Thursday, July 06, 2017

Terry Talks the Talk and Walks All the Walks

We need to talk about Terry Tempest Williams now. After you read my blog, run, don't walk, to your local bookstore and buy one of her books. Yes, you could "just go on Amazon" (shudder - does it have to be Amazon? Bookstores do have web sites, you know) but I'd like to think you might not
want to make this purchase from Amazon, if you think enough about all that Terry Tempest Williams is. So let's talk about her. Settle in. Get comfortable. But also? Get uncomfortable.

Get uncomfortable, yes. Why do I say that? Because it will be to your benefit to get uncomfortable once in a while.

And it could possibly be to Earth's benefit as well. That's one of the points TTW made Wednesday night in her author appearance at Women and Children First bookstore, where she discussed  The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks and the current state of the country, humanity, and the planet. She was talking about her recent semester as a visiting professor at Dartmouth and the toughest class she ever taught, she said, because of the way the people in the classroom challenged her. She described a classroom in which she was accused, sometimes rightfully, of not understanding young activists as much as she should or of needing to learn more about what it means to be queer, which she did, and in which people sometimes said things like, "All this talk of sexual assault is irrelevant to my life" or "My brown body does not matter in any of these books you have assigned." But, she said, instead of rupturing, they kept at it, and she learned from them, and they learned from each other. She said that she told them on the first day "This is not a safe space" and if they were looking for that they were in the wrong place. It was a supportive space - but not a safe space, because writing is not a safe space. (<--her words)

Also, our world is not a safe space right now. (<--my words)

But writing, among other courageous acts of resistance, may help us.

It would be hard for me to overstate the value of Terry Tempest Williams' words. Others agree with me. See, e.g., this bit of a book review from The New York Times. (right)

At the bookstore appearance, TTW talked about the land in Utah, her homeland, which she described as a formerly rich desert that has been mined so much it now looks like an exposed nervous system.

During the Q&A period, a young audience person from Florida asked how to cope when, in the young person's lifetime, the Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Park disappear underwater. "Don't look away," Terry said.

I think that's what we all do so damn much of, looking away. Because:
-It's uncomfortable.
-It's hard.
-I can't do anything about it.
-I just can't deal.

Click click click click click click ...

A frenzy of looking away. Our looking away takes many forms, and we can talk about some more of those in a minute.

Like many people, I first came to Terry Tempest Williams' writing with Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It, and she, were big in the circles I ran in when I was 18, and I looked forward to reading it when it was assigned in my Women in Literature class taught by the inimitable Cecilia Konchar Farr during her last semester in Utah (that's another story for another time). I was in the small group that did our semester project on Refuge, and that project became a pilgrimage to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a class presentation done in the style of a church program (you'll understand why when you read the book), and then a protest demonstration. Cecilia dubbed us the "Refuge Radicals." You can see how all this is maybe a formative part of me, or perhaps an early recognition of all that I am.

But it's not about me--Refuge has spoken to so many people, with its tale of family, cancer, Earth, birds, cycles, destruction, and how we can go on. Terry Tempest Williams talked in this bookstore appearance about her Chinese translator of Refuge. TTW just recently got back from China. ("Beijing air," she said when she interrupted her reading for a small bout of coughing. "Also Salt Lake City air," she added.) The Chinese woman had commented that Terry's work was becoming more political and needed more beauty. Terry countered that that translator's work could maybe use more politics and less emphasis on beauty. They laughed. They are friends. They are each doing what they can, courageously.

We can be both compassionate and harsh. AT THE SAME TIME. I thrilled to hear TTW say that. I know that, and I know what it is to be put in a box, to be told if I'm one I'm not the other. Now, she clearly has a demeanor that would never be mistaken for mine; I'm sure you'll find her gentler, but don't you go thinking that she is not fierce. She fights, and with her life's work as a writer and naturalist she has fought and fought and fought for this land we are trampling, we the human race.

What are we racing toward?

Whatever it is, I don't think you need to worry about people's feelings getting hurt when I say things to them about the destruction on the path. To know me is to know that of all the possible motives for words and actions, wanton malice isn't mine. Maybe when someone says something "intense" we can benefit from hearing them instead of wishing they would speak the way we would have them speak.

"Smile." "Be sweet." Nah. Let's get uncomfortable. As TTW reminded us, we need to have the courage. Writing. Listening. Saying "That's bullshit."  Saying "Thank you, I understand you now. I've heard you."  ALL of these are necessary if we're going to have any hope whatsoever of saving our planet from human-wrought death and destruction. (Humanity itself, it has to be said, may not be worth saving.)

I know, I know, you think humanity is special, unique, privileged, chosen, blessed.  If you had heard Terry Tempest Williams talk about the bison she recently saw in Yellowstone, I think you might have shed tears along with me. I don't feel entitled to retell her story -- I hope you can hear it from her someday -- but I will tell you that in it, bison were grieving the loss of one of their own, and TTW reminded us that we are not the only species living, breathing, and grieving here with loved ones. My own deepest wish in this world is that you, each of you, each of us, will join in opening the cages and letting each being live the wild life it was meant to live. You might not be ready to listen to the trees and hear their message, as TTW did; you might not be ready to know how much the land matters, more than you are prepared to admit (she can help you, though). But I expect you to try to do better. And to not look away.

It's uncomfortable. It's hard. I can't do anything about it. I just can't deal.

It's uncomfortable to think about how much animals suffer because we, unlike the wolf Terry Tempest Williams observed in Yellowstone, don't go in for a quick kill with our jaws at the throat. We have a slow, laborious, monstrous industrialized meat process, from factory farm to slaughterhouse line where they are herded and trapped on conveyor belts, watching their fellows be killed in front of them, held tight with no escape possible, because we don't care how many billions of people there are -- we demand large animal livestock meat for all of them. It is one of the most environmentally irresponsible things we do in addition to being cruel. Do you think about this when you plan your meat menus? Or is it too "hard" to eat meat just once a week?  "Don't look away," Terry Tempest Williams said.

It's hard to live without:
-hot water
So we live a life of fossil fuel consumption. But we can think about it.  How else are you going to get better? Don't look away.

People tell me they love rabbits. Their child loves rabbits. And so what do they do? Get a "pet" rabbit, and lock it in a cage. Alone. A rabbit, for merciful god's sake, alone with no other companion of its species, locked in a cage.  How DARE anyone cage an animal as a pet? Where does such almighty hubris come from?

I expect better of you. I expect you to not look away when your friend/neighbor/associate puts a sentient being in a cage, or declaws a cat to "save" their precious furniture. It's furniture. An object you purchased, and you think it's better than a life. A living body. I expect so much better of humans, and I am so disappointed.

You can't do anything about it? Well, you can not look away when sentient beings suffer so that you can have:
-a Coach bag

You just can't deal. But you sure can upgrade your smartphone! The planned obsolescence of technology rapes the earth. That's a fact. Don't look away from it.

Milk. Ye.Gods. Milk, seriously, is one of the most grotesque things humanity does. No other species suckles at the breast of a different animal unless it's a unique, life-threatening emergency. Humans, though? We've got an entire industry, a multi-million dollar industry, with one of THE most powerful lobbies known to man (and they are, largely, men with that power), that has you 100% convinced you need milk for nutrition (you don't), that if you've "got milk" you're all set (for being overweight and higher cancer risk, maybe), that milk does a body good (whose body? not yours, not the raped mother cow nor the calf taken away from her who was entitled to the milk her body produced, not the imprisoned body kept captive and not moving while it is milked, day in and day out, like a machine, by a machine, for years, just for your cereal and your latte in which you could replace the dairy product with soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, hemp milk, rice milk, cashew milk...)   DON'T look away! Don't! Look at this. Look at your part in it. Look at what it says about our (lack of) respect for the animals and the land.

Terry Tempest Williams didn't say anything about milk in the bookstore. I'm just demonstrating that we are participating in the destruction of our planet, on both micro and macro scales, daily, because of our sheer disregard for the lives all around us - of trees, grassland, cows, wolves, national name it.

With tears in her eyes, she answered the question about how to cope with the loss of our planet's land by saying, "I don't know. But don't look away."

This is my testimony. I'm not telling you to never consume an animal product. I know that life is suffering. I KNOW this is true. And I've read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Have you? I understand what it means to be a species on this planet. I don't think humanity quite does. The other species seem to understand that they aren't the only goddamned species. (And if god had any sense, he would damn us, I believe, humans being the rotten lot we are.) (I mean like if he existed and stuff.)

I am telling you you should read TTW's book about our national parks and think about what it means that we have an occupying U.S. administration actively dismantling any protections our public lands have.

You will now be able to go hunt grizzly bears. That's apparently how we "make America great again." It's an absolute horror show.

TTW praised Aldo Leopold and the Leopold family, who have tracked the changes for years and demonstrated that the climate is changing and altering the landscape. Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (so Midwestern!) is another book I read as an English major, as I was entering the world of Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and all the Western naturalists who made me understand how much I loved my Arizona, Southwest, and West homelands, who made me see how much the "empty" lands and open spaces can teach us. All these writers have been warning us about the ways we're changing the climate, the landscape, the planet. For years. Listen. Let's not look away.

Terry Tempest Williams and I come from some of the same places, both geographical and religious. We have both grappled and questioned, each in our own ways. One thing our upbringing taught us, though, is the power of bearing testimony. It's remarkable, really, that a religion most people see as "cult-like" (it's not, and we'll have that discussion another day, too) actually hands over the bulk of the church meeting, once a month, to whoever wants to come up to the open microphone. Well, this Earth we're on needs a giant testimony meeting right now. Don't tell people to be quiet and "avoid politics." Don't look away. Don't tell people they're "not being nice." Don't worry about offending someone when you call them out on their behavior. Don't think of it as inappropriate to remind someone that by their lifestyle they're encouraging sweatshops, imprisonment, torture, hideous slaughter, trafficking, death, endangered species, and the flooding of our planet (Noah's ark, anyone?) I can't think of anything MORE appropriate than issuing the warning, loud and clear, from every bully pulpit - social media, face-to-face, or whatever else you can get your hands and vocal chords on.

This is my testimony, and I say it in the name of all that is good and holy in this universe: we've got to think about the land. We've got to think about Earth. We've got to think about the other species on it. Humanity might be doomed, or you might have a slight, tiny, glimmer of a chance. It would help you if you start listening to and understanding the likes of Terry Tempest Williams.

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