An award-winning writer of 14 books, Terry Tempest Williams is known for her personal stories that are beautifully woven together with reflections on the environment. In her new book, When Women Were Birds, Williams uses her experiences to describe why we should speak out for what’s important. Audubon caught up with her to discuss her ardor for wildness and writing.
How did you decide to use writing to communicate conservation’s importance and your passion for the environment?
I think each of us within the conservation movement has a desire to make a difference, to share our love of the land with others, and to try to make a difference in the world, especially now when so much is at stake and at risk and in pain. My voice is, I think, most powerfully rendered on the page. Each of us has to assess where our gifts lie and then share them—whether it’s teaching, writing, speaking, cooking, or traveling—and take those gifts that our ours, each in our own way, each in our own time, and share them on behalf of the collective good.
Was writing always something you felt strongly about when it came to your ability to use your voice to share your message? Was it always that way for you?
I’ve always loved stories, whether it’s as a writer or as a naturalist—stories bypass rhetoric and pierce our hearts. I’ve always had a passion for following that strand that leads us to patterns, to the place where we see life as interconnected and interrelated, whether it’s on the page or in the world, I’m most interested in the stories we tell that evoke a sense of place, that remind us what we are connected to and why and how.
Why do we need that reminder at this point?
We’re living in a time of great fragmentation. And fragmentation is an enemy to wholeness. The ecological world, the natural world, all that is wild, is predicated on wholeness. A kin to fragmentation is destruction, and a kin to destruction is disengagement. And if we’re disengaged, then who cares? So I think, as writers, as naturalists, as lovers of wildness, our task is to create, as Johanna Macy says, “the work that reconnects.”
Birds are a theme in your work. Why do you choose them to be a part of your stories?
Birds are wherever we are. They are our companions. Birds are mediators between heaven and earth. My grandmother Mimi gave me my first bird book when I was five years old, Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. I still hold that bird book as sacred text. I would dream about those birds long before I ever saw them on the shores of Great Salt Lake. And when I saw them for the first time—avocets, stilts, white-faced ibises, cinnamon teals, and willets—I recognized them as family. Long-billed curlews still forage on the grasslands of Antelope Island, and every year when they return they are my winged hope.
Hope for what?
Hope that the world will be healthy enough to support the return of long-billed curlews; hope that we will always be mindful that we are not alone, that we share this planet with other species and we have obligations and responsibilities to them in the name of the larger community, both human and wild. Birds are tangible evidence of where we are in time and space. I mean, they’re completely intertwined with who we are as human beings. What I mean by this is that bird song has influenced composers such as Messian; birds have influenced painters from Miro to the representation of John James Audubon; birds have graced the poems and novels of our greatest writers from Emily Dickinson to Jonathan Franzen.
Birds are both a physical presence and metaphor. When I thought about the title, When Women Were Birds, what that meant to me was both a retrieval of our voices as women and a remembering of what it means to speak. We know that in the avian world it is largely the male birds that sing, but what we know through research is that the females know the songs. They just choose to remain silent. What might that mean metaphorically if we as women begin remembering, singing those songs, and refusing to be silent? Birds, birdsong represent that larger community that includes all life forms: plants, animals, rocks, rivers, birds, and human beings. We do not live in isolation. Birds remind us of this in their invocations and benedictions at dawn and dusk. I can mark turning points in my life by the birds I have seen at that particular moment, be it a screech owl at my grandmother’s death or a white-crowned sparrow bathing in a rainstorm after a long drought in the desert.
It can be easy to forget that they’re everywhere.
I also think that birds are bearing the burden of our consumption. Look at the work of photographer Chris Jordan, who is documenting the cycle of suffering of the albatross on Midway Atoll. We have a choice. We can look away or we can choose not to avert our gaze—as he is asking us to do. We must face the brutal fact that our excess as a species is killing other species. The albatross is us, our lives are interwoven and interconnected. To see what happens to the plastics that we consume and discard to confront the shadow side of or place on the planet. That plastic swirl of garbage in the middle of the Pacificis not benign. When the albatross go to fish to bring food to their young, they cannot discern what is organic and what is plastic. So when they come back and attempt to feed, to nourish their young, they are regurgitating toothbrushes, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, dildos, sponges—all manner of horror. What happens when those baby stomachs are filled? They starve to death. They writhe, they die, and what we’re left with is a nest of plastic and bones. That’s the other side of what birds are holding for us. They hold our past, and they are portending our future.
And the question remains: How shall we live? Where is our love? And where is our outrage, and how do we respond? Again, what is the work that connects? What is our individual role to try and restore a sense of wholeness? And what are our gifts, individually and collectively and how do we employ them, share them, in the name of community, both human and wild? The gift of writers, photographers, and scientists, this is certainly evident within the long history of Audubon magazine, is the gift of awareness. We bear witness to both beauty and terror, joy and grief, and in the process, hopefully create a call to action.
Is there anything we didn’t discuss that you’d like to share with Audubon readers?
I think it’s important to remember we have more power than we think as individuals and as a community of conservationists in our country. The world is changing in powerful ways through a change in consciousness. We see this through super storms such as Hurricane Sandy and it’s impact on the elections. Climate change may have not been mentioned within the presidential debates, but it became the lead story with politicians such as New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo both acknowledging climate change as a factor, both admonishing President Obama to confront this issue as an issue of health, safety, and national security.
Alongside these kinds of policy shifts, I think it is important to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act with a renewed commitment to protect the remaining wild places in America, places like Utah’s Red Rock Desert in southern Utah under extreme threat from oil and gas and tar sands development. In 2016, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the national park ideal. Why not designate more national parks from the North Woods in Maine to the Greater Canyonlands National Monument? The protection of open space from big wilderness to monuments to local land trusts creates a safe haven for the species we live among and also, ensures a safeguard against climate change. This is a vision we can carry forth as citizens who care about wild nature as a reservoir for our spirits, as part of our collective gesture on behalf of the sacredness of life. To be a conservationist in the 21st century is to act on behalf of creation with both courage and compassion, respect and restraint.
I like to think about this moment in time as an old bridge that is barely able to hold its structure. Alongside this old bridge we are building a new bridge, with new ideas, with a new consciousness, with a new constituency that is based on wholeness and health and integration of disciplines, with a compassion and inclusivity for all life, rather than an exclusivity based on the privilege of our own species and a wealthy few. I think our challenge during this time of transition is to be able to complete that bridge before that other one falls apart. And I think that’s what we’re doing, each in our own way, each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours. The world is so beautiful. How can we not respond?