Environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams visits campus

“If a man knew what a woman remembers, he would love her differently,” Terry Tempest Williams read many emotion-packed excerpts during her visit to Colby.
Williams, the 2014-15 Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Studies, visited the College with the hope of approaching difficult conversations that many others are not willing to have. An accomplished environmental author, Williams gave three presentations to students, including a lunchtime talk and student interview on Oct. 1, as well a book reading and signing on Oct. 2.
Williams grew up in Utah in a Mormon household, a background she says was “something to bump up against as a writer all my life.” The tension between her faith and passion for justice is deeply rooted in her childhood, during which she witnessed injustices in the religious community. For example, she saw African Americans banned from priesthood simply because of the color of their skin. As she told students, by the end of her childhood she realized she “wasn’t a Mormon, but in fact a Transcendentalist.”
When her homeland began to face the environmental impacts of nuclear testing, the activist in her prompted her to take a stand. Recounting the moment when she officially stepped over the trespassing line, she knew there was no turning back, yet also knew that “blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion takes our lives.”
Her exposure to a nuclear testing site could have given her cancer—nine of her family members suffered from a cancer diagnosis most likely due to exposure to nuclear testing—but she made the sacrifice nonetheless in order to fight for a “community that includes plants, animals, rocks, and human beings.”
The result was what she termed a naturalist “awakening.” While caused in part by her activism, her awakening was more a result of her personal experiences with nature. After growing up in Utah and regularly seeing prairie dogs, she took a job studying the animals for weeks. During that time, she grew to appreciate the complex social life the animals, and even developed a personal connection with a mother she named “Madame Head Wide Apart.”
When urban development threatened a similar prairie dog population despite the objection of the Navajo tribe, Williams understood the impact of such a decision. The lawsuit against the developers, which ended in Williams’ favor, represented the crux of what Williams was trying to express: that a single passionate voice goes far despite being alone. As she told a room of students during lunch, “I still believe in democracy, I still believe in the people, and I believe in the passionate voice.”
The idea of the single, passionate voice was the impetus that prompted Williams to write about her personal experiences, a choice that resulted in criticism from other writers. Still, she says she has no choice. She says that the issues associated with the environment are those of consciousness, and without it “I don’t know how else to do it.” She compares this to the tradition of bearing testimonies during a Mormon service, in which members bear to the heavens their praise or grievances, both relieving and exposing their test of faith. For Williams, this is the way to “bypass rhetoric and pierce our hearts.”
However, the new knowledge was at odds with the ideas of her community, the result an issue she believes is central to all naturalists: the reconciliation of activism and community. She asserts that it is important to maintain relationships with and love for family, but also important to continue having “hard conversations.” These conversations are necessary, she says, for “future eyes are looking back at us, praying” that these issues will be solved.
Impressed by the “hunger and curiosity and passion of Colby students,” Williams referenced meaningful conversations she had with the College’s students in her presentations as well. After having an in-depth talk with Ben Semmes ’17, she even invited him to present a poem he wrote before her book reading in the Museum of Art.
Aside from the college, the state of Maine made a big impression on Williams, she said. While exploring the woods of Maine, she was in a “continual state of awe.” She even promised, nervously, to the audience that she would climb Mt. Katahdin at some point in her lifetime—with proper help.
Williams expressly told President Greene how moved she was by his students and her time here at the College. She in turn left them with a challenge: “We owe it to our communities to speak the unspeakable,” she said.
A large audience of students, faculty and community members gave a standing ovation after Williams spent 50 minutes reading from her novel, When Women Were Birds. Surrounded by Bernard Langlais’s natural, wooden paintings in the Art Museum lobby, the author finished her time at the College in a very fitting way. “If I told you Jesus himself were here, would you come?” Zacamy Professor of English Peter Harris said of the event: “[Williams] is pretty close.”

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