The following excerpts are from an all-day conversation with Orion friend and contributing editor Terry Tempest Williams, which took place at her home in Castle Valley, Utah, on June 22, 2007. The interview was conducted by New Mexico-based writer Timothy Sawyer, Jr.; it was undertaken as part of an ongoing book project on Williams’s literary career, which is expected to appear in 2014.
What do you feel is the role of the artist in the public realm? Do writers have a responsibility to engage in political debate, as well as with more personal, aesthetic issues?
I think that as a writer I feel a keen sense of responsibility to public discourse, to enter into the conversations of our time, to the debates of our time. Whether it’s oil or gas up on Dome Plateau, or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or clear-cutting in Oregon. It’s central to who I am as a person, who is, like all of us, a citizen of a living, breathing, democratic society.
Who or what are your greatest influences?
Carson, Abbey, Stegner, Matthiessen, Merwin, Snyder—they’ve all had an influence on me in terms of their social engagement. I met them all early on, when I was at the Teton Science School, in Wyoming. Virginia Woolf is a great influence, too. I don’t know how many times I’ve read To the Lighthouse or The Waves. Her sense of androgyny. Her sense of the internal dialogue and stream of consciousness—that had an effect on me early on. Emily Dickinson, too—the precision of her words. And Whitman, with his cadences, his lists.
I’ve been deeply influenced by early Mormon journals, growing up, reading them as a young girl. Hearing them in our own household. I come from a family of storytellers. And from living in the American West, in the Southwest, native people’s stories have an enormous influence on me, I think.
And the land, first and foremost, always the land. Always, always, always the land. Going back to the narrative of the plants, geology, birds, animals—that’s always my greatest teacher and my greatest source of inspiration, comfort, dissonance, and faith.
What does it mean to you to be a Mormon and a progressive simultaneously?
I wouldn’t define myself as a Mormon. And I wouldn’t define myself as a progressive, either. You know, I hope I am a citizen-writer that’s engaged in the world around me—because if you put yourself in a box, of course it’s going to be harder for people to reach you, and for you to reach them. So, you know, breaking out of those boxes seems to me the way to create an atmosphere of communication. Which is why I refuse to be labeled.
As for the role Mormonism plays in my writing, the answer I would give you now, at fifty-two, is very different from the answer I would give at twenty-five or thirty-five. But you can’t escape who you are and the culture that raised you, and I’m always mindful of that. Community is first and foremost in my mind whenever I’m writing. And Mormonism is about community.
You’ve written a lot about wilderness over the years. Why do you feel it’s important to protect large amounts of public land as wilderness?
I’m concerned that, as we become more and more urban, and as we’ve become more and more abstract in our thinking, within both the environmental movement and in our larger lives, we forget that there are still large, wild places that need our attention. I mean, we can use concepts like “carbon sinks” as a way to justify them now, but we really need these large, wild places where ecological processes can still continue. And that’s becoming less and less possible. All you have to do is look at the Greater Yellowstone area and see the pressures outside the park’s boundaries. You know, they’re just becoming huge islands.
Large, intact ecosystems remind us that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. They’re places of humility; they’re reservoirs for our spirits. And they’re the broadest, deepest, widest form of community we have.
What would it be like to live in a world in which wilderness no longer exists?
It’s no world I’d want to be a part of. When I look at Rwanda, what happens when you have eight hundred people per square kilometer? I think that’s just a formula for war and conflict; I just don’t think we were meant to live without breathing space. Also, we need to have that connection with beauty, and with the Other. Human beings evolved with other beings.
Timothy Sawyer, Jr. lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.