A Letter Home: Terry Tempest Williams tells of her education and her passion.

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Editor’s Note: As part of Earth Day festivities, U alumna and environmental author Terry Tempest Williams spoke at the Union. The following is an excerpt from a letter she wrote responding to questions from Chronicle Feature Writer Rosemary Winters. The format was initially intended as a Q&A, but, wading through technical difficulties, Williams chose a more personal response.

Happy Earth Day. What a gift to celebrate all we hold dear in the name of the wild?

What I loved about my years at the U was the feeling of community.

Even though it is a large school, I felt within the English and biology departments there was a wonderful sense of comraderie and support. I appreciated the opportunity I had to create my own curriculum and line of inquiry. Because I was drawn to both the sciences and the humanities, I was able to cross disciplines easily. In any given quarter I would be studying Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, while at the same time focusing on zoology and botany, ornithology and human ecology. It was a wonderful confluence of language and landscape. My debts are large to the professors that taught me.

I graduated in English with a minor in biology. Then went and taught “nature study” at a private school for several years where I was able to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach to teaching.

Later, I returned to the U and entered graduate school in the College of Education. It was here the boundaries of integrated studies expanded.

We did an extended field trip on the Navajo Reservation which was a six week course. It opened many doors to my imagination with the Dine’, as they call themselves.

My thesis focused on the question “What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place?”

“Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland” became my thesis which was published in 1984 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

From graduate school, I was lucky enough to be hired as one of the curators of education at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

Again, it was a very rich opportunity to work within the various disciplines of biology, geology and anthropology?a way of seeing the world whole. I loved my work there, where we created lecture series on the natural history of Utah from the Great Basin to the Rocky Mountains to the Colorado Plateau. And I loved my work teaching the children and working with the docents. A museum is a wonderful place to quietly be subversive on behalf of the land. Don Hague, who was the director, was incredibly generous in allowing us to create our own programs, and I had brilliant colleagues such as Ann Hannibal, Mary Gesicki and Eric Rickert, to name just a few. It was here I begin to see the power of working within the context of community.

The U provided this kind of support and inspiration.

The whole idea of Earth Day is a curious one. In a sense, it reminds me of Mother’s Day. Why focus on one particular day in which to honor the Earth? But on the other hand, it is an important gesture to focus on our relationship to the environment, to assess where we are regarding public policy, what improvements can be made, what issues we need to be attentive to. It is also a wonderful opportunity to simply celebrate our love for the places we call home. And here in Utah, we have much to be grateful for, from the salt flats of the Great Salt Lake to its emerald wetlands that border this inland sea to the Wasatch Mountains and sagebrush ocean of the Great Basin to America’s redrock wilderness in southern Utah.

We moved from Salt Lake City to Castle Valley in 1998. We absolutely love it. It’s very different living in the desert versus visiting it. I love living in this erosional landscape.

Deeply humbling. It’s tough country?a landscape of extremes?wind, heat, cold.

But it is a powerful place where you are brought into direct contact with your own erosional process, nothing hidden. You must stand square in the exposure of time.

This is what my newest book, “RED: Passion and Patience,” is about.

Standing our ground in the places we love, together. Who can say how much nature can be destroyed without consequence? Who can say how much land can be used for extractive purposes before the land is rendered barren forever?

And who can say what the human spirit will be crying out for 100 years from now?

The eyes of the future are looking back at us, and they are praying that we might see beyond our own time.

Conservation is an act of democracy?the greatest good for the greatest numbers for the longest time.

Conservation is also a generational stance?each generation taking their inspiration from the next and finding their own voice critical to the issues at hand, in their own time.

Wilderness is an issue before the American people right now. And America’s Redrock Wilderness is at the heart of this issue?call it the burning center. We can support this bill before Congress now. HR 1613. (This bill would designate many new wilderness areas in Utah.) We have well more than 100 sponsors in the House and 15 sponsors in the Senate. I doubt it will move in this current Bush administration, but it is a slow, arduous process that is building momentum. These lands are public lands, part of the public trust, a commons, if you will, a reservoir not only for biological diversity and integrity, but a reservoir for our spirits.

This is perhaps another definition of “homeland security.” Protecting these sensitive wildlands. And right now, protecting these fragile desertlands from the oil and gas leases mounting daily just outside Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, is the difficult work before us. We need to be asking ourselves what endures.

The reason the Senate voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge last week is that the American people believe in the sustaining grace of wildness, that there are some places that deserve to be left alone. There are other alternatives to an energy policy such as conservation measures and alternative fuel sources as well as oil and gas exploration where it is appropriate. These are the tough discussions before us, found in the name of community, in the broadest sense, a sense of community that includes human beings, alongside plants, animals, rocks, rivers and all manner of life.

This is not a new vision but a vision of sustainability, even restoration.

I have been greatly influenced by Rachel Carson, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, John Steinbeck, Hemingway, Willa Cather, Mary Austin?all writers who struggled with what it means to live in place.

Each had their own courage. Each held a powerful pen that helped transform culture. “Silent Spring” has never been more contemporary. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Melville brought us into a great literary tradition of American letters grounded in the American landscape.

That there is “a spirit within” that is part of our imagination, call it an ecological imagination.

And that tradition is being carried on today, especially in the American West.

I remember in October, 1989, Ed Abbey and Barry Lopez came to the U and read together in the Union Ballroom as fundraiser for the Utah Wilderness Alliance. Both men brought tremendous presence and passion with them as they allowed us to believe Utah was a land worth fighting for. They inspired our generation to literally stand our ground in this beautiful place and find our own path where we could make a difference, using our own gifts in our own place. I remember we passed an old hiking boot around the audience. People filled it with dollar bills. It was a gesture of our support and most importantly, love. We raised a couple thousand dollars that night for Utah wilderness, but most importantly, our spirits were raised in the name of our home.