The nation's capital city is a far cry from the ruddy stillness of southern Utah's redrock wilderness. Still, it's a terrain author Terry Tempest Williams had navigated before, both while touring for her earlier books Refuge, An Unspoken Hunger and Leap, and while testifying before Congress in 1995 on behalf of the area in southern Utah that would become the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But despite her passing familiarity with the city, nothing prepared her for the Washington, D.C., she encountered two weeks ago.
In town for both the publication of her new book Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, and for the opening of the exhibit "In Response to Place" at the Corcoran Museum of Art, Williams was preparing to speak at a press conference when she first heard the news.
"We had heard that the twin towers had been hit, but we hadn't seen it. We couldn't believe it. We were just sitting there stunned. And then the security guard came and said, 'The Pentagon has just been hit. We have reason to believe the White House is next. Run!' " Williams says softly.
Her voice is quiet, reflective, even in recounting the chaos of that day. "We all looked at each other and we were paralyzed. We ran out on the street, and you could see people running across the lawn of the White House, people were fleeing executive office buildings. The streets were gridlocked, and you could see smoke rising from the direction of the Pentagon. The next thing you know, we were jammed into this cab, eight of us. The cabdriver turned around and said, 'And just where would you like to go?' "
For Williams it was far more than a cabdriver's bewildered response to eight terrified people suddenly piling into his car. "There was this moment of silence where I think we all realized, 'That's right, there's no place to go. We're here.' And to me, that's just become a real metaphor for where we are in this country. We've never been here before. And the only way I know how to cope with that is to become fully present in each moment."
Williams, like all of us, wasn't sure how to continue in the wake of national tragedy. But she'll discuss that, and her new book, at Auntie's on Thursday, October 4.
"The terror of being there is forever registered in my body. I really think that that feeling of uncertainty and loss has entered our bloodstream," she says. "In the days after the attacks, I turned my readings into community meetings. It became immediately clear that I was no longer talking about this book, that what we are in need of is conversation and community. So I turned the microphone in the other direction and just opened it up so people could talk about it."
Red explores the harsh yet ultimately fragile landscape of the
Colorado Plateau desert. Her love for the wilderness finds its greatest expression in her descriptions of redrock, of desert people, and of stars invisible to city eyes. Not surprisingly, Williams sought solace in nature when she was finally able to return to Utah.
"Whether it's Spokane, Washington, or Castle Valley, Utah, I think we still have the illusion of wide open spaces, that there's some level of safety in wild places. My first impulse when we got home was to go into the mountains," says Williams, who immediately drove up to Jackson Hole, Wyo., with her husband. "I needed to see the Tetons, and greater Yellowstone. I needed to see big herds of elk and bison. I wanted to see that there was a world that was still intact, that was older and wiser perhaps than ours. We walked to the basin of the Tetons and sat in this meadow, where the sound of the bugling elk replaced the sirens that were in my psyche from Washington, D.C. There's a sense of healing grace in the land, and I think never have we needed that more than now."
A significant portion of Red delves into issues of land use. "It's a simple equation," she writes. "Place + People = Politics." With the threat of war on the horizon, and renewed talk of drilling in the Arctic and other previously protected areas, is she concerned about how the environment could be affected?
"Even in a time of war, that does not justify bad policy. If you look at history, during World War II, there were those who wanted to open up the national parks for logging and saying it was for the war effort. But the Department of the Interior said no, these are sacred lands, they are their own symbols of freedom. So I find that heartening."
Referencing the great nature writer Aldo Leopold, she makes a sound argument for the role of wilderness as part of the American psyche.
"The idea of wilderness has always shaped human thought, and then there's the biological integrity, that when everything around us seems to be collapsing -- literally -- even the symbols of American capitalism, which we watched crumble, what endures? What can we count on? When I came home to Salt Lake City and saw the Wasatch Mountains through the window, I just sobbed. There are some things we can hang onto. I know in my heart of hearts where my soul resides, and it really is in the American West. We can live in accordance with open spaces, and I think open spaces inspire open hearts and open hearts and again, we are desperate for that right now."
While her spare, precise prose evokes the vast quietude of the
desert, throughout runs the motif of what the color red signifies. Rescuing the word "erotic" from present-day connotations of the pornographic, Williams explores what it means to be in love with a landscape.
"As we are afraid of the wilderness, we are also scared to death of the body. The word 'erotic' is largely associated with pornography now and how do we take the language back to its original roots? 'Erotic' is from 'eros,' which is love. Which means 'to be in relationship with.' I wanted to explore that notion of how do we live in accordance with nature. My hope is that we can learn to love the body of the earth as our own."
Changing our relationship with nature leads to a discussion of her book Leap, just out in paperback.
"I was fascinated by that triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, and I wanted to explore how often we just fall to the edges of black and white, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor. It's all about dualities, about heaven and hell, and I was so taken by that center panel because it's all about the middle path. It asks us to look at the complexities," she explains. "What's interesting is how he painted the creatures of the earth; the human beings, birds and animals are all painted in a similar scale. Bosch painted this in the early-1500s, right on the cusp of the Renaissance and the Reformation. I don't think it's too much of a leap to say that 500 years later, we are standing in the center of another reformation -- call it an ecological reformation."
Although Red was written long before the events of September 11, it has an eerie sense of timeliness. The book was scheduled for release on that date, and certain lines and sections, particularly "Wild Mercy" on the last page, seem to foreshadow a new and troubling time.
"One of the reasons I'm so drawn to the red rocks of southern Utah is that it's a landscape of erosion. It's weathered and riddled and broken down, and it's beautiful. It reminds us that change is the only thing we can count on. But there's beauty in that, in what remains, what endures. We're in the process of eroding, of evolving, and that's a landscape of great hope."
Terry Tempest Williams reads from Red: Passion and
Patience in the Desert at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main,