Terry Tempest Williams is an essayist, environmentalist, author, advocate, connection maker. She’s fascinated by what divides and what connects us—to one another and to the earth. Refuge, which Williams called an unnatural history of family and place, has become a literary classic alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her latest, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, starts with an investigation of her mother’s mysterious journals and spirals into a meditation on silence, secrets and voice. What does all of this have to do with politics, rebellion and social change? Everything. Market capitalism commodifies labor and land, splitting our work from the rest of our lives, and our land from our communities. Terry Tempest Williams refuses to choose between the personal and the political, the practical and the poetic. On behalf of us all she demands the right to be whole—and never more powerfully than in her new book.
You can see video of our entire conversation at GRITtv.org. Here’s a rough transcript of our conversation:
LF: Does that sound about right: you as connection maker?
TTW: It’s how I see the world. We are so used to fragmenting, compartmentalizing, putting things in silos and that’s not how the world is. I think it is the pattern that connects that gives us the power to see the world whole.
When Women Were Birds starts with the mystery of your mother’s journals. She left you her journals, but they weren’t what you expected.
No, and it’s taken me twenty-five years to come to terms with that. Literally, the week before my mother died, I was rubbing her back in bed and she said, “Terry I’m leaving you my journals but you have to promise you won’t look at them until I’m gone.” I gave her my word. She passed. A month later, I found myself in the family house. There they were, just where she said they’d be, all beautifully bound, cloth journals. I thought, finally now, I’ll know what my mother was thinking. I opened the first one. Empty. I opened the second one empty. The third, the fourth, the fifth, sixth—all of my mother’s journals were blank.
What did you make of that, to begin?
I think I was so stunned. I kept going through them, trying to figure out what she was trying to say to me. It was so deliberate. I think at the time I was so grief stricken by her death that I couldn’t afford to think about it. I just gathered up her journals, took them home, and for years and years I wrote in them, unceremoniously.
All these years on, you find yourself the same age your mother was when she died, and you decide to revisit this story, but instead of weaving one narrative you give us a book of “54 Variations on Voice.” Why that structure?
When I think about voice I think about music, and the structure of music is variations, different parts. I don’t think, with a woman and her voice—I know for me and my own voice—it’s not a continual narrative. That would not be a true thing. It’s not as if you find your voice and move on. It’s almost like a kaleidoscope that you keep turning and your voice takes on a different resonance. There have been many times in my life that I’ve given my voice away or lost it or betrayed it. And there have been other times that I’ve stood at the center of my voice, whether that’s been through grief, or anger or joy. So it seemed to me that that was an honest rendering, both of my mother’s journals (fifty-four different ages, fifty-four years) and the different configurations that our voice takes through time.
If you had a chance to stand at the center of your voice and raise one alarm, what’s the one message you’re bringing to us today.
To listen. That’s ironic. It’s a paradox, about a book on voice. But I think that’s the most important think we can do right now is to listen—to one another, to other people, to other culture and to listen to the land.
A lot of people say, it’s too much, I have to turn it all off. I can’t listen; I can’t take one more TV show, one more podcast, one more e-mail. Do you sympathize?
I do. I think in many ways we’re washed—awash—with stimulus, especially from the media, but that’s not the only think to listen to. There’s birdsong, there’s silence, there’s water, there’s music. I think so often when we’re listening, we’re not really listening we’re waiting for our chance to speak. And therefore I don’t know how things change, if we’re not we’re not really in that true place of a reciprocal relationship whether its to each other or what we’re reading, or our relations.
What did you think of Occupy Wall Street which at its very heart was about spending time with one another?
I thought it was beautiful. I loved the organic nature. I love the messiness of it. To me that is real. That is an ecological model. And yet the critics were saying, “Who’s in charge?” We don’t know how to deal with circles, spirals. We only know hierarchies and what I love about Occupy Wall Street is that it’s asking us to use a different kind of model.
I’ve seen you asked, what might a different sort of power look like. Have you ever tasted, felt, had a glimpse of that different sort of power?
I see it among women. I saw it in Rwanda. In the village, they listen, they understand struggle, they’re not privileged. I see it whenever I’m in a wild place. That’s a very different kind of power that’s predicated on humility and respect…
You come from a traditional culture that has certain edicts—you must have children, you must keep a journal. You both, you and your mother, broke those edicts, and yet you clearly value, continuity, connection, tradition. How do we take the bits we like of our traditions and and at the same time allow a celebration of impermanence into our worldview?
I don’t know. I’m struggling with that. I mean I know the things I have been given within my Mormon culture—and I’m certainly not orthodox, and I don’t practice the religion, but I do practice some of the ideals I was raised with: taking care of one another, caring about community. I’m a great believer in prayer. Not praying to a white-haired, white-bearded, white male god, but being in prayer, which, again, is that act of listening. So those are tenets I respect and adhere to. They’re certainly not unique to Mormonism, but they inform my spirituality…
A lot of people right now, looking at the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, are very afraid of what they hear about Mormonism: the Temple, the secrets, the ideas about dominion. What about those parts of Mormonism?
I think there is reason to fear the Mormon Church. I would say the Mormon Church is a corporation. They have huge holdings and tremendous power and regardless of what candidate Mitt Romney says, I believe that [if Romney is elected president] the Mormon Church will have a say in governance. It will be subtle, it will be invisible, but it will be there.
What would it look like?
I think we just have to look at [Proposition 8] the proposition in California against gay marriage. That would be an example….