The Relationship Between Inner and Outer Work: A Conversation with Terry Tempest Williams

Following is an excerpt from Bioneers Co-Founder Nina Simons’ book Nature, Culture & the Sacred (Green Fire Press, 2018).

Terry Tempest Williams may seem at first glance to be a paradoxical figure — part desert mystic and defender of wildlands and creatures who is comfortable alone deep in the wilderness; part scientist and scholar with a highly refined literary and artistic sensibility; and a woman strongly tied to her family’s deep roots and Mormon religious heritage in Utah, and yet also a modern dissident and sophisticated, cosmopolitan citizen of the world. As such, she perfectly illustrates that amazing weaving of factors that makes for a transformative leader, in my view.

I am honored to also call Terry a beloved sister, friend and teacher, and she’s helped me understand a new relationship to paradox: she’s taught me to eschew either/or solutions, to find ways to dance with and celebrate apparent contradiction, rather than being seduced by some effort to resolve it. In embracing all those parts of herself, she’s blazed a pathway for each of us to celebrate our own inherent diversity.

She’s most often thought of as one of America’s greatest nature writers, and though her work defies comparison, she belongs in the illustrious company of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, and Henry David Thoreau. She has won many of the most prestigious literary awards, but her writing explores and illuminates so much of the human condition that it transcends any categorization.

Her writing poetically and soulfully traverses the domains of love, family, activism, religion, art, nature and the quest for healing and meaning. Witnessing how many passions and ways of being Terry weaves together into coherent narratives has given me greater permission to navigate multiple domains and systems at a time. Because of course, it’s all one system.

She has long been recognized as one of our greatest defenders of wildlands and passionate advocates for peace, environmental and social justice, and freedom of speech. Her activism has taken many forms, from acts of civil disobedience on a nuclear test site to marching in the streets to testifying about women’s health before Congress, to doing something only she could pull off: quoting Mormon scriptures to explain the wild desert’s spiritual essence to a room full of stunned Republicans.

What is most inspiring to me about Terry is her essence, her being, her awakened presence, the penetrating authenticity and inquiry she brings to every encounter and conversation. This is a woman who is emotional, vulnerable, passionate and ferociously engaged, but she is so deeply centered, so attuned, so refined, so devoid of any reactivity or malice, and radiates such intense dignity and purity of soul that her words have the potential to reach deeply into even hardened human hearts. From Refuge to Leap, and from Finding Beauty in a Broken World to When Women Were Birds, her books never fail to illuminate the invisible web that connects the world anew for me.

The podcast transcribed below and hosted by Bioneers Everywoman’s Leadership program, was a conversation between Terry and me that took place in July 2012. In it we explored how women find voice, as well as the relationship between inner, reflective work and outer, activist work. Our conversation braids together so many threads and themes that have arisen throughout this book previously, pointing to essential aspects of leading from the feminine, including the practice of relationship intelligence, deep listening and the power of emotions and grieving. I hope you’ll find yourself resonant with it, and may even find some new wrinkles or clues that help illuminate your path forward.

Nina Simons: Terry, I am thrilled to be able to talk with you about some of the ideas in your beautiful book When Women Were Birds, and to visit with you as someone who has been a really profound influence and role model and mentor for me in my life in finding my own voice.

Terry Tempest Williams: Nina, I can say the same back to you. You continue to mentor me about what women’s leadership from the heart looks like, sounds like, feels like. I will just honor you.

NS: Thanks for that. Hard to receive from someone I love and respect as I do you, but I hope it is getting easier as I practice. For me, what I have realized is that finding my voice has been directly connected to finding my own sense of purpose, or assignment, or that unique set of instructions that feel like they are mine to do. I was so moved by a quote in your book, Terry, where you wrote that your mother Diane said: “There are two important days in a women’s life. The day she is born and the day she finds out why.”

As I’ve witnessed the arc of your last fifteen years or so, it struck me that perhaps, like me, your sense of assignment keeps unfolding. It is not like it lands fully blown in your lap and you suddenly know what you are born to do. For me, it is more like crossing a river, where I step on a stepping stone and I know that is the right place for me to step but I can’t see the next step until I am fully there. My instructions keep emerging over time. I wonder whether you will be willing to share any reflections you might have on your instructions and unique purpose.

TTW: That is so interesting that you shared those words, instruction and purpose. And honestly Nina, I don’t think about that. What I am aware of is what I love, what I have lost, and what I have tried to reclaim. For me it is very simple: it’s a question of really being present in the moment. If we are present in the moment, then we know what to do.

NS: Well, then let me offer you a reflection on one of the things that I feel I have learned from you and keep learning from you: how to bring all the parts of myself into full presence in the moment. When I reflect back over your last several books, it seems that in each book you share something about what guided you into that exploration of presence.

In Finding Beauty in a Broken World you talk about how you asked the ocean for some words. What I notice about you, Terry, is that you seem to be very good at listening for guidance from somewhere either deep inside yourself or in the natural world or both. I wonder if you have any idea how you learned to listen so well.

Terry Tempest Williams

TTW: I remember after September 11th, you and I talked about this. I was in Washington DC when the twin towers were struck, when the Pentagon was hit. I witnessed people running across the White House lawn and I was with a group of photographers at the Copland Gallery and we found ourselves stunned as I know everyone was. The next thing I knew, we were in a cab in gridlock and the cab driver turned around and asked, “Where would you like to go?” I realized there was no place to go. We were there.

That next year I made a conscious commitment to speak the truth as I saw it. I realized there are many forms of terrorism and environmental degradation. But during that year I realized my voice, my critique, had become as brittle and as hollow as those as I was opposing.

It was at that point that I went to the ocean. I addressed the ocean spirit, however we define that, and I said, “Give me one wild word, and I promise I will follow.” So perhaps you are correct in using that word instruction, because the word that came back to me, the word that I heard in my own heart was “mosaic.” It became a seven-year journey, following what mosaic is, how do we take those pieces that are broken and make something new, something whole.

With this book, When Women Were Birds, you know what I was listening to? I was listening to the very real fact of my uncertainty about my own mortality, realizing that I had turned 54, the same age my mother was when she died. I really was looking back and remembering what I had chosen to deny, that my mother left me all her journals before she died and all her journals were blank. And so the book becomes a reflection and meditation, a deep listening, to what that emptiness might have meant.

Nina Simons

NS: What inspires me in you is the way that you listen both for the ocean, for the spirit of the natural world, as well as for what’s most alive and questioning and wondering and burning in yourself.

TTW: I think it is about survival, don’t you? I mean, both of us are in very privileged positions but life is not easy. If we are interested in an evolution, a revolution of the spirit, then I think it demands that we ask these hard questions and that we stay with them. That we don’t avert our gaze, that we sit with the uncertainty. Revelations do come, but not without a cost, not without patience, and not without compassion for ourselves and for those that we live closest with.

NS: I agree, and I find for myself that the older I become and the more aware I am of my own mortality, the more burning the questions become. As I age, the more my desire to fully manifest the artwork of my life or the assignment that my soul was given in its fullness burns in me. Because we live in a time of so much transformation, and so much loss and so much suffering, I feel called to bring my “all” in response to that. I also feel an increasing need to not shrink away from what most frightens me. I think you’ve modeled that for me.

TTW: You know, I think of my grandfather when he said, every day counts. I was just in Madison, Wisconsin on the eve of the Scott Walker election recall. There was such angst on both sides about what would happen. Mat Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive, is a friend of mine. We ended up that morning at dawn going out to Picnic Point Nature Preserve and we watched birds. I cannot tell you the glory of the moment when, as we were talking politics, wondering what was going to happen, suddenly we heard this incredible prehistoric call. We both smiled and a sand hill crane flew right over us, we could have touched his or her legs. You know, you think, “Nine million years of perfection just graced us,” and it really does put things into perspective.

NS: Yeah, it sure does. I am curious to lean toward the reconciliation of paradox because just as you were saying, Terry, part what prompted you to write When Women Were Birds was the legacy of your mother’s journals and how her voice was reflected in the emptiness of words on those pages. I find myself so drawn to the inquiry of how we unlock from paradoxical duality.

For me, one of the most important capacities we can look to develop is how we connect across difference. And you have modeled that for me, Terry, in so many ways, from adopting a grown man from Rwanda as your son, to studying prairie dogs up close and personal for weeks. You model it by helping us understand their world by going inside it and writing about what you learned. I am curious about any thoughts you may have about how we connect across difference and the value of it in this time.

TTW: Nina, I am struck by the words “reconcile” and “paradox,” and I am not sure that I ever reconcile anything. I think I embrace paradox. I grew up on the edge of Great Salt Lake, a body of water in the American West that nobody can drink because it is salt water. So, I think I am very comfortable with paradox.

I grew up in the Mormon church, which is very patriarchal, and yet all the women around me were unbelievably powerful. You know, paradox. It is true, Brooke and I are childless by choice and suddenly, at 50 years old, I find myself adopting Willy into our family and re-defining what family looks like. You know, I am not Willy’s mother and he is not my son and yet he has allowed me to be a mother. To understand what it’s like to have your complete heart soul, mind embodied by another person out of regard, and love, and care and often times, confusion.

I gravitate towards what I have loved. I think I am most interested in what is other than myself. I know who I am, and I am much more interested in who you are and what this world around us feels like, looks like, tastes like; what it is like to touch. I think it is my curiosity that keeps moving me forward.

NS: Of course. As another woman who is childless by choice, you have helped me understand that whether or not we have biological children, we all, and I suspect regardless of our gender, we all can have the essence of parenting and mothering and loving another person so much that they become a part of our being.

TTW: I think that is right. I was having a conversation this morning with a dear friend of Brooke’s over coffee. How do we expand? How do we amp up our frequency? I can speak this language with you.

I am very well aware of the desert. When we first moved to Castle Valley from Salt Lake City, Utah, five hours South, it took me several years to feel that my body was in frequency with the desert because the vibration in the desert is so high.

You know this from living in Santa Fe, Nina; very little is hidden. You are living in this very erosional landscape and it is asking of you to be bare-bone and exposed. I keep thinking with all the changes that are happening on the planet right now, with all that we are asked to take in, how do we keep expanding and allow ourselves greater porosity, so that we don’t shut down, so that we don’t become numb, so that we can continue to engage. That is the question that I am living with. At times, it feels like it is too much and yet as you say, I want to be of use. I want to be alive, awake, and alert to that which surrounds me.

NS: For me, that requires that I keep giving myself the permission to feel as deeply as I do, because I am mindful that we live in a culture where that permission is somewhat rare. And as a woman, I have often felt derided or ridiculed for being emotional. What I am learning is that actually that love is the source of my strength, and my wisdom, and my power. And that in order to celebrate life — which I really think is part of why all human beings are here on the planet at this time — we have to allow ourselves to feel the loss and the pain of witnessing as what we love is diminished and threatened.

TTW: I so agree. Such power in what you are saying. What kind of human being we would be if we were not feeling this grief, if we weren’t being emotional about the lives and the life before us.

I was thinking about abuse and I believe that we really are in an abusive relationship with the feminine, however we define it — whether it is emotion, truth-telling, anger or understanding, or maybe silence — the feminine in all its diversity. I often find that we are minimized, trivialized, invalidated, we are discounted — that makes for craziness. So often, what I feel inside is not mirrored on the outside, and that makes me crazy.

And when we are talking about voice, we really do have to stand in the center of authenticity and realize, “No, this is what I am feeling. And, no, I will not allow you to minimize my thoughts or my actions. And, no, I will not allow you to discount me.”

We cannot do it alone and yet we try to do it alone. That is why I think community is very important and this is why I so appreciate what you have put together with your program. We cannot do it alone. I so appreciate what you have done with Everywoman’s Leadership and Cultivating Women’s Leadership because it shows that there is a community of women and this is what leadership from the heart looks like. It gives all of us the courage to follow our instincts and our intuition.

NS: I find myself feeling increasingly supported in the awareness that what the feminine offers us is the capacity to flex with changing conditions. To live with uncertainty. If there is a key to cultivating our whole humanity and our voice and our leadership, it has something to do with how we stay connected, and how we live with uncertainty. So, I wonder if you have any thoughts about that because you have lived with so much, Terry.

TTW: Nina, I think a lot about Wangari Maathai, who passed on too soon, on September 26, 2011. I think about the uncertainty that she lived. As an African woman, as a woman in Kenya, in a very patriarchal society, what was certain for her was that women were carrying the environmental crisis on their backs and that an environmental crisis is an economic crisis, is ultimately a crisis of social justice. That was certain to her. She saw it, she felt it, she witnessed it.

What was certain for her was that women could change the course of their lives and what was certain for her was the faith of a single seed. I love that and now, you know, how many millions of trees have been planted because of her love and her capacity to grieve for what we were doing to the planet?

Again, it is that paradox. What is certain, what do we know and what is uncertain and what we will never know? You know, none of us knows how long we are going to live. That is the first great uncertainty but we know that we’re alive, that is a certain thing. You and I are speaking to each other. So again, it is a dance, this balance, this scale. And I love how even the brush of a feather can tip that balance. So, I want to live with that feather.

NS: It is so beautiful because it is the power of the small and the particular to make big change…

TTW: Truly.

NS: What you are saying gets us back to the dance of paradox. I am reminded that nature’s way of resolving paradox is a spiral. That when you pour cold milk into hot tea, the difference in their temperatures gets resolved by a spiral, whether you stir it or not. Just the liquid does that. When the seaweeds are dancing in the ocean current, they spiral in order to be resilient. It is a dance, not a marriage, or a reconciliation.

TTW: I love that. You know, there is spiral all around us. Perhaps that is the nature of paradox. I went out with Willy and his friends to the spiral jetty out on the shores of Great Salt Lake and it struck me how profound that form and that metaphor is to progress, to evolution, to revolution.

NS: I also find myself wanting to appreciate what Wangari did, which was that she kept speaking even though she knew it meant incurring wrath and anger and violence to herself…

TTW: Even being separated from her children and hoping that they would understand and forgive her for what she was taking on. Again, that word “courage.” As she often would say, it was not courage, it was just what needed to be done. Recently, I was talking with a student of mine about the definition of courage. She said, and I love this: to her, courage is sustained focus. For her courage is that. Don’t you love that?

NS: It’s beautiful. Because what we appreciate appreciates. I recently attended a memorial service for a dear friend and a remarkable activist who died too young and I found myself so aware that like you, she brought celebration to the fight for justice. Always. I noticed as I was speaking at her memorial, how rare that is, because the fight can so often engender bitterness and anger and we can shut down because it is so hard. And the beauty and the power of staying connected to what you love, even as you are putting your body, your voice and your heart into helping to ignite change, is something I admire so much.

TTW: Yes. I just was at Dartmouth for the last three months. One of the most special days was being on the Dartmouth Green during the Powwow. Dartmouth was one of the first colleges in the country to honor Native people and Native American students. This was the 40th Powwow they have held on the Green. For two days I sat next to the singers and I just felt their drum beat going up my spine. In all the celebration of shell dancers, the jingle dancers, it was so thrilling, and yet, again the paradox, you don’t know but you imagine the difficulties of the lives on the reservations. Having worked in Navajo Country, I know this is America’s hidden wound that we have never fully acknowledged, and yet, when I think about the deepest humor I have experienced, it’s been from my Indian friends. And, when I think about the really dark humor with my own family, it’s come out when we were facing the death of a loved one. Again, it’s about survival, and we all have these evolutionary skills. I think rituals — singing, celebration, dancing — all these things help us move in that spiral of what it means to be human. Often, we seem to be caught in a downward spiral, an entropy of work and scale. Lately, all I hear is: we need to work to scale or scale up, and I just keep thinking really, can we just scale down? I just do not understand that. I just find myself wanting to get quieter and quieter and smaller and smaller.

NS: [Laughter] Well, and your book invited me into a meditation in such a beautiful way because I want to be slower and stiller, and you know, it is the blur of fastness and pressure and too muchness and busy-ness, that causes me to miss the particularity and the beauty and sacredness and the humor that you are talking about.

TTW: And then we end up being tired, and angry and resentful and we have all been there. More and more, I just want to be still. I also think about Robert Pinsky when he says “motion can be a place too.” But my mother always talked about being the nest behind the waterfall. How do we find that core of stillness in our heart so that we can, again using your words, fully appreciate where we are here and now.

I think it is tied to voice and to paradox. When I was writing When Women Were Birds, I thought I was writing a book about voice, about how we as women speak to the truth of our times, to our own authentic nature. But what I have written, Nina, is a book of silences and stillness and I think one begets the other. Again it is that balance of space and time and scale.

NS: Well, I find myself aware that the need for silence is also a marker of the imbalance between the feminine and masculine in our culture and in all of us. I was just speaking to a friend the other night about the unfinished wounding in the conquest of this land. The huge destruction that has been wrought on Native peoples all over the world and also the wounds of slavery, of sexism, racism and ageism. How do we encourage and invite the healing that can come from naming and ritually pouring our love into addressing all those wounds? I see them as fractals of the same tear in our relational fabric.

TTW: Again, love is not the secret. Pain is. And why are we so fearful of that? Because I really believe if we embrace our pain we can move beyond that. Again, I am scratching my head. Here we have a president that we have supported and admired, Barack Obama, and I will certainly be voting for him again. But with a community of people we have been trying to embrace the Arctic to preserve this reservoir for our spirit, and yet it is Barack Obama and his administration that has opened up the Arctic for oil and gas drilling. They have opened the door to Shell.

Just last week in The New York Times, they were talking about how Shell has been very sensitive to the Native American people when in truth, I have an Alaska Native student who has been working with her father to stop drilling in the Arctic, to stop drilling in the Arctic Ocean. They are buying off Native Americans with trucks with boats and anything else you can imagine. So, what do we do? I keep thinking, do we lay our bodies down? Is it the time for direct action and yet how do we still proceed with calm and understanding? I don’t know what the answers are. And that is the paradox where I find myself torn, by my anger and by my love, and sometimes I think they are the same thing. So, what do we fight for, and what do we accept?

NS: Yes and how do we recognize that not only our pain deters us but our shame and complicity as well.

TTW: The only way I can reconcile the paradoxes of action and contemplation — and I’ll use that word “reconcile now — is in discernment. To me the power of discernment is most potently rendered in our own communities, on our home ground with our own people. That is where it is the toughest to speak truthfully because we cannot walk away from our friends and family.

NS: What you’re naming so beautifully is the complementary wholeness that is created by combining contemplation with action, and that unless they are met in full measure, it is not the full humanness that I aspire to.

Terry, you’ve said that you “do not believe we can look for leadership beyond ourselves.” Can you talk a little about what that means to you in both your personal and professional work and how you maintain the connection between the two?

TTW: It is such a good question. I am going to refer it back to you Nina.

NS: [Laughing] It is such a hard question and such a good question. What’s clear to me is that the landscape that I can be the most responsible for is the one that lives within me. I need to keep challenging myself, I have to keep finding the spaces that scare me and the places that I have anger and actually lean into them so that I can find ways to bring myself into congruence.

I keep crafting myself inwardly as if there is a social sculpture in my own life that is me, and I am the only one that can make this artwork come out the way I hope and intend it. When I began to understand the extent of harm as a result of the invisibility of racial injustice to many people of privilege in this country, I began to realize that even though it terrified me to talk about it, I actually had to push myself towards that edge and find ways to challenge myself to step into it.

For me, weaving the boundary of personal and professional, the inner and the outer and the activist, feels like to me like it is the work of my life. And I observe you traversing that ground with quite a bit of grace. So, what do you think?

TTW: I have been very aware that my view of leadership is not the same as the traditional view of leadership: the kind with one powerful person at the top, who we follow. That is not the kind of leadership I am interested in. I’m interested in: What does leadership of the heart look like? What does leadership rising out of the community look like?

I think the Occupy movement has showed us an organic form of leadership where each voice has its own strengths and radiance. That takes time. We’re used to top-down decisions, we’re used to saying a leader is decisive and doesn’t care what other people think. I am interested in a circle of leadership, in spiral leadership, in organic leadership that emerges out of community.

I’m also wondering, Nina, about how we can lead ourselves forward in courageous ways that sustain us and the people that we love. It takes self-reflection and accountability. If we want our country to change, we have to be asking how we change ourselves. The quote that you read from goes on to say that if I want my country to change, how do I change myself.

I was interested in a review of When Women Were Birds that appeared in Christian Review that the reviewer, male, said, “This woman must have written this book while looking in the mirror and mistook indulgence for literature.” I mean, that is pretty harsh. It’s interesting that if a man is self-reflecting, culturally we view that as wisdom, but if a woman is self-reflecting then we view it as self-indulgence. So, I think that goes back to those traditional models of what we imagine leadership and wisdom to look like, the all-knowing or the all-questioning. And I would rather exist in the questions.

NS: Terry, I wonder how you navigate the challenge of balancing your service to the world with adequate self-care? I am so motivated by my love and I think because we as women have so much cultural conditioning that tells us to equate our value with what we can give, or how well we serve others, it is easy to give more than we can replenish.

I just find myself actually relying on the wisdom and love and reflection of friends and sisters who encourage me to take time off, who remind me of the value of stillness and self-care. I keep telling myself that we are in a marathon here, this is not a sprint. If I want to bring myself with this much passion, presence, and commitment, I have to take care of the instrument, myself. I need to find ways to ritualize and practice and strengthen my capacity to care for myself at the same time. What about you Terry?

TTW: I agree with you, Nina. We’ve all been there. I’m thinking a lot about source. What is the source of our joy, what is the source of our pain, what is the source of our strength? And each of us answers that differently, I’m sure. For me, my source is my solitude, my marriage, my community of sisters and friends. My ultimate source is in nature — birds, plants, lying on the ground as barefoot and as exposed as I can be on the hot sand in the desert or walking in the forest barefoot, with that soft, yielding soil underfoot. Just water, ocean, shell. So again, it’s discernment, it’s assessment, it’s all the things we have been talking about, each in our own way and in our own time, with the gifts that are ours.

Republished with permission from Bioneers Co-Founder Nina Simons’ book Nature, Culture & the Sacred (Green Fire Press, 2018).

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.