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Terry Tempest Williams at Aspen Winter Words

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Published: Louis Gakumba
ALL |

ASPEN – Anger doesn’t live very visibly on Terry Tempest Williams. Her voice is that of a mother in soothing-her-child mode, her face is soft and open.

But there are her words, plain and naked and out front. “I am angry. I am outraged,” begins the narrative to her recent essay that is the centerpiece of the current issue of Orion magazine. Similarly, in the opening chapter to “Refuge,” her highly regarded historical memoir from 1991, she declares, “I knew rage. It was fire in my stomach with no place to go,” before describing thrusting her middle finger a few inches from a man’s face.

There is this circumstance of her life, a weight she has known since childhood: Cancer runs strong among the women in her family. Nine women in the family have had cancer; seven have died, including her mother, whose cancer experience is one of the threads in “Refuge.”

And there is her chosen field. Much of Williams’ writing has addressed the natural environment, a subject which, studied at the close-in range which is Williams’ usual perspective, seems inevitably to raise one’s ire. In “Refuge,” alongside the cancer story, is a narrative about the birds of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, near the Great Salt Lake in Williams’ native Utah, and the peculiar environmental upheavals that are disturbing the animals’ habitat. Reading the book now, it’s impossible not to think that Williams may have been taking the pulse of the Earth as it entered the early stages of climate change.

The article in Orion is about last spring’s oil eruption in the Gulf of Mexico. Williams’ story details the experiences of various fishermen, restaurant owners and activists. “Every person in the Gulf said two things,” Williams told me Tuesday evening, in her room at the Aspen Square hotel. “They said they no longer knew what it meant to be an American; they didn’t know who to believe or who to trust. And everyone cried, and then apologized for crying.”

Williams understands the tears. “What kind of person would you be if you didn’t cry?” she asked. “If your way of life, your being, is being decimated, how do you contend with that? How do you not be undone by that?”

Those are questions that the 55-year-old has clearly wrestled with. And for her, the answer, the way not to be undone by such tragedy, is to keep your eyes open to the magnificence that exists alongside it. In “Refuge,” it is in her well of love of birds, and of her mother. In the Orion article, it is in building a sense of community with the residents of the Gulf. And always, it is in the act of story-telling.

“Bearing witness is not a passive act,” said Williams, who opens the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series with an appearance at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Paepcke Auditorium. (The event is co-presented by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.) “It is engagement. It’s always had that sense of urgency and poignancy for me. That’s what I love about non-fiction writing.”

Williams’ latest book, a collection of letters and observations that touch on subjects including prairie dogs facing the elimination of their habitat and the healing of war survivors in Rwanda, is “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” The title can serve as a neat summation of her dilemma, but Williams says that keeping her sanity while staring straight into the environmental abyss is not always simple, not even always possible.

“This story took such a toll,” she said of the work she did in the Gulf. “There are certain things I wish I hadn’t seen. Flying over the Gulf of Mexico, as far as you could see, from horizon to horizon, was oil. I can’t get that vision out of my head.”

The challenge as a writer is to take that frustration and find a way to make it meaningful and purposeful, to create an outlet for futility.

“How do you take that anger and make it sacred rage?” Williams said. “How can you make it productive, so people can hear you? Not make it an assault, but keep the conversation going?

“That’s what it is to be human – to not avert our gaze from difficult situations.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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