SANTA FE, N.M. — Author and activist Terry Tempest Williams, “enthralled by doom” since the last presidential election, has been contemplating the degree and extent of action people should take when, as she believes is true now, “our public lands are under siege.”
After all, as she told a sold-out crowd at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night, she knows the cost that can be paid for, not just speaking, but taking action against a system you oppose.
In February of last year, Williams and her husband joined a protest at a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas drilling leases on public lands, setting themselves up as an “energy company” and eventually buying 10-year leases on two parcels of land, totalling 1,120 acres of land north of Arches National Park in Utah.
The “drilling” they planned on the site, she said, was for the spiritual energy and learning that could be received from contemplation of the natural beauty of the sites.
Less than two weeks later, administrators at the University of Utah, where she founded the Environmental Humanities program and taught a class for a dozen years as an Annie Clark Tanner Fellow, presented her a contract renewal that would have required a phased-out early retirement. She negotiated a possible agreement, but then was told she no longer could take students on field trips out in the land she loved. That was a deal-breaker, and Williams walked away from that position.
Many have implied the two incidents were related, although Williams’ letter of resignation notes that administrators have denied that the BLM lease purchases had anything to do with their contract negotiations with her.
Online news stories from Salt Lake City newspapers and the radio program Democracy Now have said that Williams’ students and former students were involved in the BLM auction protest and served as board members of the board of directors of her company, Tempest Exploration.
Author of many books, including “Refuge” and “The Open Space of Democracy,” Williams said in her Lannan Foundation-sponsored conversation with author Colum McCann at the Lensic that she used to ponder often when she was younger whether she was an artist or an activist.
But she doesn’t think about that much any more, she said.
“I just knew what I loved,” she said. “I think about how to be engaged with life, how to be of use.”
That usefulness for her has been to speak about the importance of the land, about considering all species of life when making decisions about our futures. And she gave a shout-out to a couple of New Mexico lawmakers, saying she had a long conversation last week with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, whom she had “never heard so eloquent” about the importance of citizens speaking out.
“What they most fear is our voice,” she said of the current presidential administration and those who would reduce protections of public lands. She added that Udall has reported a 10-fold increase in telephone calls from the public coming to his office since the past election.
And she also said she has been a long-time friend of New Mexico state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, since he “jumped out from behind a bush” to speak to her when she was visiting The College of Wooster in Ohio years ago.
Her escorts at the college had warned her about an “obsessive and disturbing” man who might seek her out, but he immediately identified himself as a kindred spirit, she said, when he quoted Edward Abbey: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”
So she watched him in action on the House floor earlier this week as part of her visit.
And Santa Fe’s own Lannan Foundation “saved my life,” she said. Asked by McCann to elaborate, Williams said back in 1993, she and husband Brooke were at a point where they had maybe $1,000 to their names and she was frantically figuring she had to get a regular job.
Then she somewhat reluctantly returned a phone call from some entity she feared might be involved in telemarketing, and almost hung up when they put her on speaker phone. But when she was told the Lannan Foundation was giving her a $50,000 grant, she was sobbing for joy, Williams said.
She also gave credit to a painting by Michael Namingha, showing a turquoise triangle intersecting an aerial photo of the Grand Canyon as lifting her from a paralysis of being unable to write, of being a “writer without words.”
Action in what you believe can be beautiful and slow, she noted, as water carving out a canyon.
So how far should people go in taking action against policies they oppose?
Williams didn’t give a direct answer, implying such answers must lie in each individual’s heart.
“Let us be brave enough to feel it (the enthrallment of doom) deeply,” she said, “then act.”
Jadrnak is a longtime Journal reporter who retired earlier this month.