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Terry Tempest Williams and the Literature of Engagement

by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 10:13 AM

The following is an expanded version of a paper presented by David Barnhill at the Annual Meeting of the Western Literature Association, Tucson , Arizona , October 10, 2002.


I’d like to begin, paradoxically, not with Terry Tempest Williams in the desert but with Henry Beston on the North Atlantic Coast . In The Outermost House, Beston recounts a year of solitude contemplating nature at a beach at Cape Cod . In the 1949 Foreword to the book, he made the following statement: “It is the privilege of the naturalist to concern himself with a world whose greater manifestations remain above and beyond the violences of men”(xxxiii). It was this image of the solitary contemplative that first drew me to nature writing over thirty years ago, with war and contentious social movements penetrating everyone’s lives. At that time, the ideal of peaceful withdrawal seemed very appealing indeed.

In Dramas of Solitude, Richard Roorda has written an insightful analysis of this type of nature writing. Indeed, he claims that “the central dynamic of the genre [is] the writer’s movement from human society toward a state of solitude in nature.” (xiii) Moreover, “nature writing is most itself when its object is least human” (xiv) and this entails “a move to exclude the cultural.” (xv) In a related work, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing, Scott Slovic has argued that many nature writers “are not merely, or even primarily, analysts of nature or appreciators of nature – rather, they are students of the human mind, literary psychologists. And their chief preoccupation, I would argue, is with the psychological phenomenon of ‘awareness.’” (3) In this book Slovic acknowledges the political concerns of many writers, but sees psychological concerns as primary. “Although I recognize that several of these writers have political agendas, I prefer to view them as epistemologists, as students of the human mind, rather than as activists in any concrete sense of the term. . . . Nature writing is a ‘literature of hope’ in its assumption that the elevation of consciousness may lead to wholesome political change, but this literature is also concerned, and perhaps primarily so, with interior landscapes, with the mind itself.” (18)

From these books one can get an image of nature writing as a solitary contemplation of nature and of our consciousness of the earth. And that image -- our general conception of nature writing -- is important for a number of reasons. It helps define how we approach texts, what we look for and what we emphasize. It influences what texts we choose in our courses and anthologies. It affects how we respond to nature writing and how society at large thinks of it. As such it impacts the effect nature writing has on the world.

Nature writing certainly is at times about narratives of retreat and many writers explore consciousness of the natural world, but there are two problems with making this the principal and fundamental image of nature writing. The first is that it is, I think, inaccurate. Especially over the last forty years, since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the early writings of Gary Snyder, many writers have not turned their back on society and sought contemplation of nature but have linked nature writing with social life and ethical issues, and for many of them this is central to their work as writers. The second problem is that, in the face of environmental and social problems, such an image of contemplative retreat marginalizes nature writing and undercuts the social significance it can, it does, and it should have.


A Literature of Engagement

While accepting and appreciating many of the specific interpretations of Roorda and Slovic, I would like to present a different conception of nature writing, as a “literature of engagement.” And I would like to explore the different dimensions of this engagement and the different ways writers have pursued it – although I primarily confine myself to venturing into the desert and the writings of Terry Tempest Williams.

I suggest that there are at least three primary ways much of recent nature writing is characterized by “engagement.” First, nature writing has emphasized an interactive involvement with nature. The nature writer is not a mere contemplator of nature but interacts with it and it interacts with her. Several qualities distinguish this interactive involvement: the natural world is considered to have intrinsic value; there is a recognized relationship between nature and humans in which nature is seen as a subject rather than mere object; and the earth has agency and impacts people. In this way there is true involvement of humans in nature, that involvement is with nature, and it is interactive. The affirmation of such a mutual reciprocity of nature and humans is characteristic of ecofeminism.

Thus by “interactive involvements with nature” I mean to exclude two things. The first is mere contemplation of nature, in which nature is object (as landscape) and the nature writer simply gazes upon the beauty and value of the land about her without physical interaction. The second is the exploitive useof nature in which there is no deep sense of relationship between humans and the earth, and nature is treated as passive object devoid of intrinsic value. Examples would include extractive agriculture by corporate agribusiness or trophy hunting. However, other instances of farming and hunting can be interactive involvement with nature, such as Wendell Berry’s notion of the farmer as apprentice to nature, and Richard Nelson’s spiritual and ethical hunting described in The Island Within.

The second way nature writing has been a literature of engagement is by merging social interaction with one’s relationship with nature. In this case, family, community, or culture play a vital role in one’s interaction with nature. Such writings are characterized not by an encounter between a solitary individual and the earth. Instead, nature is experienced in the context of society and society is experienced in the context of nature. Family, for instance, has been an increasingly common focus in nature writing. Scott Russell Sanders has explored his relationship with nature along with his relationship to his wife, daughter, and son, and Rick Bass has reflected on his family’s multi-generational ties to the hill country of Texas . Similarly, some writers have explored the interplay of nature and social community. In Wendell Berry’s fictional portraits of the “Port William Membership” nature and community are inextricably tied together. A third aspect of nature’s writing’s social dimension is cross-cultural, in which writers articulate conceptions and values concerning nature of a culture other than the modern industrialized society. Examples include Leslie Marmon’s Silko’s analysis of Native American interrelationship with nature, Peter Matthiessen’s discussions of Buddhism in The Snow Leopard, or Richard Nelson’s writing about hunting practices influenced by Koyukon culture.

And third, nature writing has been involved political engagement. The focus here is environmental and social problems– or as I prefer to say, “ecosocial” problems – as well as ecosocial ideals developed in response. Nature writers, of course, have been involved in environmental politics for over a hundred years, and recently several books have appeared that analyze the significance of nature writing to environmental politics. And since Silent Spring , it has been particularly difficult for nature writers to present themselves, as Beston did, as living “above and beyond the violences of men.” Especially since the 1960s, the violences some nature writers have responded to are economic, social, and political, not just environmental. Kenneth Rexroth, Edward Abbey, Peter Matthiessen, Ursula Le Guin, Gary Snyder, and Wendell Berry have all presented stinging critiques of the American political, economic, and social system, and those critiques are inseparable from their vision of nature.


Terry Tempest Williams and the Literature of Engagement

Terry Tempest Williams is one of the clearest examples of nature writing as a literature of engagement in all three dimensions: ecological, social, and political. This might seem an odd claim. Her first major work is titled Refuge, which would seem to fit Roorda’s notion of narrative of retreat. Indeed, in a discussion with Robert Finch, Williams spoke of the peace she feels stepping alone into the sacred ground of Lone Peak Wilderness area. Finch complained that in such an approach nature becomes “an escape. It’s a refuge. It’s not a place where you live,” and pointed out that a criticism of nature writing is that it “is escapist literature, that there are really serious problems that need to be confronted in our time and just going into the woods or the mountains or the plains or wherever and celebrating what you see there is really, in context, a trivial exercise.” (Lueders, 56-61)

But of course Williams’s writings are about much more than solitary retreat. She exemplifies the first dimension of literature of engagement – of interactive involvement with nature – in a variety of ways. Nature is not merely an object of contemplation but is something we are deeply related to. She speaks, for instance, of nature being populated by our “relatives,” in particular birds (Refuge, 19, 40, and 252). Nature also has agency. She writes of the mountains working on her (Refuge, 160) and the desert marking her – literally with a scar on her face (Refuge, 243-244). She also undergoes ritual initiation into nature (Pieces of White Shell, 70).

Williams’s “spiritual and physical dialogue with landscape,” as Lorraine Anderson calls it, finds its most distinctive development of interactive involvement with nature in what she calls her “ erotics of place.” In the essay “ Yellowstone : Erotics of Place” she speaks of “Rituals. Ceremonies. Engaging with the land. Loving the land and dreaming it. An erotics of place” (Unspoken Hunger, 85). Contemplation of nature is not enough. For her there needs to be physical intimacy and reciprocity, and nature writing must come from the body. In her essay “The Erotic Landscape,” she climbs into a juniper. “Hours passed, who knows how long; the angle of light shifted. Something had passed between us, evident by the change in my own countenance, the slowing of my pulse, and the softness of my eyes as though I was awakening from a desert trance.” “I finally inched my way down, wrapping my hands around the trunk. Feet on Earth. I took out my water bottle and saturated the roots. Pink sand turned red. I left the desert in a state of wetness.” (Red, 107-108) As she has mentioned in several interviews, her central question in the book Unspoken Hunger was “ how do we make love to the land?” (e.g., London Interview, 1-2).

This is clearly a very personal and intimate form of engaging the earth. But in her engagement of nature, she also includes her family– one part of the second, social dimension of engagement. Despite the fact that the title of her first major book, Refuge, suggests a narrative of retreat, the book concerns not her solitary encounter with nature but her engagement in nature-and-family , the two virtually unseparated. She experiences nature within the context of family, and she experiences family within the context of nature – both the rising levels of the Great Salt Lake and the deadly levels of radioactivity her family was exposed to. In an interview she speaks of her family in the following way: “We knew that our relationship to the land was our relationship to each other. We could hold Church in the middle of the Great Basin as well as in the Monument Park Fourteenth Ward.” (Listen to their Voices, 125) However much she prizes moments of solitude in the wilderness, the familial experience of nature is central to her nature writing.

More broadly, Williams experiences nature within the context of her community – and she experiences her community within the context of the natural world. She has spoken of the need “To become biologically literate, to engage with our neighbors and communities, to focus on small-scale agriculture and commerce and support them, to realize we are deeply aligned with the life around us—to recognize this movement of the heart and mind and soul as a movement of love that can never be corralled.” (“Getting it Right”) Nature writing itself emerges out of community and is aimed toward it. “Nature writing . . . can be a literature of hope and faith and how we might move within our communities to heal our severed relations.” (Bartkevicius & Hussmann interview, 15) When she speaks of story in nature writing, it is often more a story of community than a narrative of retreat. “Story binds us to community. Part of the reason I could write Refuge, which is so intensely personal, is my belief that inside story the personal is transformed into the general, the universal. Story becomes the conscience of our communities.” (Pearlman interview, Listen to their Voices, 122-123)

In addition to family and community, culture is another aspect of the social dimension of nature writing. Terry Tempest Williams explores cultural interchange most thoroughly in Pieces of a White Shell—A Journey to Navajoland. That book is not just about the Navajo relationship with nature, but also about her relationship with nature mediated through Navajo culture. “Sometimes you have to disclaim your country and inhabit another before you can return to you own.” (Pieces of White Shell, 2) She realizes that exploring the attitudes and values concerning nature in another culture is tricky business, but it is possible, for there is much that binds us with other cultures as well as much that separates us. “This book is a journey into one culture, Navajo, and back out again to my own, Mormon. I am reminded by a Shoshone friend that I come to the Navajo as a migrating bird, lighting for only brief periods of time. This is true. But it is also true that the lessons I learn come from similar places. No one culture has dominion over birdsong. We all share the same sky.” (Pieces of White Shell, 2) Part of the attitude that is required to make this cross-cultural engagement meaningful and authentic is realizing its limits. “We are not Navajo, however; we are not Inuit people or Sioux. We are contemporary citizens living in a technological world. Swimming in cross-cultural waters can be dangerous, and if you are honest you can’t stay there very long. Sooner or later you have to look at your own reflection and decide what to do with yourself.” (Pieces of White Shell, 136) Within these limits, Williams shows us how an engagement with another culture can be an important way of enriching our engagement with the natural world.

Family, community, and culture are crucial elements of Williams’s nature writing. One statement, I think, captures these three aspects of the social dimension of engagement in her nature writing: cross-cultural, family, and community: “What an African woman nurtures in the soil will eventually feed her family. Likewise, what she nurtures in her relations will ultimately nurture her community. It is a matter of living the circle.” (Refuge, 137) Williams attempts to “live the circle” in her nature writing.

The third dimension of engagement is the political. Nature writing, Williams recognizes, is ultimately political writing. “It is a simple equation: place + people = politics.” (Red, 3) “To speak about nature is to ultimately address issues of health, justice, and sovereignty. Nature writing in the pure sense is not cynical. It can be a literature of hope and faith and how we might move within our communities to heal our severed relations.” (Bartkevicius & Hussmann interview, 15) While her climbing into the juniper tree may see far removed from politics, she has stated that “I want to see how we might redefine the erotic, how an erotics of place might lead to a politics of place” (Pearlman interview, Listen to their Voices, 131).


Ecosocial critique

I think it is useful to distinguish two main aspects to nature writing’s political engagement in ecosocial issues: critique of the nature and causes of ecosocial problems, and the articulation of ecosocial ideals. And for Williams, in each case there is both analysis and activism. Critique may be said to begin with witness, the vision of what is wrong and the re-presentation of it to her audience. Williams has said that “I write as a witness to what I have seen.” (Red, 114) Of course sometimes Williams serves as a witness to beauty and value. “Who is witness to this full-bodied beauty? Who can withstand the recondite wisdom and sonorous silence of wildness?” (Unspoken Hunger, 120) But in our “world of wounds” as Aldo Leopold put it, even the witness to beauty carries pain. “I have felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness born out of a connection to place that fuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.” (Unspoken Hunger, 57)

The vision of beauty is painful in part because so often to see beauty is towitness its destruction. “I write to record what I love in the face of loss.” (Red, 112-113) Being a witness to beauty and loss, in fact, go together. “As a writer, I believe that it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty.” ( London Interview, 1) She has been particularly concerned with attempts to exploit the red rock desert areas of the Basin and Range. Her concern – and her rage – have increased dramatically since George W. Bush became President. “ In my darkest moments, I rant and write polemics as I watch a war of exploitation being waged against our public lands in the American West and Alaska . . . . ( “Commencement,” 24)

Engagement in ecosocial problems goes beyond mere witnessing to critical analysis. Some elements in her critique we have heard many times, such as overpopulation (Red, 158) and our society’s greed linked to consumerism and endless development (Red, 101 and 117; Listen to their Voices, 132). She puts that last point poignantly when she asks “Can we really survive the worship of our own destructiveness?” (Red, 76) This can come in the form of general statements, such as that we live in “ a society where wealth determines if we are heard, what options we have, what power we hold” (Red, 161), or more specific criticisms, such as pointing out how the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity has been used to shield the United States government from having to pay compensation to survivors of cancer caused by nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. (Refuge, 285)

One of her most significant and distinctive critiques concerns feelings. “Without feeling. Perhaps these two words are the key, the only way we can begin to understand our abuse of each other and our abuse of the land.” (Red, 108) Our culture has lost feeling in part from our desire for control. (Unspoken Hunger, 65) But she looks primarily to fear as the cause of this problem. This fear may be of the wild: “Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent.” (Unspoken Hunger, 58) It may be a fear of our deepest cravings: “Audre Lorde tells us, ‘We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves . . . our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for or accept many aspects of our own oppression.” (Unspoken Hunger, 64) Fundamentally, it seems, feeling is lost because feeling itself is what is feared . “Could it be that what we fear most is our capacity to feel, so that we annihilate symbolically and physically that which is beautiful and tender, anything that dares us to consider our creative selves?” (Red, 108) “The land is love. Love is what we fear. To disengage from the earth is our own oppression.” (Unspoken Hunger, 65) This fear is the opposite of the erotics of place, for it keeps us from intimacy: “Our lack of intimacy with the natural world is in direct correspondence with our lack of intimacy with each other.” (Pantheon Interview, 5)

Williams has turned to a more fully developed political critique in the past few years, in response to Bush’s war against our public lands, the incitement of a “hollow patriotism” after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, and the “ wholesale destruction of seemingly everything that contributes to a free society, except the special interests of big business” (”Commencement”). While in Italy she witnesses a huge demonstration against the exploitive globalization forced upon the world by transnational corporations, and that witness expands into vision. “Looking over my shoulder from the rise on the bridge, all I could see was an endless river of people walking, many hand in hand, all side by side, peacefully, united in place with a will for social change. . . . Leonardo da Vinci was among them, his words carrying a particularly contemporary sting: ‘Andby reason of their boundless pride . . . there shall be nothing remaining on the earth or under the earth or in the waters that shall not be pursued and molested or destroyed.’” She adds, “The hundreds of thousands of individuals who walked together in the name of social change could be seen as the dignified, radical center walking boldly toward the future.” ( “Engagement” 56)

Her recounting of that event exhibits her commitment to join critique with activism. “When Edward Abbey calls for the artist to be a critic of his or her society, do we live on the page or do we live in the world?” (Unspoken Hunger, 133-134) As Cassandra Kircher has noted, “Williams never portrays herself as a victim of the patriarchy or as an agentless female object, but as a fighter. . . .” (162) In Williams’s words, the call is “To labor in the name of social change. To bear down and push against the constraints of our own self-imposed structures. To sacrifice in the name of an ecological imperative. To be broken open to a new way of being” (“Labor,” Red, 159-160). “I think we have to stand up against what is unacceptable, and to push the boundaries and reclaim a more humane way of being in the world, so that we can extend our compassionate intelligence and begin to work with a strengthened will and imagination that can take us into the future” (London Interview, 10).

Her activism takes several forms. Writing can be one form of activism against the loss and injustice she sees. Once she suggested that writing is the only weapon she has against those in power. (Bartkevicius & Hussmann interview, 18-19) However, it is not the only weapon she uses. One way she found was in earlier years was to turn her role as Naturalist-in-Residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History into a site for resistance. “Nothing inspires me more than a little controversy. We are in the business of waking people up to their surroundings. A museum is a good place to be quietly subversive on behalf of the land” (Refuge 44).

She has worked within the political system to lobby against the destructiveness and arrogance she sees among those in power. Echoing Rick Bass’s call for vigilant lobbying of Congress on behalf of the wild, she has said “We can flood Congress with our wild cards. . . . This is the kind of politics we must be engaged in—nothing marginal, nothing peripheral, nothing inessential, not anymore” (Unspoken Hunger 140). More directly, Williams has testified before Congress and raised such political discourse to the level of literary essay.

Williams realizes, however, that activism through legislation is not enough. Direct action and resistance are needed. In “A Prayer for a Wild Millennium,” she states, “In the decade to come, we have bills pending to designate national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas in every western state. These bills will not translate to the preservation of what we love if we do not engage ourselves fully in social change.” (Red, 188) This change can come as we pay attention to what she calls “strike moments.” “Democracy is full of strike moments, when injustice rubs against justice and a flame is carried by a man, a woman, a community, who lights a path of right action in the name of social change.” (Red, 191)

Williams has used two different names for those who resist. One she draws from Thoreau: “active souls .” She calls the 13,000 members of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance an “impressive cadre of ‘active souls,’” and adds, “We need to act. . . . We need to stay optimistic and recognize the power and authenticity of spirit that is ours.” (“Letter of Solidarity”) Her own original and more playful term is the Coyote Clan. “The canyons of southern Utah are giving birth to a Coyote Clan – hundreds, maybe even thousands, of individuals who are quietly subversive on behalf of the land. And they are infiltrating our neighborhoods in the most respectable ways, with their long, bushy tails tucked discreetly inside their pants or beneath their skirts.” (Red, 26)

Resistance can be quite personal and spontaneous. My favorite episode of her participation in the Coyote Clan occurs early in Refuge, when she encounters two men who have deliberately crushed a nest of Burrowing Owls. In response, she says, “I walked calmly over to their truck and leaned my stomach against their door. I held up my fist a few inches from the driver’s face and slowly lifted my middle finger to the sky. ‘This is for you—from the owls and me.’” (Refuge, 12-13)

Resistance can also be direct action against the government and the laws that protect what is unacceptable. Williams quotes approvingly Edward Abbey’s view of patriotic vigilance. "A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government" (“Engagement” 58). Following in the footsteps of Thoreau, Williams has engaged in civil disobedience . In Refuge (289) she recalls crossing the line at the Nevada Test Site and being arrested. “It was a gesture on behalf of the Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Then she ties this act of civil disobedience with her activism as a writer. “As one officer cinched the handcuffs around my wrists, another frisked my body. She found a pen and a pad of paper tucked inside my left boot. ‘And these?’ she asked sternly. ‘Weapons,’ I replied.”


Ecosocial ideal

If our society is characterized by such severe problems, what positive alternative is there? Many of Williams’s explorations into the ideal, particularly in her earlier writing, are psychological and personal. The development of an alternative society depends on each individual cultivating a new state of mind and a deepened sense of interconnectedness. She quotes the socially engaged Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh who said, “One does not walk for peace, one walks in peace” ( “Engagement,” Orion, 56a). The path to the ideal is to exemplify the ideal now, as in Gandhi’s words, “You must be the change you want in the world.” Despite her rage against an aggressive and destructive hegemony, she seeks to counter it with peace.

How does one respond to those with patriarchal power? With collaborative vulnerability. This may seem odd coming from someone known as a fighter. But to avoid joining the search for power over others, we need to realize and accept vulnerability as a positive condition that opens us to the world, its beauty and its pain. But this is not a solitary, disempowering insecurity. It is a shared, communal openness, and so counters patriarchal power-over with ecofeminist power-with. “The heart is the house of empathy whose door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives, where we find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainty with strength, not fear, understanding this is all there is. The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power. Our power lies in our love of our homelands” (“Engagement” 57). She finds this openness to be essential to true democracy. “Democracy is built upon the right to be insecure. We are vulnerable. And we are vulnerable together.” (“Commencement,” 22)

Similarly, how does one counter the dehumanizing alienation from nature, others, and oneself? By exposure. “By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society’s oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings.” (Unspoken Hunger, 57) This exposure is, not surprisingly, related to her notion of erotics. “It is time for us to take off our masks, to step out from behind our personas . . . and admit we are lovers, engaged in an erotics of place. (Unspoken Hunger, 84)

Such exposure is important because, breaking free of societal limitations, we open to our feelings. “If we are at all sensitive to the life around us, to one another's pains and joys, to the beauty and fragility of the Earth, it is all about being broken open, allowing ourselves to step out from our hardened veneers and expose our core, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in our emotional response to the world.” (Pantheon Interview, 5) Such heightened passion is related to another aspect of her alternative to mainstream culture: being fully present. “When we’re in relation, . . . there is an exchange of the erotic impulse. We are engaged, we are vulnerable, we are both giving and receiving, we are fully present in that moment, and we are able to heighten our capacity for passion. . . .” (Bartkevicius & Hussmann interview, 3-4)

The first model she presents of being fully present, however, is not found in youthful passion but in her mother’s acceptance of death. In Refuge, her mother states: “For the first time in my life, I started to be fully present in the day I was living. I was alive” (116), and later Williams describes her “quietly walking with the present.” (191) The rapaciousness of American culture is countered, Buddhist-like, by serene engagement of the present.

But even serenity is, for Williams, passionate, and the color red has come to symbolize that quality. “I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white.” (Red, 112) Red is, in fact, a metaphor for her interactive engagement with nature and the sensual unity that results. “This river has muscle when flexed against stone, carved stone, stones that appear as waves of rock, secret knowledge known only through engagement. I am no longer content to sit, but stand and walk, walk to the river, enter the river, surrender my body to water now red, red is the Colorado , blood of my veins. “ (Red, 150) While she presents little analysis in terms of a social ideal, her presentation of the personal and psychological alternative to American culture is stirring.

Recently, Williams has focused on a more traditional American ideal: democracy. Most Americans tend to see democracy in simple terms that those in power promote (such as democracy consists in the ability to vote, and the United States is a model of democracy). Recently political theorists of diverse persuasions have presented another perspective, that what is called democracy in this country falls far short of the true ideal of democracy. Different terms have been used to analyze that ideal, including participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, strong democracy, and radical democracy. In all cases it is argued that democracy in the U.S. has been substantially, even fundamentally diluted by a centralization of power and wealth in an elite that controls how Americans view the world (principally through corporate control of the media both during and in between elections) and what decisions get made (through lobbying and large donations to politicians). As a result, people have become cynical or indifferent toward the political process and show little real participation beyond voting every few years for one of two candidates funded by the elite – and even there, voter turnout in the U.S. is very low compared to other countries. What is needed, they argue, is a truly strong democracy in which the people are informed and empowered and participate actively in political deliberations and decisions.

Williams makes substantially the same argument, although she develops her view in a less philosophical and systematic way. She argues that we need to look critically at the state of democracy in America . “ We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt. It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships” (“ Engagement” 58).

For Williams, true democracy is primarily characterized by active engagement in political processes by the people. “Democracy's only agenda,” she has said, “is that we participate (“Democracy Diary”). Democracy is not simply a political structure but a call to involvement. “What will we make of the life before us? How do we translate the gifts of solitary beauty into the action required for true participatory citizenship?” (“Ground Truthing” 42). As a result, democracy is an ongoing project. “ I have always believed democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion -- a never-ending project where the windows and doors remain open. . . . Walls are torn down instead of erected in a counter-intuitive process where a monument is not built but a home, in a constant state of renovation.” As a result, “Democracy . . . requires patience and persistence” (“Commencement” 20, 22).

This ongoing process is untidy and uncertain. “Democracy can also be messy and chaotic,” she has said, it “is built upon the right to be insecure.” “D emocracy invites us to take risks. It asks that we vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act, ultimately, on behalf of the common good (“Commencement” 22, 25). One way to respond to such uncertainty is to remove it by asserting control. But that would close off the creative vitality that democracy needs. Instead we have to accept, indeed embrace, the vulnerability involved.

Such an embrace is possible if we realize that “We are vulnerable together” (“Commencement” 22). In line with ecofeminist notions of community (as opposed to individualism and a self-denying monism), Williams emphasizes the collaborative, communitarian quality of a strong democracy. For her, “ community interaction is the white-hot center of a democracy that burns bright” (“Ground Truthing” 47). In contrast to an image of democracy in which individuals go off to cast votes in solitary cells every few years, a strong democracy depends on “. . . the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry” (“Engagement” 59).

One of the most important responsibilities of a vibrant citizenry is vigilant attention to the forces that undercut democracy, and a refusal to accept anything less than the open space of democracy. “When democracy disappears, we are asked to accept the way things are. I beg you: Do not accept the way things are.” Instead, she says, “I would submit that we can protect and preserve the open space of democracy by carrying a healthy sense of indignation within us that will shatter the complacency that has seeped into our society in the name of all we have lost -- knowing there is still so much to be saved” (“Commencement” 22). Not only is democracy at stake, but the well-being of the earth and the people’s ownership of the land. “The Bush and Cheney agenda is an energy agenda, and they'll take the wild lands for that purpose unless we are a vigilant, responsible citizenry” (Eastburn Interview, 3).

For democracy to be truly open, it must be inclusive, egalitarian, and grassroots. “We like to think -- and politicians too often think -- that all leadership comes from the top down. But the leadership and the passing of laws like civil rights (and the Wilderness Act) came from the streets. It came from the people” (“Democracy Diary” ). For it to come from the people, there must be an emphasis on diversity. “The open space of democracy,” she says, “is a landscape that encourages diversity and discourages conformity.” As a result, in the open space of democracy there must be “room for dissent” and “room for differences” (“Commencement” 22, 21).

Such an open space then can be filled with “reflective questioning” and “civil dialogue” (“Democracy Diary”). Williams conceives of democracy as a conversation: “All I'm asking for is a healthy, conscious discussion” (Eastburn Interview 3). Indeed, the principal goal is not discovering the truth but rather maintaining an open and egalitarian dialogue. “ It doesn't matter whether an answer is right or wrong, only that ideas be heard and discussed openly (“Commencement” 25). To be engaged in that open dialogue is to be involved in personal diplomacy. “To commit to the open space of democracy is to begin to make room for conversations that can move us toward a personal diplomacy. By personal diplomacy, I mean a flesh-and-blood encounter with public process that is not an abstraction but grounded in real time and space with people we have to face in our own hometowns. It’s not altogether pleasant and there is no guarantee as to the outcome. Boos and cheers come in equal measure” (“Commencement” 25).

There are other requirements for democracy to be open. If we are to have passionate discussions with a wide range of people and opinions, we need to have respect, humility, and patience. This leads her to criticize the environmental movement which, she says, “is not listening. We are engaged in a rhetoric as strong and as aggressive as the so-called opposition. I would love to see the whole notion of opposition dissolved, so there's no longer this shadow dance between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I would love for us to listen to one another and try to say, ‘What do we want as members of this community?’” (Jensen Interview, Listening to the Land).

Williams does not work out in detail what her ideal of an open space of democracy would look like in terms of political and social structure. However, if we take her comments seriously, her proposal seems quite radical. How much would American civil society and political processes have to change to create and maintain this open space? In recalling her stay in Italy , Williams quotes approvingly a local businessman. “‘Antiglobalization is not a slogan,’ he said, ‘it is a rigorous reconfiguration of democracy that places power and creativity back into the hands of villagers and townspeople, providing them with as many choices as possible’" (“Engagement” 55). With hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into campaigns and lobbying aimed at both establishment parties, with the media controlled by a few corporations, with a country consumed by fears of terrorism, with the continuing power of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against a half-century ago, fundamental and sweeping changes would need to be made. At the same time, Williams makes clear that each citizen needs to make changes personally and locally.

While Williams’s writings do not provide details on political structure and processes, she does develop her ideal of radical democracy in a more holistic way than what is found in the scholarship of political theorists. First, in line with ecofeminist critique of Enlightenment rationalism, she goes beyond a merely philosophical analysis to claim that we need a more fully “embodied” democracy, one that is informed by the body, feelings, and intuition. “ The human heart is the first home of democracy,” she says. “It is where we embrace our questions. . . . Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?” She adds, “In the open space of democracy, we engage the qualities of inquiry, intuition, and love as we become a dynamic citizenry, unafraid to exercise our shared knowledge and power” (“Engagement” 57). She turns to early American history to argue that the deliberation in true democracy must be passionate while at the same time open and respectful. I have always held the image of our founding fathers close to my heart, how they dared to disagree passionately with one another, yet remained open to what each had to say, some even changing their minds, as they forged our Constitution. This is the bedrock of our evolving republic. . . .” (“Commencement” 25).

A second aspect of her more holistic approach to radical democracy is to link it with the natural world. Her ideal, in fact, is an example of ecological communitarianism, grounded in the processes of the earth and pursued communally. “ The power of nature,” she says, “is the power of a life in association. Nothing stands alone. On my haunches, I see a sunburst lichen attached to limestone; algae and fungi are working together to break down rock into soil. I cannot help but recognize a radical form of democracy at play. Each organism is rooted in its own biological niche, drawing its power from its relationship to other organisms. An equality of being contributes to an ecological state of health and succession” ( “Ground Truthing” 47). For Williams, a true democracy must be ecocentric. “Are we ready for the next evolutionary leap—to recognize the restoration of democracy as the restoration of liberty and justice for all species, not just our own? (“Engagement” 59). During a visit to the embattled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, she finds an ecological democracy in the land itself. “What I feel is a spiritual cohesion born out of wholeness. It is organic, cellular. . . . The open space of democracy is not interested in hierarchies but in networks and systems where power is circular, not linear; a power reserved not for an entitled few, but shared and maintained by many. . . . The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the literal open space of democracy” (“Ground Truthing” 47).

In order to support and illustrate her ideal, Williams has turned to her Mormon heritage. Despite her objections to the current Mormon ideology, she has found its early tradition to be a source and foundation for. Early Mormon experiments with communities, she says, were based “on an ecological model: cooperation among individuals within a set of defined interactions. Each person was operating within their own ‘ecological niche,’ strengthening and sustaining the overall structure or ‘ecosystem’” (Refuge, 100). Such an ecocommunitarianism can also be found in other nature writers, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Ursula Le Guin, Gary Snyder, and Wendell Berry.

Williams has both promoted and participated in activism aimed at achieving these ideals. Here again, writing is a form of activism. Her essays on the value of the earth, our essential interrelatedness with it, and the realization of intimacy with it in an erotics of place are themselves a form of activism rather than mere analysis of an ideal. Williams has combined nature writing with support for legislation of wilderness protection. One example is Testimony, an anthology of essays on behalf of Utah wilderness. She and co-editor Stephen Trimble open their introduction with the following: “To bear testimony is to bear witness; we speak from the truth of our lives. How do we put our love for the land into action? This book is one model, an act of faith by writers who believe in the power of story, a bedrock reminder of how wild nature continues to inform, inspire, and sustain us” (3). The book was distributed to all members of Congress and to the press.

More specifically she works in community building. If the dominant society is characterized by alienation from the earth and from other people, then we need to begin building a more communitarian society living responsibly on the earth. Sometimes this takes the form of bioregional work, the practical expression of a deep sense of place. Participation in watershed councils and local land trusts are one form this can approach can take (Red, 14).

Recently, her most visible form of activism is speaking out against she sees as the repressive politics in President Bush’s foreign and domestic policies. One of her essays was adapted into a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. She also has spoken across the country, as in her Open Space of Democracy Tour in October 2004. That tour was to culminate in late October at Florida Gulf Coast University with her being the featured speaker at the students’ Convocation and giving the Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture the following day . The students had been reading her The Open Space of Democracy and were looking forward to meeting the author. Ironically, as a symbol of a closed democracy, just before she began that tour, Williams was informed that the President would not allow her to speak at the scheduled Convocation. He did not want a critic of President Bush to speak to the students right before the 2004 election. The students, including the student Republican organization, protested, and the incident made national news. But the President refused to change. In a letter to the President, Williams said, “I believe that to deny the students their own Convocation at this point in time . . . is not only a breach of contract, but more tragically, a breach of democracy” (“Democracy Diary”).



Terry Tempest Williams shows that nature writing is not merely or even fundamentally a narrative of retreat in which the author contemplates nature and consciousness. It also can be a literature of engagement. This engagement is, in fact, a spiritual enterprise as nature writing becomes prayer. “To make the abstract real, to be unafraid to speak of what we love in the language of story, to remember we are engaged in bloodwork, one day at a time. The presence of personal engagement, its own form of prayer” (“Getting it Right”). For us to recognize the enormous significance and power of nature writing, we need to see it as both personal and political, social and spiritual. And it involves a calling to engage our world.

It is important to recognize that much of nature writing is a literature of engagement because such a conception affects how we respond to nature writing. Jan Whitt has noted that “Responding to Williams’ writing requires not literary criticism but . . . activism, conviction, and commitment” (84). In the words of Terry Tempest Williams, nature writing is a call to practice. “This country’s wisdom still resides in its . . . everyday citizens who have not forgotten their kinship with nature. They are individuals who will forever hold the standard of the wild high, knowing in their hearts that natural engagement is not an interlude but a daily practice, a commitment each generation must renew in the name of the land” (Red, 70).







Barber, Benjamin. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1984.

Barnhill, David Landis. “An Interwoven World: Gary Snyder’s Cultural Ecosystem.” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, and Religion 6.2 (Fall 2002): 111-144.

Bass, Rick. “On Willow Creek.” In At Home on the Earth, ed. David Landis Barnhill. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1999. 211-26.

Berry, Wendell. A Place on Earth . Revised edition. Washington , D.C. : Counterpoint, 1983.

Beston, Henry. The Outermost House: a year of life on the great beach of Cape Cod. New York , Rinehart, 1949.

Elster, Jon. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge , England : Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Gundersen, Adloph. The Environmental Promise of Democratic Deliberation. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Le Guin, Ursula. Always Coming Home. New York : Harper, 1985.

-----. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia . New York : Harper and Row, 1974.

Lueders, Edward, ed. Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors. Salt Lake City : University of Utah Press, 1989.

Lummis, C. Douglas. Radical Democracy. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1997.

Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. New York : Viking, 1978.

Mouffe, Chantal. Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community. New York : Verso, 1992.

Murphy, Patrick D. Literature, Nature, and Other: Ecofeminist Critiques. Albany : State University of New York Press, 1995.

Nelson, Richard. The Island Within . San Francisco : North Point, 1989.

Payne, Daniel G. Voices in the Wilderness: American Nature Writing and Environmental Politics . Hanover , N.H. : University Press of New England , 1996.

Philippon, Daniel J. Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement . Athens : University of Georgia Press , 2004.

Roorda, Richard. Dramas of Solitude: narratives of retreat in American nature writing. Albany : State University of New York Press, 1998.

Sanders, Scott Russell. Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys . Boston : Beacon Press, 1998.

-----. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston : Beacon Press, 1993.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination.” In At Home on the Earth, ed. David Landis Barnhill. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1999.

Slovic, Scott. Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez. Salt Lake City : University of Utah Press, 1992.

Tend, David, ed. Radical Democracy: Identity, Citizenship, and the State. Routledge, 1995.

Trimble, Stephen, and Terry Tempest Williams, eds. Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of the Utah Wilderness . Minneapolis : Milkweed Press, 1996.

Weltzien, O. Alan, ed. The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass. Salt Lake City : University of Utah Press, 2001.

Williams, Terry Tempest. “Commencement.” Orion 23.2 (March/April 2004)

-----. “Democracy Diary.” <> 8 October 2005.

-----. “Engagement.” Orion 23.4 ( July/August, 2004): 52-59.

-----. “Ground Truthing.” Orion 23.3 (May/June 2004): 36-47.

-----. Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland. New York : Scribners, 1984.

-----. Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert . New York : Pantheon Books, 2001.

-----. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York : Pantheon, 1991.

-----. An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field . New York : Pantheon, 1994.

Zimmerman, Joseph F. Participatory Democracy: Populism Revived. New York : Praeger, 1986.





One way to further analyze this perspective is with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “anotherness.” For an ecofeminist application of anotherness, see Patrick D. Murphy’s Literature, Nature, and Other: Ecofeminist Critiques (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995). For an application to Gary Snyder and cross-cultural interchange, see my “An Interwoven World: Gary Snyder’s Cultural Ecosystem,” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, and Religion 6.2 (Fall 2002): 111-144.

Such an approach to nature as “landscape,” common in Romanticism, has been criticized by some Native American writers, most notably Leslie Marmon Silko in her “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination.” See her “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” in At Home on the Earth, ed. David Landis Barnhill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 30-42.

See Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) and Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), and Rick Bass, “On Willow Creek,” in At Home on the Earth , ed. David Landis Barnhill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 211-26.

Among his many fictional works, see A Place on Earth (revised edition, Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1983).

See Silko, Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (New York: Viking, 1978), and Richard Nelson, The Island Within (San Francisco: North Point, 1989).

For reviews of nature writers and environmental politics, see Daniel G. Payne, Voices in the Wilderness: American Nature Writing and Environmental Politics (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1996) and Daniel J. Philippon, Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).

For other examples of nature writers incorporating family into their writings, see the works of Sharon Butala, Scott Russell Sanders, Gary Snyder, among many others.

For two very different examples of other writers incorporating community in nature writing, see Wendell Berry’s fiction and poetry and Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction, most notably The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) and Always Coming Home (New York: Harper, 1985).

For an analysis and defense of Gary Snyder’s adaptation of Native American culture, see my “An Interwoven World: Gary Snyder’s Cultural Ecosystem,” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, and Religion 6.2 (Fall 2002): 111-144. I argue for an “ecosystem” approach to culture that, like Bakhtin’s notion of Anotherness, affirms both difference and continuity and reveals that cross-cultural interchange can be authentic and not colonialist.

Even more than Williams, Bass has struggled with the relationship between art and activism. For a collection of essays on this topic, see The Literary Art and Activism of Rick Bass, ed. O. Alan Weltzien ( Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001).

See her essays “Testimony” (Unspoken Hunger 125-31) and “Statement” (Red 72-78), which were delivered before Congress.

Williams’s website is “”

See, among many others, Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Jon Elster, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Adolf Gundersen, The Environmental Promise of Democratic Deliberation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995); Joseph Zimmerman, Participatory Democracy: Populism Revived (Praeger, 1986); C. Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy (Cornell University Press, 1997); Chantal Mouffe,. Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community (Verso, 1992); David Tend, ed., Radical Democracy: Identity, Citizenship, and the State (Routledge, 1995) .

The communitarian anarchist nature writers Kenneth Rexroth and Edward Abbey also praised early Mormon communities.

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by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 10:13 AM