Utah naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams will speak at Northern Arizona University tomorrow night. She’s published more than a dozen books about wilderness and its necessity to the human spirit. Her most recent book The Hour of Land chronicles the threats to America’s national parks and public lands. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Terry Tempest Williams in advance of her visit to Flagstaff.
Melissa Sevigny: Your recent book, The Hour of Land, you take a tour of about dozen national parks in America. Why don’t you tell me what you took away from that journey?
Terry Tempest Williams: I thought this would be a simple book. I thought it would be celebratory in honor of the anniversary of the national park service. It was anything but. For me it was really mapping what colonialism is, realizing the people who have been left out of national parks, beginning with native people. …. It wasn’t until I really dug deeply that I saw how complicated it really is, and in many ways more beautiful as a result: that we are now telling deeper, broader, more expansive and inclusive stories, of not just the identity of wild places but the people who have inhabited those places over time.
Now that you’ve gone on that journey and seen all these places, what do you feel is the most pressing issue facing our national parks and our public lands today?
One thing is overcrowding. You can’t even get into Zion National Park, it’s so crowded, even at 4:30 in the morning….Grand Teton National Park feels like a suburb right now in high season. Are we loving our parks to death? There is such a desperate need to be outside. It’s a reservoir for our spirits. I think we need more national parks, not less…. And right now it’s about money, it’s about fossil fuel industry in the last gasps of a dying economy in the midst of climate change. And certainly extinction. It’s becoming a perfect storm, and again I think we have to rise as a people and say these lands matter to us…. Will we use restraint and prudence on behalf of future generations, or will we use it all up for ourselves, at our own peril?
You said that wilderness is a reservoir for our spirits, will you tell me more about that?
I’m living in Cambridge, Massachusetts right now and I’m teaching at the Harvard Divinity School. It’s a long way from the American West. Not many people at this distinguished university know what public lands are, much less experienced them. That’s been a revelation to me. In the midst of such noise, and you can’t see the stars at night, and I strain to find a horizon line where I can watch the sun go down or come up, I just think I can’t wait to get home, to Castle Valley, to the Colorado Plateau, where I can watch the last light of day unobstructed, where I can hear coyotes howl with delight, where I know that flocks of pinyon jays are going to come through and there’s enough stillness to hear the wingbeats of ravens. That’s what I mean by a reservoir for our spirits.
In midst of environmental crisis and climate change and extinction, it is hard to sit down at a computer and start putting words on a page?
Every day. I guess for me—how to say this?—I think we have to act, we have to create offerings. Each in our own way, each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours. I write. That’s what I can do. And so I feel no one can do everything and each of us can do something. I’m a storyteller and I try to tell stories that bypass rhetoric and touch the heart. I believe when our hearts are activated then we are activated, in whatever way we can serve our communities.
Terry Tempest Williams, safe travels to Flagstaff and thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thank you, it’s been a great pleasure and privilege.
Terry Tempest Williams will speak Wednesday evening at the Prochnow Auditoriam from 7-8:30pm. The event is free and open to the public. It's part of the Biennial Conference of Science & Managment hosted by Northern Arizona University.