Terry Tempest Williams gets at the nature of things

March 30, 2017

“I don’t know when I have felt such a spirit of place, and I mean that,” said Terry Tempest Williams, internationally celebrated environmental author, activist and defender of America’s wild places. She was addressing a full Roy Room — nearly 300 students, faculty, staff and members of the wider community — in the Dion Family Student Center Wednesday afternoon.

After a day of interacting with Saint Michael’s College students and faculty, Tempest Williams, a naturalist who has been called  a “citizen-writer” and is known for eloquently promoting an ethical stance toward life, said she wanted to break from the planned text for her talk, based on the positive perceptions she had absorbed about St. Mike’s all day.

Her opening words honored the pedagogy of literature/environmental studies Professor Nat Lewis, praised an animated and memorable “circle of women” discussion that she greatly enjoyed with students, and noted the College’s strong spiritual roots. “I think this is a powerful place that has a deep tradition in your campus ministry, the Edmundites, the tradition here with Selma [and] the priests, in France and now here, the idea of globalization, and volunteer efforts that are part of the culture here,” she said. “I’ve seen that today and felt it and it all made differences in my sensibility of what I want to talk about today.”

Tempest Williams’ presentation of just over an hour included readings from her essays about experiences with nature and family relationships, her conversational sharing of personal stories, including ones about moving and dramatic encounters with animals and trees and all natural things in her beloved U.S. national parks – “hearing” sequoias and watching bison appear to ritually mourn loss in dignity after a wolf-kill in Yellowstone, her favorite “Mother Mountain” from childhood among the Grand Tetons where she’d visit with her dad — and engaging in a question-and-answer session before signing books afterward.

The importance of community and relationships were recurring themes, relating in particular to the recent U.S. presidential election and present political climate. “I think these are difficult times and when we don’t speak to that it does violence to all of us,” she said, “so I want to talk about some hard things.” When we think of social justice and service, she said, “We also have to be in service not just of the political body but the spiritual body since it affects everything we do.”

Tempest Williams, soft-spoken yet intense and earnest, told the audience about her own background and family relationships in some detail in order to humanize and dramatize her points: she told of being raised in Utah as a 6th generation Mormon, though she no longer practices the faith tradition; about hard but good conversations in recent months with family members who disagreed politically with her in the last election in particular (they supported Trump, she decidedly did not); about her 40-plus years of marriage to her husband and their shared connections to some of the nation’s great natural places; and about a hard relationship with a brother battling addictions (something she said we all do to some degree, whatever the “addiction” might be).

Tempest Williams suggested the November election was jarring to her as she pondered the possible outcomes on the environment and the nation’s  political/social climate, “but I am trying to shape my despair in some sort of action” — including by going into nature more, as she did after first learning the results, she said. The speaker proposed “purpose — persistence capable of cracking stone,” adding also, “Let us hold each other close and be kind. What has been hidden is now exposed.”

The human heart, Tempest Williams said, “is the first home of democracy.” To her, conversation and talking to our neighbors and friends and trying to really listen is crucial at this time. She gave examples of how that had played among her own family and neighbors recently and observed the necessity for herself and others to be purposeful about not lashing out, but rather to listen to what others have to say even if it goes against the grain. “With a name like Tempest I have a high propensity for rage!” she said.

One of her stories was about a family dinner where she and her siblings really heard one another as never before by trying to understand where the other was coming from and finding common ground, which felt like an important breakthrough; or an encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness who came to a door and them having tea together getting to know one another as human beings despite initial mutual wariness and ingrained prejudices. She also read a long story she recently wrote called, “Above the Arctic Circle,” saying it was  the first time she had publically shared it. It was an essay, animated with poetic language, about being out in the Arctic natural world on a recent visit there with her husband following a hard encounter with her brother, interweaving thoughts about their relationship and the wilderness. “In the wilderness there is no shame, only the forward movement of life and the inevitable end,” she read.

The story wound down with rich language and ideas typical of the day’s presentation: “Relationship we think is destroyed can be returned. The scales of equilibrium can be found in wilderness …wilderness is the source of what we can imagine and what we cannot — the taproot of consciousness. It will survive us.”

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