For more than 30 years, Terry Tempest Williams has been at the forefront of American nature writing. The Corona native, who has spent most of her life in Utah, began her career with a well-received children’s book, “The Secret Language of Snow,” and broke out in 1991 with her acclaimed memoir “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.”
Her books “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice” and “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks” both garnered considerable critical acclaim, and her latest, “Erosion: Essays of Undoing” is due for release this October from Sarah Crichton Books.
Williams was named the winner of this year’s L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, given to a writer whose work focuses on the American West.
Williams spoke with The Times via telephone from Cambridge, Mass., where she is writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You're the winner of this year's Kirsch Award, which has previously been given to writers like Wallace Stegner and Ursula K. Le Guin and Larry McMurtry. What does it mean to you personally to be honored for your writing about the American West?
Well, I'm so honored. This came as such a surprise, and as you can imagine, there are those days where you think, does any of this matter? So I just feel deeply grateful and humbled by this recognition. I think so often what we do as writers, we do alone, but we know that's really not true, that we are able to find the words we find because of the words that have come before us. So to find myself in the company of my mentors, Wallace Stegner, Ursula Le Guin, Bill Kittredge, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gary Snyder, T.C. Boyle, Tom McGuane. It's deeply humbling.
In your book “The Hour of Land,” you wrote about America's national parks. Are you concerned that our national parks have come under threat over the past few years?
Not just our national parks are under threat, but all our public lands are under threat, and that 640 million acres that belong to all of us that are held in the common trust. That concerns me greatly on two fronts. One, being in Cambridge right now, away from the American West, at the Harvard Divinity School, I'm so aware of how little is known or comprehended about America's public lands, even at such a venerable place as Harvard.
So I think there's a whole part of the population, on the East Coast in particular, and throughout America, that doesn’t understand what public lands are. Americans don't understand that each person is land-rich, and that this is our national heritage and birthright. It concerns me that so much is happening in the American West right now with oil and gas extraction, fracking, now going back into the uranium reserves, opening up coal reserves, even in the face of climate change, especially in the face of climate change. This concerns me. And national parks are part of that heritage.
I'm concerned that during the shutdown of this year, places like Joshua Tree were vandalized. I'm concerned about the loss of oversight and maintenance, the lack of funding for our national parks. And it's not just about our species but about all species. When you look at grizzly bear protection in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. I could go on and on and on. So I think we are not only seeing an era of neglect around our national parks but an abuse.
You have a book coming out in October called “Erosion.” Can you talk about the different kinds of erosion that you address in those essays? I know your book focuses not just on physical erosion but other kinds as well.
Living in Castle Valley, Utah, where we do, erosion is part of our life, whether it's suddenly you hear a rock falling, you see this pink dust flying by the time you run outside to see what happened, or road closures because of falling rocks, or a rising Colorado River. Not long ago, we had a flash flood roar through our community. So erosion is part of our life, whether it's wind, water, ice or deep time, erosion is how we see the world.
It occurred to me that erosion, as you say, is not just a physical process, but the corrosive process we're seeing among politics, there's an erosion of democracy, an erosion of truth, an erosion of our regard for science, erosion of decency, and and on a deeper level, I think an erosion of self. Who are we becoming in this process?
I also think that erosion, that our undoing leads to becoming, and one of the things about living in an erosional landscape is that the land is reduced to essence. And I feel that in the positive sense, we too can be brought to our essence if we're willing not to look away, to really look at these hard questions of where we find ourselves at this moment in time.
What would you say to young people who care about the environment, and who, given all the bad news that seems to be coming out about the environment every day, are maybe tempted to give in to despair or give up?
I think this is an incredibly transformative time. I have a deep commitment to the next generation, and I see a generation that is engaged, I see a generation of practical, pragmatic visionaries. They're wanting to make a difference, and they're figuring out what that looks like on both a local scale as well as a national and global scale, whether it's climate change, whether it's growing their own food, whether it's teaching in different communities. I really see that action is our way forward.
I was thinking about being here at the divinity school, one of the things that has inspired me is it's not just what we believe, but how we behave. And I really see a strong moral imperative among our young people. I think writing is an aspect of this moral imperative, to be able to speak our truth as we see it, to be able to write out of the communities that we're born from, and to acknowledge, from my point of view, why the American West is so crucial to the American imagination, that it really is the seedbed of our inspiration and national identities.
Whether it's Bears Ears National Monument and the five tribes who are saying “these lines are sacred to us” — the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and Mountain Ute Nation — or when you look at what's happening in Birmingham, Ala., and the museums there that are asking us to look at our history of civil rights, or when you see what's happening at Stonewall and the LGBT history of ACT UP there. I feel like it's a time of great hope, hope in our rising against an administration that has forgotten what it means to be inclusive and aspirational but more divisive and confrontational.
Are there any other writers who you would recommend to people who want to pursue nature writing or ecological writing?
I'm reading Richard Powers' “The Overstory.” I find it so extraordinary in its resistance and insistence that we engage in the protection of the natural world. It's a tremendous novel of a coming together of various people from various walks of life in defense of the Earth. I think that's an incredibly inspiring book. Also, Robin Wall Kimmerer, her book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” her view both as a scientist and as a native person of what does community look like and how we can extend community. What does community look like and can we extend community beyond our own species?
Being here again in Cambridge, I find myself going to Walden Pond every month just to remember the literary engagement of a person like Henry David Thoreau or Emerson or Margaret Fuller. To me, they have had, certainly, an impact. Right now, in many ways, it's native people, looking at the elders in Utah that I've had the privilege of working with, people like Jonah Yellowman or Willie Grayeyes or Mary Benally. Being on the land with them and hearing why Bears Ears matters and hearing the oral stories of their people. That inspires me.
I think one of the myths we talk about or have absorbed is the rugged individualism of the American West. For those of us who live there, we know that's not true, that our identities are diverse and deep and communal. I think that's what keeps me in the West and allows me to return even if I'm working elsewhere momentarily. My heart is very deep in these wild lands.
We recently lost your dear friend W.S. Merwin, who was a wonderful poet and a hero of literature and environmentalism. Is there anything you’d like to say about the influence that he’s had on writing and the environment?
William, as he was alive, he was viewed as one of America's greatest poets, and in his death he will be remembered as one of America's greatest poets. Not only was he a great mind of language and translations and literary history, but I think his devotion on the ground and on the page to protecting the natural world, to restoring the natural world, in his own example of taking these burned pineapple fields and restoring them literally by hand, seed by seed by seed into this extraordinary palm forest — to me, he wasn't just a writer, he was this extraordinary steward of the land.
I think about William's hands, what he planted by way of seeds and what he planted by way of poems. He was always present. And I think that was one of his great gifts to me as a writer, is that if we are present in place, then we will be able to hear the land and the language that rises out of the land.
I'll never forget, Michael, if you don't mind me sharing this story. My brother had just passed away, Steve. My family, I think in order to try to forget the pain, we thought we'd spend Christmas in Hawaii. So our family spent the first Christmas without my brother there. My father, his wife, his children, our whole family was there. It was worse, because I think we were displaced out of the very land that holds us. They left. I went to visit William and Paula, [me and my husband] Brooke. I will never forget, William met us at the airport and he took one look at me, and he said, "What's wrong?" I burst into tears. He just held me. He didn't say anything. He took us to this particular overlook of the Pacific. It was this vast perspective towards the horizon with crashing waves and these beautiful folding cliffs that he wrote about.
Then we went to their home. Brooke and Paula were in the living room and William took me into his study and he closed the door. I just started weeping. He said, "Talk to me." I was telling him about my brother and my concerns for the natural world, all these things cascading at once. Very matter-of-factly, dispassionately, he looked at me with those clear blue eyes, and he said, "Terry, this is the place we write from."
I've never forgotten that, that we write out of our grief for what we're losing. We write out of our passion for what we love. We write out of our past and toward the future in the present. We do it alone. We do it in community. That's what this Robert Kirsch Award means to me, is that it's an acknowledgement of the community of Western writers that have written out of that place of grief and love and faith. We do it alone. We do it together.
Look at what I've learned from these great minds and teachers. When you look at the words of Merwin, when he said we'll have to learn a forgotten language. To me, this is what writing is, to retrieve this forgotten language that is inherent in the land. When I think of Wallace Stegner, working about a society to match the scenery, this is what we're in the midst of. I remember Wally always saying to me, "It's never about one book. It's about a life." Again, how do we behave? I think about Maxine Hong Kingston. We shared a jail cell together on International Women's Day when we were arrested in front of the White House in resistance of the first Iraq war. Being in a jail cell with Alice Walker, with Maxine Hong Kingston, with Susan Griffin, and realizing what these women stand for as writers and as Americans, to me, this is why we write. This is the resistance, the insistence that's born at a place and people and identity. This is what the open space of democracy looks like.
I feel it's about love. It's always about love. That's what allows us to continue and to not despair but to realize, really, all we have to do is look at where we are. In California, you've got the Pacific Ocean, you've got Yosemite. You have all these extraordinary landscapes, the big trees. It's so magnificent. So I think, again, it's this forgotten language that we have to keep remembering. That's the job of the writer — that's the work of the writer — every day we face the blank page with gratitude, with outrage, with anger, and with love.
There's just so much in my heart, and I don't know how to express it all. I'm so aware of the limits of language. I think there just has to be something deeper, and for me, courage comes from that sustained focus that's rooted in community. And that's what the West is for me, these beautiful extended communities where we reach each other through water, through land, through history. You know, we're bound by beauty, right? That will sustain us.
Terry Tempest Williams at the L.A. Times Festival of Books: Williams appears at noon April 13 in conversation with The Times’ Tom Curwen.