The Inspirited Land: A Dialogue With Naturalist Terry Tempest Williams

by Jesse Wolf Hardin on February 20th, 2016
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Eros, Canyons, & Kokopelli

A Dialogue with Terry Tempest Williams (1987)

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Terry Tempest Williams young72dpi

“Spirit howls and wildness endures” –Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is an impassioned naturalist and influential writer, a somewhat rare species of critter known as the sensuous environmental activist Mormon. While less widely known than she was a few decades ago, her gift to the literature of the living land is unending.  She’s the author of numerous books including my favorite, Coyote’s Canyon.

I spoke with Terry way back in the early 1980s while we were both in Eugene to present at the Land, Air Water Conference, a gathering of environmental activists hosted every year by the University of Oregon Law School.  She moved us to tears with her keynote address, detailing the many deaths from breast cancer in her family – a direct result of above ground nuclear testing in the 1950’s. Now suffering the same malady, her grief spans from the personal to the global, with a deep sharing and heightened sensitivity. She has drank from the consciousness of canyons, learned to dance beneath the weight of a great burden. When we talked, she had just come down from being “lost” on a mountain, and her insights and sensibilities are as inspiring and as vital as ever before.

Jesse Wolf Hardin: Tell me the highest purpose of our art and our writing.

Terry Tempest Williams: Our art, whether verbal or nonverbal, is how we share. It is what connects us to the past, present, and future. We become accountable for the sacred knowledge that has been shared. The story becomes the conscience of the group.

Jesse Wolf Hardin: So-called primitives used story-telling, ritual, totemic possession, ecstatic experience and psychedelic plants as checks of rationality, that linear process that threatens to separate them from the planet they are a part of.

Terry Tempest Williams: To me it’s about getting up at seven in the morning and going to see this lush rainforest with snow coming down– absolutely magical! At one point we were standing on top of the ridge and the snow just kept falling from the trees, just this gentle snow and the pileated woodpecker hammering away. It was glorious. We became completely lost. Literally lost. We were slipping down these slopes and realized we had no idea where we were. It was fine; it was exactly where we needed to be. I actually asked the question, “Do we have to go back down the trail?” Just the asking of the question initiated the release.

Jesse Wolf Hardin: You know you’re “lost” when you’ve got to go back to town.

Terry Tempest Williams: That’s right! (laughing) Lost in this wonderful botanical diversion. And I thought, who wants to be on a trail when you can be nose to nose with the mushrooms!

Jesse Wolf Hardin: Botanical immersion.

Terry Tempest Williams: Right! To me, it was my guardian place. Last night in your show we had the bonding of human beings with the trees, and I needed that. I have not had a personal encounter with nature before such as Lou Gold presents in his story of bald mountain.

Jesse Wolf Hardin: My first time in Oregon’s proposed North Kalmiopsis Wilderness area, I witnessed one logging truck after another carrying out Douglas firs that were so large they could only take one at a time. This had the most traumatic effect on me. I ended up being arrested at a protest I helped organize there. There was this shift, and it was no longer enough to sing songs about the plight of old-growth forests.

Terry Tempest Williams: Responding! Responding to life. I wonder so often, what is it that we’re really so afraid of? 

Jesse Wolf Hardin: Intensity. Futility. Mortality.

Terry Tempest Williams in canyonlands 72dpi

Terry Tempest Williams: I honestly think people are afraid of feeling. If we begin to feel, we realize how deep our despair is, and then, what do we do about it? I urge you to keep moving with the struggle. You were saying that the dance and the struggle. You were saying that the dance and the struggle are the same. And then afterwards, we danced! It was palm to palm; it wasn’t the soliliquistic dance, you know, each person in their own little universe. It was actually hands like this– it was just hands, hands and constant touch and it was so beautiful. And there it is, the dance and the struggle. In that sense, what is there to seek? It’s about joy, it’s about life, it’s about breath! 

Jesse Wolf Hardin: The dance of resistance. The joy of resistance. Being in step with the Earth, experiencing the joy that comes from responsive action. What conflicts do you find between your recognition of earthen, feminine principles, and the religion you grew up with?

Terry Tempest Williams: I’ve just written a book called Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It’s about the rise of the Great Salt Lake and the death of my mother, the correspondence between the two, and how one finds refuge in change. Much of the story is about the Bear River Bird Refuge, where I was raised by my grandmother who gave me a field guide to birds. In the Spring of 1983 Great Salt Lake began to rise. It flooded the bird refuge and at the same time my mother was diagnosed as having cancer. It was like the landscape of my childhood and the landscape of my family both turned to quicksand. In this book I’ve had to confirm my relationship to the Mormon Church. As a woman in a largely patriarchal church, how does one find a place? When you talk in my religion and in many Christian religions about the godhead, where is the Mother Goddess? Wouldn’t it make sense in this so-called sacred triangle that the Holy Ghost actually is the Holy Mother who has been deprived of her body, made invisible? In the church language she is referred to as the comforter, the still small voice, the nurturer, the one you rely on in time of need. That is a question I pose in the book. If the women in the Mormon tradition recognize the heavenly mother, she’s not spoken of. You are raised to believe she is too sacred, the don’t want her name taken in vain. I say we don’t want her name silenced. We have to bring her back. This is something all women know in their hearts.

And men too. It’s the Mother, the feminine, the balance. I talk about “Pan-Sexuality”, in the search to find new terms that don’t support the duality of masculine and feminine but really talk about it in the sense of Pan. I don’t even know what the language is, but you have to keep exploring it. It has something to do with just being alive in the land, and feeling the surge. I grew up always outside, our family constantly taking time outdoors. My father had a very physical relationship with the land. My mother had a very spiritual relationship with the land. My grandmother had a very intellectual relationship with the land, a curiosity. We all built on one another’s passion for the natural world. In my mind, that’s what being woman was about. 

Jesse Wolf Hardin: What new rituals for people lacking in cultural traditions, but feeling the connection, and wanting to maintain an authenticity in the expression of their expanding awareness?

Terry Tempest Williams: When my mother was sick, I witnessed a tradition of the Mormon culture, the placing of olive oil on the forehead, and praying. Rituals help. In any culture you have ritual that you can count on, the power of prayer in whatever energy form it takes.

You have certainly shown me in your “Deep Ecology Medicine Shows” and “Dance For All Beings” just what personal new ritual is. A new definition. For those of us who spend time on the land, it comes naturally. It rises out of that sense of reciprocity, of wanting to return something. It is without thought. I remember going to the ocean and always throwing a shell back into the ocean. It was my ritual. It was about being safe. I think it is what we naturally do as human beings. It is the whole idea of restoration, whether of the spirit, or the Earth herself.  It brings us back to the story, which is again our personal connection. 

Jesse Wolf Hardin: The connection between manifest and spirit. There are those who endeavor to transcend their earthly origins, rather than protecting that source. There are others who are very active politically, but have lost the spirit and heart. 

Terry Tempest Williams: Without the spirit there is no meaningful action.

Old Goddess statue 72dpi

Jesse Wolf Hardin: The Earth, even when acknowledged to have feminine qualities, is usually portrayed as a crone. More often, as a lifeless exoskeleton. I have come to intimately know the planet body not just as the ancient grandmother, but also as a still-developing child, and as a craven lover. The sense of all life consuming itself, making love to itself through its constituent parts.

Terry Tempest Williams: We are a species afraid of our own bodies, and that is why we fear our global body. We really aren’t a people in our body. 

Jesse Wolf Hardin: Too often we are ashamed of them. We cover them up, tidy up our dreams, and mow our lawns for the same reasons.

Terry Tempest Williams: Our love affair with the puritanical is found not only in our sexual relations, but in how we eat. You have your meat, potatoes, vegetable, everything kept pure. There is no blending, no subtleties. Whereas in French or South American cooking you have this wonderful layering and blending of nuance and spice. I love Doug Peacock when he said saving the world and cooking dinner for friends is the same thing. So maybe what we really need to be doing in spiritual activism is to conduct dinner parties weekly, hold dances rather than conferences.

Jesse Wolf Hardin: The basis for the dance is movement. It is the flux. You cannot call it the environmental movement if it is sitting, thinking, talking. You can’t just talk the mountain, you have to walk it. Every aboriginal child knows this. Here we have a whole culture of adults who have forgotten it. We have to remember what we already know, intuitively, instinctively, deep down inside. To put the members back into place, to re-member the parts of the solution – if there is to be a human solution.

Terry Tempest Williams: Somehow it comes back to our own family, however we define that, and to our own sense of place, our own sense of home. It is love. It comes back to your question of our art. in fact, a poets of place does give rise to a politics of place, which is about change, and has everything to do with spirit. 

Jesse Wolf Hardin: Tell us about canyons, Terry.

Terry Tempest Williams: You know about canyons! The secret places, the insides of animals, canyon walls that rise like bare bones…

Jesse Wolf Hardin: The descriptions in Coyote’s Canyon are alive. The way it is. 

Terry Tempest Williams: The desert is not a forgiving place. It is very difficult to lie in the desert, both to verbally lie, and to lie down in the desert with the heat, no water, exposed, raw! Today it is winter in Oregon. In the temperate rainforest, it is so forgiving, so gentle and so soft. Even the scars are moss covered. It is a playground. The southwest canyons are tough places, full of character. They allow us to enter into an altered state.

Terry Tempest Williams older 72dpi

“If you know wilderness the way that you know love, you would never let it go.” –Terry Tempest Williams

Jesse Wolf Hardin: My basic role model is the southwestern equivalent of Pan. Kokopelli.

Terry Tempest Williams: It all comes back to “Pan-Sexuality”. 

Jesse Wolf Hardin: This guy is dancing, playing the flute, with this tremendous burden basket pressing him forward. No matter how heavy the load gets, he still maintains the pace of the dance, spreading the seed of song.

Kokopelli Shadow 72dpi

Terry Tempest Williams: Every time I see Kokopelli it is about joy, it is about music, it’s about dance and the struggle being the same. You can’t penetrate the wound, the heart, the idea, the Earth without knowledge of that burden. It is the burden and the song together that enable us to move within the light. 

Thank you Jesse Wolf.

Jesse Wolf Hardin: My pleasure, Terry.

 Kokopelli River

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Categories: Interviews of Interest, Uncategorized