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A Planetary Pause With Terry Tempest Williams

Joe Donahue and Terry Tempest Williams at UAlbany's Page Hall 4/20/20
Joe Donahue and Terry Tempest Williams at UAlbany's Page Hall 4/20/20

Terry Tempest Williams is renowned for her singular body of literature on the environment and our experiences of home which makes her a perfect guest for this 50-th Anniversary of Earth Day Celebration.

Her last book “Erosion: Essays of Undoing,” explores this connection, particularly to her home state of Utah, as an evolutionary process and how our undoing of the self, self-centeredness, extractive capitalism, fear, tribalism can also be our becoming, creating room for change and progress.

Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of numerous books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and When Women Were Birds. She is the co-editor of Library of America’s brand-new: American Birds: A Literary Companion. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is currently the Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School.

Joe Donahue:

Her newest book that she has edited is brand new, called "American Birds: A Literary Companion". She is one of my favorite human beings. It is a great pleasure to welcome Terry Tempest Williams to this special Earth Day Roundtable. How are you, dear friend?

Terry Tempest Williams  1:08 

I'm well as can be expected, and I'm so happy to be in conversation with you, Joe. I love you, as you know, and I'm so relieved to hear that you're okay and working. And we're all the beneficiaries of your voice. So thank you.

Joe Donahue  1:22 

Well, thank you very much. That means so much to me. The last time we talked was about "Erosion", when it first came out in the fall and, and just what I-I read a moment ago about this, this idea of the self and self-centeredness, and extractive capitalism and fear and tribalism. All of that, of course, was present in the fall when we talked. But my goodness, look at this, it's just a microcosm now, isn't it? Of seeing where we are in this country as we deal- and in this country in this world- and when we deal with this global pandemic.

Terry Tempest Williams  1:56 

It's astonishing. You know, and on one hand, I think we knew this was coming. We knew we were out of balance. We knew the pressures we were placing on communities, both human and wild, globally with the press of the fossil fuel industry. But I don't think, at least, you know, I couldn't have imagined this, that it could happen so quickly, that within a matter, at least in this country, a matter of days, suddenly we were all sent home. And the irony of that, you know, globally, that something that we cannot see, the unseen, would send us all home, to our knees, in this planetary pause. It's incredibly powerful and heartbreaking, and is exposing so many cracks in our society. So it's, it's humbling and no one is immune.

Joe Donahue  2:52 

This "planetary pause", as you call it, and so beautifully, you talk about the fear that comes from that which is is obvious. Do you think we'll we'll come to a point where we- it will also teach us vital lessons that will, that will help us grow?

Terry Tempest Williams  3:10 

I mean, I hope, but I'm not sure. I'm teaching a class online through the, at the Harvard Divinity School and one of my students yesterday said, you know, "I'm so afraid that this is going to end before I've learned all I need to know." And I think that, that was so well said, you know, and when we see in this country, you know, the protests and and a president who is saying we need to get "back to normal" and it's the "economy". You know, what have we learned in that? I mean, I think we're in the middle of this pandemic, we're not at the end. And I think our character as Americans, is that, you know, we can fight this. We can, you know, overcome this and we can do it quickly. We are not prone to being patient and I think this virus is demanding that we be patient. You know, talking to my nieces, it was fascinating. They both have young children. And I was saying, you know, "How are you doing?" And they said, "Why had we over scheduled our lives and our children so much?" You know, basketball games, soccer games, science classes, art classes. She said, "Our children have never been happier. And they're playing with each other. They're using their imagination. Why were we doing this?" Brooke is making bread and we're eating at home again, by necessity and, you know, they say alongside toilet paper, yeast is harder to come by. So, you know, I do think that we're going back to essential things. You know, I think we're seeing privilege. We're seeing, you know, the way that we're experiencing this pandemic is very different from the way many other people are experiencing the pandemic. And so my question is, you know, what can we do to stand in solidarity and support those who are having to be working on the frontlines. Our son, Louis is a manager, at, and the name dismays me, you know, an Amazon Wish Fulfillment Center. The workers there do not have masks, they do not have hand sanitizers, they are not able to, you know, have safe social distancing. And they're working 40, 60, 80 hours a week. Most of them are black, and most of them will continue working in these conditions because they're living paycheck to paycheck. And Louis has written again and again, and no responses to those above. That concerns me and this is a microcosm of I think, many of the situations. I look at what's happening to our south of us, in Indian Country. On the Diné Reservation, the Navajo country, there's a curfew in effect, you know, masks are now mandatory. and I was looking in the 1918 pandemic in Utah, 2000 Navajos died. So again, how can you wash your hands when you don't even have water? These are the inequities I'm seeing. And you know, I just spoke with friends in Rwanda, they can't get food and it's starting to take hold there. So, you know, I walk in the desert in these vast, beautiful, open spaces. And I feel, you know, beauty is is taking my one hand and terror is taking the other and how do we bring these two hands together in- in prayer?

Joe Donahue  6:36 

What do you think it is about nature and our returning to it and having it help us and cure us and soothe us? That we- I mean, one of the things that you talk about, your nieces being so- their kids being so happy that they have some freedom in they're being home. I see that with, with my nieces and nephews as well. But there is also this, this idea that we, we have time to go out we have time to, to explore. And we have time to spend time with nature and it is where people are, are going. But as you say, bringing those two hands together because there is the other side which is the fear, which is the terror, which is the- of not knowing what that brings and not knowing who else is there with you. That underscores at least to me that everyone seems to be now questioning everything which does not seem healthy at all.

Terry Tempest Williams  7:37 

I think that's right. Again, I just think personally, you know, how my brother is here with us, my youngest brother, my only surviving brother, and he had Coronavirus in Salt Lake City for four weeks and we almost lost him. He contracted Desert fever in 2015, it went into pneumonia, he lost part of his lung. And my biggest fear has been, you know, would he catch this? He did. And he lays pipe and one of the laborers came from California and was sick, and immediately it went right through the crew. He's here now. My heart is calm. We've been talking about what that was. He's a man of few words. And I actually interviewed him, because I thought, that's how I can hear what really happened. And, it's so humbling. I mean, I think he survived because of his two dogs. He said, I didn't want to die. And he toughed it out. And, you know, finally we, we realized how serious it was and my cousin who's a doctor was able to get him what he needed. But again, I just think about all the people who are dying alone. You know, what are the lessons that we learned through that? You know, Hank said "I learned to appreciate the people who cared. I learned the mental stamina to just stay with this and not let fear overtake me."  And I'll never forget. I texted him and I said, "Are you okay?" And he said, "No, I can't breathe." And I said, you know, "What can we do? "And he said, he texted me and said, "Ter, whatever is going to happen already has, I will not live in fear."  And that really has become my mantra, to not let fear overtake us, to be present in the moment at hand, to hold that burning core of care. And look around us in our own Valley, in Castle Valley. You know, who needs help, who, in our families in our circle of community, and how can we be of use? This is what I'm thinking about. And I'm very aware with my students, the needs there. With this younger generation, who they're not going to be able to have a high school graduation or college graduation. And we can say, but "Does that matter?" It does, because they're living in a time of deep uncertainty. You know what jobs they thought they would have, what interviews they had lined up. I feel like my task as a woman at 64, in the desert safe, healthy, is to listen, to serve in the ways that I can. And take care of those closest to us.

Joe Donahue  10:28 

Writer Terry Tempest Williams joins us on this Earth Day, the 50th anniversary. She is currently the writer in residence at the Harvard Divinity School.

I can't help but think, that as I mentioned, the, the last book "Erosion: Essays of Undoing" had you continued to write- that this is the continuation of the undoing.

Terry Tempest Williams  10:49 

It is, and you know, each of us I think, has gifts. You have a voice and you're using it. You know, I have a pen and I'm trying to use it. I think each of us can figure out what that looks like and how we can serve in this moment. My doctor, my physician happens to be in charge of the University of Utah Medical Center, which is a satellite hospital for rural communities in the Intermountain West. They all come here. And, you know, I sent him some sage. And he wrote back and said, here's, "Here's what we're doing". And it looked like a military installation, with Quonset huts and tents. And what came out of my mouth was, "How can I serve you? What can I do?" And he said, "I'm going to take you up on that." And within a day, I got a call from a woman who's in charge of patient experience, and the Resiliency Center. She wrote me the most moving letter of what the doctors and nurses and frontline hospital workers are facing, I was so moved, and I realized it was so much larger than one person that I opened it up to our class of 15 people from the Divinity School and said "We have a chance to rethink what chaplaincy looks like". I said  "But it's up to you, the doors open. The bureaucratic restraints are gone. Think about it." Within two days, they had organized themselves. They had each identified what their gifts were. One woman, it was organizing. Another said, I'll be the liaison between us and the hospital. Another said, I'm a photographer, I do photo journalism, I can do this. poets, essayists, artists. And within days, we had a four week curriculum that could be handed to this hospitalist and a website and they call it Renewal. And, you know, they can have access to poetry and music and the things that can offer solace and peace in a very chaotic, heart wrenching time. And it's been really a beautiful thing that was unexpected and just happened. A door opened and the students walked in. And I think that's what we can find each of us in our own way, in the communities that we call home.

Joe Donahue  13:13 

My wife was asking me that last night of "What can we do?" and we've been doing certain things and helping people and- but you do feel, I guess "empty" is a word, or "irrelevant". You don't know what is done. You have many restrictions, and there's a lot going on. And yet, you have time, and you have motivation. So, it is important to find that thing, isn't it? To understand how you can help even if it's one person- but hopefully more, in a community setting.

Terry Tempest Williams  13:51 

It's just again, these acts of kindness. And I'm fascinated by you know, we hear a lot about "Who are the essential workers?" "Non-Essential activities", "Non-Essential travel"...

Joe Donahue  14:00 


Terry Tempest Williams  14:01 

And, I was thinking about how the things we have deemed non-essential or luxuries: art, music, film, literature, the natural world. Suddenly, they're essential. It's what's keeping us sane, to be able to walk, to be able to listen to music, to be able to watch movies, to be able to read- read to each other. I think that's a really interesting, chiropractic shift culturally. But I think nothing takes the place of touch. And a student of mine Emily Duma wrote this beautiful line, I haven't forgotten, "What is the half life of touch?" And what does that look like now? And I'm mindful of my elders. You know, my father who's 87, dear friends who are in their 80s alone, and I try and make a point of calling them at least every other day. Just that, I think is such a small thing, but it looms large. You know, how do we begin to live with uncertainty and I keep thinking, what else is there? I keep in touch with Jonah Yellowman, who's a medicine person who lives without water in the greatest of beauty in Monument Valley and we talk every Sunday. And you know, he just keeps saying, "Terry, go out and gather sage and cedar, drink that tea three times a day." These kinds of sharing of information. A friend, Victor Masayesva at Hopi was talking about how they're thinking about the unseen, and respecting that. Whether it's a virus or care, or whatever spiritual strength, we can find, you know, to really value the unseen, that which is not tangible and yet has brought us to our knees, into our own homes.

Joe Donahue  15:55 

I just thought of the-of the term that you use with your students of this project. That you and your students are working on, Renewal. That's renewal for these frontline workers who are, are looking for, for respite, but also an overall renewal, right? I mean, coming out of this, whatever this is, of coming out of this, we'll we'll all need some sort of renewal.

Terry Tempest Williams  16:20 

And to really think about what we're experiencing, and I think it's going to go on, for some time. And I think it's important to, to keep the long view that this isn't a month long. I don't even have the words for what this is. But I think this is, where we are, and how do we be present in it? Uh, you know, I love the idea that we're all dreaming again. I mean, what did it take for us to all slow down? And I can tell you personally, as a friend, Joe, I don't want to go back to the life I was living. I mean, it's madness. And I think we'll look back at that time as a tremendous extravagance and I was thinking, you know, we're now in the 10 year anniversary of the BP oil spill. Yesterday, we're told that the price of oil is zero. And that the producers of oil are begging people to take oil off their hands. And I thought, this is not just metaphor. This is fact. And now it's below zero. And I spoke to Becky Duet, who was one of the women I met during an assignment to do a story about the BP oil spill in Louisiana. And, you know, it's not over. Everyone says, you know, the Gulf is flourishing. She lost her job. She lost her livelihood as a shrimper. She lost her business, which was a convenience store, and she's lost her health. And she's just recovering from Coronavirus. And yet, yesterday she wrote to me and she said to me, "Terry, our family, we just bought 50 pounds of shrimp, and we're having a shrimp boil. What else are we supposed to do in the middle of a pandemic?" And you know, she's Cajun and, and they're survivors. But she said to me, "Please, don't ever think that we're not still paying the price of that oil spill." And I think, you know, we are not going to understand what we're in the midst of for a long time to come.

Joe Donahue  18:20 

Because it's always a moving target, isn't it? I mean, we don't know ultimately, what- because we keep on thinking about going back to normalcy, but I agree with you. I mean, I don't, we're never going to be the same. And that's probably in some cases, good in some cases- for many people horrible, because they've lost their jobs. And many people, of course, have lost their lives. Which was something I was going to ask you about, because, of course, with the situation with your brother, do you think- one of my big concerns of this whole time is that we- that many of us seem to focus on, of what we're losing, how our individual routines have changed, and the things that we have and the things that we don't have, and schools being closed and our routine is just upenended. And, and not enough about the, the tens of thousands of people who, who are dying in this country, just in this country, and the thousands of people who die every day, which, and maybe it's just me, I it just doesn't seem that we, that we respect or understand that enough.

Terry Tempest Williams  19:27 

I don't think we're dealing with it. And I was so moved by the Boston Globe who dared to print 16 pages of obituaries on Sunday. And I read them, I took most of the day reading them and it was so moving. You know, and you think... I just I don't even have the language, you know, we have how many deaths 43,000 today. That's 43,000 individuals who were loved, and who haven't been able to have proper funerals. You know, 800,000 people now who have tested positive? I think it's really important that we remember these are people. I have thought every hour of my brother Dan, whose death by suicide, as you and I have talked about it, in July of 2018. I thought, where would he be right now? What would he be doing? How would we be taking care of him? And here's something, I certainly hadn't thought about sharing. But you're Joe, and you're my friend. And you've asked this question. You know, when do we really understand what happens and what has happened? And Brooke, my husband, on Sunday afternoon, three o'clock, said to Hank and I, "Do you want to go through Dan's box of, of his treasures of the things that were special to him?" And we both looked at each other and, and then we said, "Sure, we hadn't thought about it." I didn't even know Brooke had that box. It's been a year and a half. And then three in the afternoon until seven, we went through this box of Dan's papers and books. And you know what we found? We found his form of a suicide note.

And Hank and I were in Dan's apartment after his death. We saw the books, but we didn't notice what Dan had done. Nor did we notice a photograph a series of four photographs that he left. And it was essentially his suicide note, and I think he knew us well enough, he certainly knew me well enough that I would have looked at the books on his desk. What I didn't see in that wave of grief, was it- there were five books that were prominently marked with bookmarks and the last one was bookmark with a feather. And the books, I've got them right here on my desk, "Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary", Kafka "Aphorisms", "Markings"by Doug Hammarskjöld, "When Women Were Birds", which I've given Dan, and the last one was "The Myth of Sisyphus", in each of those books, he had marked a passage. And in this literary- which he had a master's degree in Wittgenstein, he was a philosopher. He answered our questions. When did he decide to do it and what, what date he had that date, we now know why. He told us how he was going to do it. He told us the state of mind he was in, he told us why. In in the end, he marked the last page of Camus', "The Myth of Sisyphus" that you know, of having to keep rolling up that boulder and having it come back down, rolling it back up, having it come back down, rolling it back up, having to come back down, until he realized he can't do this anymore. That this is his fate, and the immense amount of freedom that came from that, and there's a line that says, "Please, no, I was happy in that moment." You know that that he was released from that. And this is a contrarian thing to say, a dangerous thing to say to you on radio. But, you know, we were moving so fast and doing what we could each- to survive the grief of his death. We didn't have the time to find what he was wanting to tell us. And, we called my father and read these passages to him, where he is quarantined in St. George, Utah. And who would have thought that the healing of our brother's death by suicide would have come in this moment wrought with anxiety? You know, to me, these are the guests that come unexpectedly when you have time.

And would you believe me, Joe, if I told you that when we were reading these, a wake of turkey vultures circled over us, and four of them landed, and one was perched on the fence post near us and spread its wings, like a black cross in the desert. And there was a black cross in Dan's box among treasures. I don't see these as coincidences, I see them as moments of awakening awarenesses, synchronicities. And to me, it's when the inner and outer are one. And in the midst of deep suffering, I think there are these grace notes. If we can take this time for what it is, a planetary pause, that I think ultimately can restore us to an equilibrium we haven't known. The other side, the great paradox is the deaths, the illnesses in all of our families, no one is, is going to be untouched by this.

Joe Donahue  25:00 

Terry Tempest Williams is our guest, the name of her latest book is "Erosion: Essays of Undoing". Do you think? I mean, obviously, this would have impacted you. But given that you were able to experience it with your brother, which may not have happened prior to this pandemic, and the fact that you have the time, it allows you to process it in a different way?

Terry Tempest Williams  25:27 

Absolutely. I would be in Cambridge, I would be flying here and there. I don't want to live like that anymore. I'm thinking about what is essential, and how shall we live? And on Earth Day, which I've always had mixed feelings about, movies like Mother's Day and Father's Day, although I think it's important to honor what this is, but I think it's, it's how we choose to live every day of our lives. And talking to my native friends, you know, what they were saying, just last week to me were, the pandemic isn't going to get better until we get better, that there are the externals, the things outside us that matter. But it has to be met with, the inside of us that the virus is not something outside of us it is within us, of Earth, and the earth will survive. And if we are going to survive with the earth, I think it has to be deep, deep changes. And if I'm wanting the world to change, I have to look in the mirror and say, "How might I change myself?"

Joe Donahue  26:40 

With that said, Do you believe that as the turkey vultures were turning and ultimately perched, that your brother was was there?

Terry Tempest Williams  26:53 

You know, my own belief system Joe, is that that was Dan. You know, if you believe in these kinds of things, which I do, not in a Christian sense, not in a religious sense, but in a deeply spiritual sense- that I think there was a healing there. Dan expressed himself and I think we are, again, each in their own way with the gifts that are ours are coming to a reckoning, which is an awakening. And it goes back to the mantra of "we are eroding and evolving at once, together". And it is not without its, its pain and peril. But there are these moments of grace. If we can pay attention and I feel like that is what we are being given the opportunity to do. To listen, to pay attention, to reflect, to dream. And in so doing dream, another way of being.

Joe Donahue  27:53 

Do you think that reading the obituaries opened you to opening that box?

Terry Tempest Williams  28:01 

You know, that just makes me weep, Joe. I hadn't thought about that. But, yes.

I mean, one act opens the door to another, right?  And, you know, I feel like whatever editor- and I have a friend who writes obituaries for the Boston Globe, Bryan Marquard - and I know, the seriousness in which he writes these obituaries for people. You know, that one decision, we have to show the face of those who are dying among us in Boston. It may have opened my heart so that we could say yes to Brooke and not say no, because we didn't really know what we were opening. But it was the opening of our own hearts and healings.

Joe Donahue  28:47 

But we're also human. I mean, if, if I did that, I think I would have trouble walking for a couple of days, you know, keeping your head up. When, once you've come to that and had that experience.

Terry Tempest Williams  29:00 

I mean, it's so powerful. I mean, this is why I love life. One can never know. And I, every day, I wake up and I think "What's today?", you know "What's going to be today?".

May I just read one paragraph?

Joe Donahue  29:12 


Terry Tempest Williams  29:13 

Because it's the simple things. It's, I think it's a re-domestication of our life, even from one who refuses to be tamed.

"This morning, I asked Brooke what we could do to make this day feel productive. He said, not that interested. "I don't know, but I'm sure you'll figure it out." So, I walked into the kitchen and sat down on the floor cross legged and began to clean out a particular cupboard. It held Brooke's grandmother, Helen Spencer Williams silver tea set that his mother Rosemary had given to us when we were first married. It was almost black with tarnish. I thought about my own grandmothers, and how they would always polish the silver before a dinner party or holiday gathering or Sunday family dinner after church and I suddenly longed for those gatherings. And before I realized that I instinctively began polishing Helen's tea set. Each piece in hand, revealing such beauty of form and purpose. I thought about her hands, a century ago, doing the same ritual that took time. And I remembered family stories about her generosity of spirit, how kind she was, an honor the ... of each person. She was said to be curious, and I always felt close to her, though we never met. And then I took the shining tea set outside in the desert and put it on our table, and I thought about how wonderful that day will be.

We can invite neighbors, friends over for tea, and I found myself hoping everyone in the valley was okay and healthy, and my thoughts traveled to friends and family far and near. As my anxious mind returned to me, I sat down at the table and listened to the quiet and was grateful for the wind."

Joe Donahue  31:00 

Well that's it right? I mean, we should just listen more. Listen to the wind, listen to just listen.

Terry Tempest Williams  31:08 

And I want to thank you. Your voice is a great comfort to me. It always has been, always will be. And I just wish you well and your family and-

Joe Donahue  31:17 

Well to you, as well.

Terry Tempest Williams  31:19 

The listening audience in the New York area. We are in this together, and we will get through this together.

Joe Donahue  31:26 

Thanks so much for being with us. Terry Tempest Williams' new book is "Erosion: Essays of Undoing", that was published in the fall. The newest is a collection, it's called "American Birds: A Literary Companion". It's edited by Andrew Rubenfeld and Terry Tempest Williams. You're listening to The Roundtable on WAMC.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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