blessing. I have no idea where these questions will lead me. But I could not be more ready to take this time, slow down, and dream.    


Maria Scrivani is a longtime contributor to Spree.


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