Storyteller: An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams

By D. J. LeeJuly 19, 2016

Storyteller: An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams
OPEN ANY of Terry Tempest Williams’s 18 books and step into a place: the Great Salt Lake and surrounding Utah desert in Refuge, the Arizona-Mexico border and Africa’s Serengeti Plains in An Unspoken Hunger, a small village in Italy and another in Rwanda in Finding Beauty in a Broken World.

Open any of Terry Tempest Williams’s books and step into a voice. This becomes especially clear in her 2012 When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, which starts by describing the dozens of journals Williams’s mother left for her. When Williams opened them, she was shocked to find them blank. And so she filled them with stories, meditations, confessions, calls to action, and many other vocal variations. 

In her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, place and voice meet as never before. Coinciding with the 100th Anniversary of the National Park System, the book features 12 parks (there are 58 in all). Williams travels the country with park service personnel, with friends, with strangers, with her husband Brooke, and sometimes alone, with only her own thoughts. She brings us the landscapes and their peoplefrom Alaska to Texas, from Florida to California — via narrative, interviews, letters, poetry, and photographs, too.

Finding a way to speak for the land as well as other people came early to Terry Tempest Williams. Growing up in the shadow of the federal government’s nuclear testing of the 1950s and ’60s in Nevada and Utah, she found her voice, she says, speaking out in protest about the deaths of her own family members from cancer caused by nuclear fallout. Today you can find her discussing climate change in Paris and buying up land leases shoulder to shoulder with oil and gas companies as part of her new LLC, Tempest Explorations. This is all part of her lifelong commitment to protecting wild lands inside the United States’s Red Rock Wilderness in the desert of southern Utah.

Williams co-founded the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities program, where she has inspired hundreds of students over more than a decade. On April 22, 2016, she resigned from her position as the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar when the university demanded that her field course, “Art, Advocacy, & Landscape,” no longer be taught outside in the Utah desert. The Hour of Land blends this kind of conviction — honest and fierce — with prose that lifts the reader out of each place to set her back down with new awareness. Each page contains a surprise, a lesson, a story. The book is a testament to Terry Tempest Williams’s canonical place in American environmental literature, alongside Henry David Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard.

Last fall, Williams and her husband visited the University of Idaho and Washington State University, where I teach in the English Department. I had read her books, of course. They’ve guided me in my own writing about wilderness. Still, I am congenitally skeptical, and I wasn’t prepared for the awe I felt in Williams’s presence as I watched her turn each encounter into something extraordinary: the way she greeted each person eye to eye; the way she touched a sleeve; the way she comforted those who stood in the book signing line saying, “my mother passed away,” or “I lost my son,” or “I, too, care about a piece of land.”

When it came time to do this interview, I had visions of driving from the wheat fields of eastern Washington through the Sawtooths of Idaho and into the desert of Utah to speak with Williams in person — to hear her voice again. But, as I’ve learned, she doesn’t stay in one place long. She is called all over the United States and the world to share her writing, teaching, and advocacy. And so she and I communicated by email. She told me she answered these 12 questions sitting “outside on the edge of the woods in Vermont. As I write, a ruffed grouse is drumming with me as I tap tap tap on this keyboard.”


D. J. LEE: You chose 12 parks of very different character to write about. How did you choose them?

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: Choosing these 12 was like creating a dinner party. I asked myself: “who would I like to invite to dinner for a rich and varied conversation?” I knew those who were close to me: Canyonlands National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Acadia. Each of these parks is linked with family and home. They hold a generational pull for me. Consider them relatives. And then, there were those parks I had visited before but wanted to get to know better — acquaintances. These would include Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Gulf Coast National Seashore, and Glacier. The final invites were those I didn’t know at all, but I had been dreaming about them for years. I sought them out as guests around the table. I took a chance and they made all the difference: Gettysburg National Military Park, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Gates of the Arctic, Alcatraz, and César E. Chávez National Monument. What I could not have anticipated was this: I thought I was writing a book about America’s National Parks, but in the end, I realized I had written a book about America. 

Are there parks you would have liked to include but couldn’t? 

If I carry the dinner party metaphor further — of course, you want to invite those guests whom you admire, respect, and, dare I say, worship. For me, these would be Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Everglades. But I was intimidated by them. They are immense and immensely complicated in their politics and history, well-known and well-written about. I didn’t dare venture in. I stood on their edges looking out. And I would have loved to have included Olympic National Park and the North Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. For me, they are mythical parks I didn’t feel I had the same kind of access to; somehow, they belonged to the dreamtime. Brooke and I spent one of the most alchemical weeks of our life camping on the Olympic Peninsula with the ocean before us and the rainforest behind us. Each morning we watched pods of orca, their fins slicing the water: black, white, blue. Perhaps, as a desert dweller, I wanted that memory to remain private. I thought about Glacier Bay or Denali in Alaska, parks I have visited often. And I have always wanted to visit Isle Royale surrounded by Lake Superior to hear wolves howling at night separated from the mainland until winter when the lake freezes and creates an ice bridge. 

In the chapter on Acadia National Park, you mention an assignment you give your students that I found absolutely fascinating: “Find out who’s trying to reach you [from the past] and come back with a story.” Did this assignment guide you as you wrote about people such as Ai Weiwei, César Chávez, and others whose histories merge with our National Parks?

What a great question. I don’t think so, Debbie. I sought out Ai Weiwei and César Chávez and I would add Valerie Naylor, the superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, because they inspire me. Let me add Tim DeChristopher, the climate activist who served two years in a federal prison for purchasing oil and gas leases in Utah’s red rock desert as an act of civil disobedience. Each of these figures was aligned with a particular national park unit, directly or indirectly. Each of them, in their own way, advocates for social justice alongside their concern for the natural environment, be it through supporting the rights of farm workers in the fields of California as they pick grapes, or trying to stop oil and gas development on the edge of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I see them as heroes and heroines, powerful role models for engagement in “the open space of democracy,” be it in this country or across the world in China.

I love Brooke’s role in the book. He’s humorous, inquisitive, supportive. In Gettysburg, he holds you back from quoting Pussy Riot; in Arcadia, he asks a man — Jim — what the odd emblem on his jacket symbolizes, for example. Do you let Brooke ask questions you can’t? Is he a kind of research assistant, like Harper Lee to Truman Capote?

Without Brooke, there would be no book. It’s that simple. He was not only my traveling companion to the new parks we visited, but he has been my partner in crime for over 40 years of marriage. I love sharing these wild places with him. It’s what we do best together: share our love that is wild. Because he is a much stronger hiker than I am — he is my advance team. He is usually miles ahead of me on most trails, so I have the illusion and grace of walking in solitude, yet I know eventually we will find each other. He has taken to stacking stones — often I find him making art along the way. We don’t always agree in our travels. Brooke has strong opinions. So do I. We can grouse like any couple. I am focused in the extreme. He is more lighthearted. But we have found a healthy equipoise in our marriage. By that I mean balance and adjustment, where one informs the other. The two weeks we spent in Big Bend were a glory. Every day, we walked 10 miles or more in a state of awe. We were like children, so excited about every plant, every bird, every slant of light we saw in the expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert. I think the only park that Brooke was absent from was the Gulf Islands National Seashore during the BP oil spill. If he had been there, it would have broken his heart. He would have turned away. He is much more sensitive than I am.

This is partly a book about environmental activism, but you also bring in other opinions. Some hit close to home. At one point, your father uses the phrase, “you environmentalists.” How did you balance differing points of view in writing the book?

Well, any time I am with my father there is a “differing” point of view. I cherish that. We keep each other honest. Traveling with him in North Dakota to the Bakken oil fields, it was deeply moving to me to see how upset he was by the treatment of the roughnecks. It was there we both were able to see that what binds us together is more powerful than what tears us apart politically. In the end, it comes down to how we treat each other as human beings in relationship to the land. To be able to have these tough conversations about oil and gas development and conservation in the context of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was very powerful. We were held in place not only by the beauty of the badlands, but the power of Roosevelt’s personal history, especially at the Elkhorn Ranch, where he went to heal after his wife’s death. My father understands that kind of grief, having lost his own wife.

Also, living in Utah, I am saturated with different perspectives from my own and not without pain. The chapter on Canyonlands is a series of letters written from home that speak to many of these conflicts being confronted now on our public lands. Certainly, in Gettysburg, one only has to walk the cornfields in fall and hear the rattling of dry stalks in the wind to feel the spirits of the Dead — to be haunted by the legacy of the Civil War from both sides. I was struck by the reenactors, particularly those representing the Confederate soldiers. In so many ways, the war has never ended.

At the beginning of the book, you have the line: “Collaboration is the only way forward.” And you have a scene of collaboration at a dinner party you and Brooke hold for a diverse group of stakeholders in the Utah Canyonlands. Today, we’re in perhaps the most divisive period in modern political history. How do you see people facing each other and collaborating when they stand on two sides of pressing environmental issues?

I think we begin to face each other where we have the most at stake — within our own families and communities. And that is the most difficult. It is also the most rewarding. Dinner parties are a good place to begin a conversation because food binds us together. It also has a basis in generosity: the generosity of being invited to sit down and break bread together and the reciprocity of accepting the invitation to engage around the table.

When we share our stories, empathy enters the room. A tenderness is felt. We experience another generosity, that of listening to one another as human beings. The weather system shifts as we realize we are being heard and seen for who we are, instead of as people who hold a contrary position or opinion. Relationships begin to take root. Unexpected partnerships grow. Change becomes creative, collaborative.

The book contains 23 stunning black-and-white fine art photographs that create an “emotional backdrop” to your text. Can you talk about how you organized the images to complement the narrative? One that fascinates me is the juxtaposition on page 44, where a woman, standing in what seems to be ranch country, shoots a pistol with a broad smile on her face. On the facing page, you begin a chapter with the words, “It is a gentle and peaceful place.” 

One of the great joys of creating this book was meeting Frish Brandt, the president of Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. Steven Barclay, a close friend of mine (to whom the book is dedicated), said to me early on, “You must meet Frish.” We met in 2013 in her office and as we talked about landscape and photography, my literal mind that had been thinking about national parks as well, national parks — suddenly cracked open to my metaphorical mind. Frish Brandt, with her extraordinary visual intelligence and imagination, shifted the entire project. We began to play with images and ideas. The historical photographs of Carleton Watkins, which played such an important role in the establishment of Yosemite as a national park, bled into seeing a photograph like Lee Friedlander’s image of Death Valley from the vantage point of a car window as the evolution of our own relationships with our national parks. Flocks of birds became flocks of tourists in the image by Lukas Felzmann. Sally Mann’s image of a black man’s back where he is embracing his body with his own hands became the wound of slavery placed next to the essay on Gettysburg. Will Wilson’s arresting image of three Navajos wearing gas masks on the edge of the Grand Canyon became a layering of politics not only of haze on the horizon produced by Peabody Coal, but of America’s complicated relationship with Indians and our national parks, an annihilation of culture as we protect nature. The placement of this image within the chapter on Alcatraz is an echo to the Indian occupation of The Rock in the 1970s. And Christina Seely’s image of the sky in her view camera creates an inverted image that appears as a glacier that no longer exists in a place like Glacier National Park. I love the irony of the juxtaposition you describe, especially in a chapter about a national park named after a figure as macho and charismatic as Theodore Roosevelt. It’s a visual reminder that nothing is as it appears, especially when it comes to our national parks. I feel that these 23 photographs add a postmodern look into our relationship with place. Daniel Beltrá’s image of oil-soaked pelicans during the BP oil spill haunts me still.

I was struck by the diversity of forms in the book. One chapter is organized as a series of letters, another as notebook entries, another as a poem, another as an art walk through a prison. How did you come up with the different structures?

Structure matters to me as a writer. It holds my wild mind in place. I believe the content of each book I have written revealed the form it wanted to take in order to embody the central idea. My book Refuge is structured according to the lake levels, the rise and fall of Great Salt Lake, which conversely mirrored the emotional levels of my grief. When Women Were Birds is structured on 54 variations of voice — the age I was when I wrote the book and the age my mother was when she died — in an effort to understand why my mother left me her blank journals. With The Hour of Land each of the 12 national parks is a unique landscape. It made sense that each one deserved its own form, one that mirrored the story I was trying to tell. For example, I went to see Gettysburg in each season as an unfolding of grief. It is written in four parts beginning with autumn and ending with summer, a progression of understanding. Canyonlands National Park is near our home in the red rock desert of southern Utah. When I am home, I write letters. This became the structure I chose to illustrate the fragility of this erosional landscape. My letters are usually pleas for protection, love letters. And in the case of Big Bend, I wanted to focus on the land itself, so I used the form of my field notebooks as a unifying strand, fleshing out essays from notes taken on the trails we walked and hiked in the wild country we explored. Acadia National Park became an exploration of genealogies. In an earlier draft, I had a 19th-century illustration of an evolutionary tree included in the text. I finally took it out, but it held a structure for me as I was writing.

The National Park Service turns 100 this year. Its operating budget is shrinking as the Federal Government allocates less money each year for stewardship of parks and wildernesses. Are you worried about our ability to protect places under the charge the National Park Service?

I worry about the corporatization of our national parks in their need to become more financially stable. In every American city, you see the supremacy of the sports arenas — basketball, football, baseball — named after corporations like the Delta Center, the U.S. Bank Stadium, the “Target Center.” There is already talk of corporate sponsorships within our national park, logos and brand names that would appear on park benches, the sides of buildings, or banners. I don’t want my mind cluttered with commerce. I want my soul to be at rest in beauty, to engage with the spirit of a place, not its benefactor. This concerns me. And of course, at least 30 national parks are under threat by oil and gas development, with 12 national parks already the sites of oil and gas exploration. Add to that, the island effect: increasing urbanization on all sides of park boundaries, making it difficult for species like grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines to find natural corridors for habitat and protection. Then, pile on the politics of place like delisting the grizzly in the midst of climate change and, yes, I am very worried about ecological integrity within our large western national parks.

Is the National Park Service doing enough to respond to pressing environmental problems like climate change, overpopulation, shrinking biodiversity?

National parks, by their very nature, are political sites. The stories they tell are political. The policies that govern them are political. And the way they are established, funded, and maintained is political. In 2013, when the US government was shut down, our national parks were closed as well. (Imagine the quiet inside of them during that two-week period). At that time Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, said, “The most pressing issue facing our national parks is climate change.” I do think parks like Glacier National Park and Grand Teton National Parks are looking at the effects of climate, be it retreating glaciers or dying populations of white-bark pines and their effect on grizzly bears who depend on them for fall food sources. And in the case of parks like Arches in Utah, high tourist visitation is creating the necessity to limit the number of people hiking up to Delicate Arch. Other parks like Denali and Zion have already instigated shuttle buses to minimize private cars. America’s national parks are under siege from all sides. I think we just need to create more national monuments like Bears Ears National Monument adjacent to Canyonlands in Utah; the North Woods National Monument adjacent to Baxter State Park in Maine; and the Arctic National Monument in the far north of Alaska. These new sites create the necessary buffer zones for greater biodiversity and habitat protection, while at the same time adding an economic boon to gateway communities.

I’ve heard Brooke say that when you’re writing, he knows he can’t disturb you. I recall him saying that you almost go into a trance. Does this describe your process in writing this book?

With any writing project, there are moments of trance, but there are more moments of just plain hard work. Right? There is the lived experience of a book of nonfiction, in this case, being fully present within each particular park. I would immerse myself in its stories: What is the landscape, the ecology, the history, the politics, and the geographic location? And then, I would try to open myself to the experience, itself. I have hundreds of journals and notebooks, field guides and history books, scientific papers, newspaper clippings that give a flavor of the local politics. I read and read, talked to people, interviewed visitors, spoke with park service employees — in the end, I would sit down at my desk and begin to write. Eventually, a narrative would emerge. My editor Sarah Crichton was tough on me in the best of ways. She has a journalist’s eye. I think she made me a better writer by challenging me to be more straightforward and not to hide behind lyrical language, which comes more naturally to me. I revised and revised and revised the text, much like national park policies! It’s all I’ve thought about for the past three years. This book asked everything and more of me because I was writing out of my limitations: I am neither an historian, nor a scientist, nor a government employee. Each writer has to ask her or himself: By what authority do I write? I realized I am a storyteller. I love our public lands. I write from the authority of my own heart.

You mention a desire to not “hide behind lyrical language.” Is there something about lyric writing that gets in the way of making a rigorous argument for issues as urgent as climate change and protection of wildland?

Again, this is such a good question and a hard one. The world is on fire. America is burning with hateful rhetoric. Congress wants to pass bills that will take the “public” out of public lands as they move to privatize them. Sometimes I think poetry is not enough. But then, after delving into the arena of public policy and the morass of oil and gas development threatening our national parks, I think the only thing that will save us is poetry. Lines from Jorie Graham’s extraordinary poem “WE” open each essay; they create a weather system for the book.

And at the heart of The Hour of Land is the poetry of the land itself: our stories, our histories, our collective vision protect these places, which are the closest thing we have to sacred lands. And we are now offering up our prayers in the name of forgiveness from the Native People we have displaced in the process. Our national parks are breathing spaces at a time when We the People are holding our breath. I wanted to write a book that was not just a lyric or a polemic, but a love story that could contain the full range of our emotions. Each time I enter a national park I meet the miraculous.


D. J. Lee, an award-winning scholar of literature and history, has written and edited numerous books. She is currently editing a collection of essays called The Land Speaks and completing a memoir about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana.

LARB Contributor

D. J. Lee is professor of literature and creative writing at Washington State University. She has edited three essay collections focused on the literature and history of the 19th century and authored three scholarly books, Romantic Liars: Obscure Women Who Became Imposters and Challenged an Empire (Macmillan 2006); Literature, Science, and Exploration in the Romantic Era: Bodies of Knowledge (Cambridge 2004); and Slavery and the Romantic Imagination (UPenn 2002). She has received a National Endowment for the Humanities, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, and the Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship. Lee’s personal essays have appeared in Narrative, Vela, and the Montreal Review. Currently, she is editing a collection of essays called The Land Speaks and completing a memoir about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana.

Twitter handle: @debbiejeanlee


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