Terry Tempest Williams: Erosion
This keynote talk was delivered at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.
Wind, water, and time are agents of erosion evident in the desert. They have shaped the spectacular physical landscape of our nation from the Great Smokies to the Grand Canyon. But Terry Tempest Williams is also seeing another kind of erosion in America: erosion of democracy; erosion of science, decency, compassion, and trust. “How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?” she asks. “What if our undoing leads us to our becoming? We are eroding and evolving, at once.” Terry Tempest Williams, one of this country’s most beloved authors and defenders of public lands, and social and environmental justice, comes to us from her desert home in Utah. She writes, “Beauty is its own resistance. Water can crack stone.”
Terry Tempest Williams, one of the greatest living authors from the American West, is also a longtime award-winning conservationist and activist, who has taken on, among other issues, nuclear testing, the Iraq War, the neglect of women’s health, and the destruction of nature, especially in her beloved “Red Rock” region of her native Utah and in Alaska.
To learn more about Terry Tempest Williams, visit her website.
Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.
Introduction by Nina Simons, Bioneers co-founder and Chief Relationship Strategist.
This year, it is particularly joyful for me to be able to welcome back to Bioneers several women who have been incredibly important as friends, inspirations, and role models to me. Among them, none has been more influential in inspiring my life’s journey than Terry Tempest Williams. [APPLAUSE] Yeah.
Terry is a naturalist, author, educator, artist, and activist. She’s one of the greatest engaged nature writers in the lineage of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Mary Oliver, and Thoreau. But her body of work, which includes over a dozen extraordinary books, transcends any pigeonholes.
Her latest book of essays, which is just out, called Erosion meets us exactly at the nexus of this moment. Terry is in fact one of the greatest writers period, with the countless literary awards she has received and their testament to that.
Coming from a culture that’s encouraged us to specialize, to confine our purview and interests in one direction, Terry’s writing has inspired me to slough off that conditioning and to instead embrace all my curiosities and passions. The unfettered wildness of her mind and heart have modeled for me a kind of systems thinking that wraps her arms around the whole caboodle, linking the inner experience with the outer worlds while exploring the connections among art, ecology, women, politics, social healing, indigeneity, democracy, wild lands, family, and faith. She’s long been a passionate advocate and activist for peace, indigenous rights, environmental and social justice, women’s health and freedom of speech, and one of the most ardent defenders of wild lands, especially the transcendentally beautiful Red Rock Canyon country of her home state of Utah.
She is a woman who contains many seeming paradoxes, someone who gracefully reconciles her family’s deep ancestral roots in the earliest days of Utah’s Church of Latter Day Saints with a thoroughly modern, exquisitely refined, sophisticated sensibility of the sacred, someone who can testify passionately but politely before Congress one day, but get arrested in an act of principled civil disobedience on the next. She is a naturalist, scholar, and beloved professor, but also a wanderer, a sublime poet, an artist, and a desert mystic.
Through it all Terry has taught me how to transcend apparent polarities, that by linking paradoxes we can help to define healthy, whole systems to regenerate life itself. She’s taught me how to dance with duality to reclaim wholeness.
With all that she is, I must admit that she has had the greatest impact on me in how she is as a person herself. Her embodied essence, her purposeful presence, her radiant authenticity, and the unshakable dignity, humility, and nobility of soul that emanates from the core of her being. We all know we are living in incredibly challenging times, with the integrity of the entire biosphere and the survival of us and all our kindred species and our democracy hanging in the balance. There’s never been a time in which we need to hear and read voices who can show us how to see and feel the truth without turning away, acknowledge our pain while embracing life with love, and resist wrongs with every fiber of our being but never lose our humanity and compassion in the struggle.
Please welcome one of my greatest sheroes and beloved friends, Terry Tempest Williams. [APPLAUSE]
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS:
It is a privilege and humble joy to join you today in the name of all that binds us together in this beautiful broken world.
And to the Miwok people, thank you. Deep, deep gratitudes.
Erosion. Evolution. We are eroding and evolving at once.
All souls come here to rub the sharp edges off each other. This isn’t suffering, it’s erosion. – Chuck Palahniuk
I come from an erosional landscape in the Red Rock Desert of Southeastern Utah. To the south rise the La Sal mountains 12,000 feet high. To the north is the Colorado River running red carrying the sediments of sandstone downriver. To the west is Porcupine Rim, that holds the last light of day. And to the east is Castleton Tower, rising from the ground floor 400 feet tall. Wingate sandstone, one of the largest free-standing towers in the world, eroding.
This past summer, geologists from the University of Utah detailed the natural vibration of this sandstone tower. They enlisted two climbers to place a seismometer at the bottom of the tower and then climb and place another seismometer at the top. They wanted to listen to stone. What they found surprised them. This from Science News and the bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. It was published last month. “At about the same rate that your heart beats, a Utah rock formation called Castleton Tower gently vibrates, keeping time and keeping watch over the sandstone desert, swaying like a skyscraper, a red rock tower taps into the deep vibrations of the earth – wind, waves, and even far off earthquakes.”
“We often view such grand and prominent land forms as permanent features of our landscape when in reality they are continuously moving and evolving,” says Riley Finnegan, a graduate student and co-author of this paper.
Lastly, “Most people are in awe of its static stability and its dramatic free-standing nature, perched at the end of a ridge overlooking Castle Valley,” said the geologist Jeff Moore, who led the study. It has a kind of stoic power in its appearance. Moore and his colleagues study the vibrations of rock structures, including arches and bridges. So this isn’t unique to Castleton Tower, they just chose to focus on Castleton Tower, to understand what natural forces act on these structures. They also measure the rock’s resonance, the way the structures amplify the energy of the earth that passes through them. Castleton Tower has a pulse.
For those of us living in the valley, what we have intuited has been confirmed. Castle Rock is alive.
Let’s take this next few minutes, and I just want us to listen to the pulse of earth – Castleton Tower.
[AUDIO PLAYS RUMBLING NOISE]
The earth has a pulse, as do we. No separation.
Our pulse, the pulse of Earth, Castleton Tower, is relational, born out of love and grief, disturbance and stillness at once. There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth. – Nietzsche
To commit to a place is to commit to the shadow side of our own home ground. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t, but when we do, we must speak.
On December 28th, 2016, Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument, protecting 1.3 million acres of fragile desert lands. He heard the voices of the Diné, the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute, the mountain Ute, to the Ouray Ute and Zuni Nations. He heard them. These lands are sacred, where their prayers are spoken, where their ancestors are buried, where their ceremonies are performed. It was a handshake across history, a renewal, a commitment of trust.
Less than a year later, Donald Trump by executive order eviscerated Bears Ears National Monument, by 85%, and cut Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in half. Those protected lands, sacred lands, are now open for business to oil and gas development, to coal mining, to uranium mining, a boon to the fossil fuel industry in the midst of the climate crisis. This is my home.
What is beauty if not stillness? What is stillness if not sight? What is sight if not an awakening? What is an awakening if not now?
The American landscape is under assault by an administration that cares only about themselves. Working behind closed doors they are strategically undermining environmental protections that have been in place for decades, and they are getting away with it in practices of secrecy, in deeds of greed, in acts of violence that are causing pain. Like many, I have compartmentalized my state of mind in order to survive. Like most, I have also compartmentalized my state of Utah. It is a violence hidden that we all share.
This is the fallout that has entered our bodies, nuclear bombs tested in the desert. Boom. These are the uranium tailings left on the edges of our towns where children play. Boom. The war games played and nerve gas stored in the West desert. Boom. These are the oil and gas lines, frack lines, from Vernal to Bonanza in the Uinta Basin. Boom. This is Aneth and Montezuma Creek, the oil patches on Indian lands. Boom. Gut Bears Ears. Boom. Cut Grand Staircase Escalante in half. Boom. And every other wild place that is easier for me to defend than my own people and species. Boom. The coal and copper mines I watched expand as a child, Huntington and Kennecott. Boom. The oil refineries that foul the air and blacken our lungs in Salt Lake City, our children’s lungs. Boom. And the latest scar on the landscape, the tar sands mine in the Book Cliffs closed, now hidden, simply by its remoteness. Boom. Add the Cisco Desert where trains stop to settle the radioactive waste they carry on to Blanding. Boom. Move the uranium tailings from Moab to Crescent Junction, then bury it, still hot, in the Alkali Desert, out of sight, out of mind. Boom. See the traces of human indignities on the sands near Topaz Mountain left by the Japanese internment camps. Boom.
President Donald J. Trump can try to eviscerate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante monuments with his pen and poisonous policies. He will stand tall with other white men, who for generations have exhumed, looted, and profited from the graves of ancient ones. They will tell you Bears Ears belongs to them. Boom. Consider Senator Oren Hatch’s words regarding the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, support of the Bears Ears National Monument, the Indians, he says, “They don’t fully understand a lot of things that they are currently taking for granted on these lands; they won’t be able to do it if it’s made clearly into a monument.” And when he was asked to give examples, the Senator said, “Just take my word for it.” Boom.
This is a story, a patronizing story, a condescending story. I see my politicians and frontier Mormons discounting the tribes once again, calling them Lamanites, the rebellious ones against God, dark-skinned and cursed. That is their story. Racism is a story. The Book of Mormon is a story. [CHEERS] Boom.
Perhaps our greatest trauma living in the state of Utah is the religiosity of the Mormon patriarchy that says you have no authority to speak – women, Indians, black people, brown people, gay people, trans people. It is only the chosen ones who hold the priesthood over us and council us that their only way to heaven is through them. Boom.
All my life I was told I could not speak, that I had no voice, no power except through my father or my husband, or my bishop, or the general authorities. And then there was the prophet. Boom. I refused to perpetuate this lie, this myth, this abuse called silence. If birds had a voice, so did I. [APPLAUSE] I would tell a different story, one of beauty and abundance, and what it means to be alive.
Environmental racism is the outcome of bad stories, a byproduct of poverty. In Utah, yellow cake has dusted the lips of Navajo uranium workers for decades who are now sick or dead. Boom. There is no running water in Westwater, a reservation town adjacent to Blanding. Local municipalities refuse to provide Navajo families with a basic right, a human right. Boom. But we are not prejudiced. Boom.
If you speak of these cruelties, we, as Mormons, I am a Mormon, are seen as having betrayed our roots and our people. These are my people. Boom.
This is who I am. Boom. A white woman of privilege born of the covenant. I am not on the outside, I am on the inside. Boom. It is time to look in the mirror and reflect on the histories that are mine, that are ours. Boom. We are being told a treacherous story, that says it is an individual’s right, our hallowed state’s right, our nation’s right to destroy what is common to us all.
The earth has a pulse. We have a pulse. No separation. The land beneath our feet, the water we drink, the air that we bring gifts, breathe. Our bodies and the bodies of the state of Utah are being violated. Our eyes are closed. Our mouths are sealed. We refuse to see or say what we know to be true. Utah, this nation, is a beautiful violence. Boom.
Do we dare to see ourselves for what we are, broken and beautiful? Do we dare to see Utah for what it is, an elegant, toxic landscape where the power of oppression rules by repression, our proving grounds of fear? What are we afraid of? Exposure. Boom. Our denial is our collusion, our silence is our death. The climate is changing. We have a right and responsibility to protect each other. Resistance and insistence before the law. We are slowly dying. We are ignoring the evidence. Awareness is our prayer. Engagement is our prayer. Beauty will prevail. Native people are showing us the way. It is time to heal these lands and each other by what, by calling them sacred.
May wing beats of raven cross over us in ceremony. May we recognize our need of a collective blessing by Earth. May we ask forgiveness for our wounding of land and spirit. And may our right relationship to life be restored as we work together toward a survival shared. A story is awakening. Many stories are awakening. We are part of something so much larger than ourselves, an interconnected whole that stretches upward to the stars. Coyote in the desert is howling in the darkness, calling forth the pack, lifting up the moon.
We are eroding, we are evolving together. This is the place we create from, with love, with courage, in grief, and with anger. What do we do with our anger? With a name like Tempest, I can tell you I don’t have a lot of hope. [LAUGHTER] But I have sought wisdom from my elders, the elders that we live near – Willie Greyeyes, a community organizer who now is a county commissioner in a Navajo majority in San Juan County Utah. [APPLAUSE] When he was told that he was not a resident of the state of Utah, that it was an illegitimate election from an illegitimate candidate, whose family have lived in Navajo mountain for generations, when they asked what right he has to the state of Utah, he simply said, “My umbilical cord is buried here.” When I asked Willy what do we with do with our anger, he said, “Terry, it can no longer be about anger. It has to be about healing.” Going to the source of our pain, and recognizing it, owning it, apologizing for it, embracing it with a commitment to change.
And when I asked Jonah Yellowman, a medicine person among the Diné what he was seeing, he said, “Terry, we have to go deeper.” And so I ask us today, together, what does that look like for each of us, each of us in our own places with our own gifts, in the places we call home.
And Evangeline Gray, a medicine woman, who’s been fighting for water rights for her people in San Juan County for 30 years, still no water, she says to dwell is to see things as they are. And then you stay and fight for those things that you see for your community. It is a privilege, she said.
We are eroding and evolving at once. Perhaps Jonah’s call to go deeper is a call to acknowledge the power that resides in the Earth itself. The organic intelligence inherent in deserts and forests, rivers and oceans, and all manner of species beyond our own, even within our own bodies. We cannot create wild nature, we can only destroy it, and in the end, in breathtaking acts of repentance and renewal, try to restore what we have thoughtlessly removed at our own expense, be it wolves in the Yellowstone or willow flycatchers along the Colorado River. We are eroding and evolving at once.
How do we find the strength to not look away at all that is breaking our hearts? Hands on the earth, we remember where the source of our authentic power comes from. We have to go deeper. What has been weathered and whittled away is as beautiful as what remains – erosion, essence. We are eroding and evolving at once.
Shinran, the 14th century Buddhist poet said, This happened. Now something else can occur. We need not lose hope, we just need to locate where it dwells. To dwell is to see things as they are, and then you stay and fight for the things you love in your own community.
Castleton Tower has a pulse. We have a pulse. The pulse of the planet is in our hands. Engagement is a prayer. Boom. [APPLAUSE]