Don’t Look Away: Lessons from Activist Author Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams, press photo from her website Photo: © Debra Anderson.
Terry Tempest Williams, press photo from her website Photo: © Debra Anderson.

Although Terry Tempest Williams is known as an activist in Utah, her home state, she is better known nationally as a writer. She has published fifteen books including her most well-known title “Refuge” about the dire consequences of development flooding a wildlife refuge near the Great Salt Lake and the corresponding death of her mother at 53 from a cancer that she, too, would later experience.  Her most recent book is “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.” In the Los Angeles Review of Books she says of that book,  “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.”

She has written articles for many publications such as High Country News. To some, she is the John Muir, the Rachel Carson, the Thoreau, and the Aldo Leopold of our time. Her recognitions include The Wilderness Society’s Robert Marshall Award, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association, and the Wallace Stegner Award given by The Center for the American West. She is also the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism and the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award honoring a distinguished record of leadership in American conservation.

I had the privilege of participating in a writers retreat with Terry Tempest Williams in November at Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California. There were approximately 60 participants; some were professional writers while some were beginners. The retreat had a profound impact on me and I believe it is safe to say every single participant was struck by the depth of Ms. Williams’ talent, her observations of the natural world, and most importantly by her sincere honesty and care for the earth and all its inhabitants.

Cover image of The Hour of the Land, by Terry Tempest Williams.
Cover image of The Hour of the Land, by Terry Tempest Williams.

Lesson One: Dig deep in your writing. When you think you have gotten there, dig deeper. Writing is not just observational, it is personal. There has to be “you” in it.

This lesson was demonstrated as we began the first evening. Ms. Williams’ brother had committed suicide three months before and she began by reading an essay she had written about her love for him and his death. She wrote of how she and another brother witnessed the cremation of her brother at the funeral home in Salt Lake City; laying hands on and placing feathers on his body before it was placed in the furnace, watching the director carefully, reverently going through the motions of turning his body into the dust his siblings would take and scatter on a mountain. I was struck not only by the beauty and emotion of her words, but by her ability—in just three months’ time—to gather thoughts, put them to paper, work them toward a singular piece and then to read them aloud to a group of writers she did not know. In allowing us into her deep sorrow and gratitude for her brother, she allowed us to look deeper within ourselves and our writing.

Terry Tempest Williams was raised Mormon but has expanded her beliefs to include themes and stories from other religions. She was chosen to be the 2018 Artist in Residence at the Harvard School of Divinity and spent a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Of her work there she wrote, “To be able to work within the context of world religions as it relates to eco-spirituality in all disciples is invigorating to me.”  Her predecessors include Toni Morrison, Stephen Jay Gould, and Russell Banks. In her final lecture, titled “The Liturgy of Hope,” she encouraged a meditative, reflective life. In her lecture she asked, “Do we have the strength within ourselves to slow down, to make the necessary changes personally, structurally, and institutionally…so the life around us can flourish? Are we allowing ourselves to be undone by beauty?”

I had seen Ms. Williams once before, not in the western landscape she loves, but in front of the White House, where along with Congressman Jared Huffman she was protesting the removal of critical acres in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monuments. Ms. Williams had been an important voice in the establishment of both. Now, they were under assault. Like Muir, Carson, and other writers, she is not content just to provide inspiring words—she is an engaged activist. Two years ago, she and her husband, Brooke Williams, protested climate change by bidding on Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases. Their winning bids on 1,120 acres north of Arches National Park prompted them to incorporate their own energy company. The Interior Department refunded the Williams’ money and withheld the leases, which the Williamses unsuccessfully appealed.

Lesson Two: If you want to know the story, don’t look away.

This lesson is illustrated not only by her personal story of her brother but also in her work with saving natural areas. She is not squeamish about looking directly on defeats as well as the joy of successes. She is a credible and articulate voice for the world around her. Ms. Williams could easily have arrived post-cremation to receive her brother’s ashes. In her conservation work she could easily use her lofty author’s perch to tell others what to do. Instead she is on the ground, a witness to the perils of the earth. In her Harvard lecture, she asked, “Are we watching, are we listening, hands on the earth, eyes looking upward?”

Lesson Three:  Listening to one another is a gift.

Her challenge to dig deep was met by each retreat participant on the last day as we read personal  two-minute essays on love, nature, rejection by family, personal injury and how lives are tied indelibly to our landscapes of hope, our homes. In the Las Angeles Review of Books interview she said “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.” At the retreat, writers dug deep into their lives, writing, and landscapes. After the last person read their offering, there were a few tears and a collective deep sigh of appreciation.  Ms. Williams responded to the depth of the writers’ honesty by omitting a final question and answer session and, instead, ended with grateful silence.

Last Lesson: “My home gets very, very clean when I face a writing deadline.”

My home is spotless right now.

You can learn more about Terry Tempest Williams at her website: