Ask Terry Tempest Williams how one should go about saving the natural world. She's a naturalist, after all, and one of Utah's most famous authors, and also, now, the Annie Tanner Fellow at the University of Utah's new graduate program in environmental studies.
So ask her about saving the environment. If you do, she'll talk about balance.
"It's a dance between reflection and action, passion and patience," she said. "We must commit ourselves, as citizens, to the long view."
On Thursday, at the Salt Lake Main Library, Williams will deliver the inaugural address in a new lecture series called Lyceum II. Robert Newman, dean of the U.'s College of Humanities, modeled the series after Ralph Waldo Emerson's lectures on the natural world.
To name your lecture series after one in the 19th century may seem like a small tribute. But actually, this nod to environmental history shows something important about the U.'s program.
Newman said that, as far as he knows, there is not another environmental program in the nation that is offered through a humanities department. All other environmental studies come under a college of science or within a public-policy school.
"We feel we are offering something quite significant," he said. He revels in interdisciplinariness. Historians as well as biologists, architects as well as social scientists, will teach in the U.'s program, as will one of the state's premier writers.
Newman looks forward to having Williams on campus for a few weeks each spring and fall during the three years of her fellowship. He's even more excited about the summer workshops she'll teach near her home in the red-rock country of Castle Valley. Graduate students and undergrads alike will be allowed to take her writing workshops, he said.
And Williams won't be the only special attraction. Newman announces that, this fall, the department will bring in a photo exhibit by Subhankar Banerjee. Banerjee's photos of the Alaskan landscape are so dramatic that they were shown on the floor of the U.S. Senate to help defeat the proposal to drill for oil in the wilderness.
Williams and Newman recently went to New York to see Banerjee's exhibit. Williams said the photos show what it means to stand inside a space. "A flesh-and-blood encounter."
As Williams describes environmental studies, it is all of a piece Banerjee's photos, the essays her students will write, the fact that the U. structured the program around literature, religion, philosophy and history. "This is how empathy and compassion are developed," she said.
When the University students come to Castle Valley, Williams will take them to meet her neighbors. She knows a variety of people who, together, have raised $2 million to protect nearly 3,000 acres. Her neighbors are rock climbers and cattle ranchers, environmentalists and local politicians. "To me this is the greatest success story of how a community can be in conversation," she said.
It's easy to get overwhelmed thinking about the loss of species or global warming. If she thought she had to make a difference in the world, or even in this country, she would not be able to get out of bed in the morning, Williams said.
"But moving to Castle Valley has restored my faith in democracy," she said. "In the city it all seemed so big and abstract . . . however, when we live in community, in its smallest place . . . I find tremendous hope."
Not that what they accomplished was easy. It's scary and it takes faith to negotiate with people who see the world differently than you do, Williams said. She and the other people of Castle Valley had to find creative alternatives.
They had to keep asking each other, "What is the highest value of these lands?" They engaged in dialogue, dissent, civility and protest. And this kind of action is exactly what she urged in her commencement address at the University of Utah last spring.
In the latest edition of Orion magazine, Williams wrote about how hard it was for her to stand up in front of a conservative audience, one that included her own relatives, and encourage students to "Question. Stand. Speak. Act."
She told her audience, "Patriots act they are not handed a piece of paper called by that same name and asked to comply." When her speech was over, she got equal numbers of jeers and cheers, she said.
She looked into the audience and saw Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, her former neighbor and LDS bishop, with his head bowed in disappointment. Later he wrote her a letter asking her what she was willing to die for. He invited her to go with him to visit Iraq.
Williams thought about his letter for a long time. When she answered, she listed all the points on which they do not agree and then wrote, "But I believe we can come closer to understanding . . . I would like to propose an exchange program between us. . . . "
So now she's in a dialogue with Sen. Bennett? Yes, she said, this is what she's talking about, dialogue between neighbors. "Really," you ask, "he's written back?" "No, I haven't heard back," she said, laughing.
But she thinks he will write again. She has hope as she watches his actions in Congress. She has hope as she waits and reflects.
So here, in the midst of activism in the midst of protesting and writing and speaking Williams has been given another chance to practice patience. "Revolutionary patience," she calls it. "Revolutionary Patience" will be the title of her speech on Thursday evening.
What: The Lyceum II Lecture: Terry Tempest Williams
Where: Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
E-mail: [email protected]