Friday, April 22, 2016

Pen Pals: Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams spoke in Hopkins Thursday night as part of the Pen Pal series. Her subject was the National Parks, about which she's written a book. She was stately, eloquent, slow-talking, and concerned about our decreasing attachment to the natural world. She told a few stories about the parks, the longest one dealing with the death of a bison in Yellowstone, and the response to this event by other bison, wolves, coyotes, and ravens.

Another story involved an evening she spent with her dear friend Doug Peacock, the real-life model for Heyduke, one of the characters in Edward Abbey's The Monkeywrench Gang. They drank a bottle of "fine Bordeaux" and between sips they read a poem to each other out loud about wolverines—a seldom seen species of weasel that had been denied "endangered" status by the federal government that day.

To those of us who came of age during the 1960s, environmental concern is a familiar subject—extremely important but perhaps a little dull to be rehashing at a literary event. I would rather have heard more about the spectacular features of some of the parks she's been writing about. Images flashed through my mind of the wonderful landscapes of Williams' home state of Utah, not only Canyonlands and Arches, but also Capital Reef, Hovenweep, the Wedge Overlook, the San Raphael Swell (maybe a good name for a book?), Horseshoe Canyon, the Burr Trail, Cedar Breaks, Waterpocket Fold, and Powell Point, not to mention Bryce and Zion national parks.

I was reminded of a night Hilary and I spent at an otherwise deserted Windwhistle Campground, a BLM facility south of Moab that's surrounded on three sides by luscious buttes; a hike we once took up the narrow slots of Little Wild Horse Canyon; and the day we went in (under escort of the state archaeologist) to see the Fremont artifacts at Range Creek.

In short, my mind was wandering a little, but that's not unusual. And it was a nice wander.

Williams' thoughtful and sober-minded talk was full of unusually long pauses, as if she were listening to a feed that went dead from time to time. More likely, she was just thinking of the next thing to say.  At the conclusion of the speech she turned on a recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (I think)  reimaged and electrified by the composer Max Richter. It was nice—a sort of non-verbal evocation of the rhythms and the power of nature. When it was over she said nothing, and after a few seconds of silence, she was greeted with thunderous and well-deserved applause.

During the Q & A, Williams was invited by one member of the audience to visit our beloved BWCAW, and she graciously accepted the invitation. (I'd be happy to guide the trip myself.) Others expressed their concern about how little most young people seem to care about the outdoors, though I'm not sure that's true. (But what do I know about such things?)

One young female fan in the audience said: "I've been wanting to meet you for years. I was crawling out of my skin all day today!" to which Williams replied, "I'm sorry to hear that. It sounds horrible."

As is often the case at such events, its value lay less in what was being said than in the presence of the person saying it. Yes, Williams was gracious, poetic, and even somewhat sentimental, while somehow exuding a depth beyond politics or literature.

It's a little early to be planning another trip, but I did find myself buying a bag of Boulder Canyon Avocado Oil kettle chips at the co-op today.... 

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