Tempest Tossed

Writer Terry Tempest Williams believes the chaos and terror of recent weeks could bring about a restoration of place and spirit in America

Oct 10, 2001 at 4:00 am
This is a story," Terry Tempest Williams begins, seated in her room at the Ritz-Carlton. The writer, in town to promote her new book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, believes stories are salvation, the threads that connect people to people and people to all that is around them. Stories bind, create intimacy, which, in Williams' view, forges a political relationship, one far more profound than "consensus."

When people ask, "Where were you on Sept. 11?" they're asking for a story, to connect within what Williams calls "the concentric circles of grief." Williams was in Washington, D.C., at the Corcoran Gallery, right across from the White House, that day. About to open was a photo exhibition, In Response to Place, with 12 artists who, says Williams, "normally had not cast their gaze on wild places," Annie Leibowitz, Sally Mann, William Wegman and Mary Ellen Mark among them. They had gotten together in the morning for a press conference and were engrossed in conversation about how the project had affected them, Williams says: "Mary Ellen talked about the Aleutians; Sally talked about finding a light she had never seen before in the Yucatan; Bill Christenberry talked about returning home to Alabama.

"Everyone was talking about these things, and then we, like everyone, got the message." The World Trade Center had been hit by planes.

"In a few minutes, a security guard came in, very anxious, and said, 'The Pentagon has just been struck. We have reason to believe the White House is next. Run.'

"Next thing you know, seven of us smashed inside this cab. The cab driver turns around very calmly and says, 'Just where would you like to go?'

"It was this realization that there's no place to go. We're here."

We're here serves as an appropriate condensed version of one of the major themes running throughout Williams' books (Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and Leap, to name two of her best.) "Listen. Below us. Above us. Inside us. Come. This is all there is," she writes as the entryway to Red. "It's a simple equation: place + people = politics," she theorizes, which is an equation as apt for New York City and Jerusalem as it is for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Castle Valley, Utah, where Williams makes her home with her husband, Brooke.

When Williams was finally able to fly back home to Utah after being stranded, like so many others, for nearly a week in Washington, she reached Salt Lake City at 4:30 in the morning and called a cab. "A man walks out, his head bowed, and he looks up and he says, 'I'm from Afghanistan. Perhaps you'd feel safer in another car.'

"I just burst into tears, and we held each other. His mother called twice that day and begged him not to drive. They were political exiles. They had left Afghanistan in '79, after the Russians had come in. He said, 'I'm an American. I passed the test. I passed the test.' I kept thinking, 'What test?' Then I realized: the citizenship test."

"National security" is a phrase citizens need to be more thoughtful of in this time of crisis, Williams suggests. She says that within 24 hours of the attacks, congressmen such as the notorious chair of the House Resources Committee, Utah's James Hansen, began to proclaim that discussions about drilling in the Arctic wilderness were no longer acceptable. National security precludes any such debate.

"I think this is still a democracy," Williams says. "It's going to require bravery for people to break out of the hollow patriotism to a patriotism that is in our tradition -- and that is a tradition of questioning.

"For me, my national security was not being escorted to my hotel by an armed guard with a vest and a billyclub and an M-16 -- which was how I was led to my hotel -- but it was coming home to the Wasatch Mountains and the Tetons and saying, 'This is my national security. This is what I can count on as a place of solace and integrity."'

Many of the passages in Red, reread after the events of Sept. 11, take on a different meaning and a new urgency. It is as if the collapse of the twin towers has been an epochal event of an evolutionary scale. In a chapter on the endangerment of the desert tortoise, Williams writes: "We have forgotten the option of restraint," then adds, "It is no longer the survival of the fittest but the survival of compassion."

The words now ring as true for the desert tortoise as they do for an Afghani cab driver, whether he lives in Salt Lake City or Kabul.

"Who has the strength to see this wave of destruction as a wave of renewal?" she asks in Red, writing about the onslaught of development occurring in the West (desert communities in Utah and Nevada are some of the fastest-growing in the United States, with more than 300 percent growth in some places where there is no water). Now she's asking the same question about the terrible tragedy that has befallen this country and the world. Williams alludes to a news brief in the New York Times, a report of seismic activity registered by the two blows to the towers and then those felt on their collapse. Earthquakes normally disturb buildings, but in this case, the buildings registered as tectonic movement when they fell into the earth.

"You think 'seismic shift,'" Williams says. "Could this seismic shift be experienced as a shift in consciousness, and out of this chaos and terror a new peace really does emerge through reflection?

"I walk through airports and look at people's faces, and there is an innocence that has been lost. And I think that's good, if we can be really present with it and realize that this is the world, and we're not immune. We're not isolated. We have believed that. That's been the great luxury of this country."

We're here. And presence requires observation, seeing and understanding relationships between here and there. Living in desert places, Williams has experienced the lack of recognition such landscapes receive from those who drive through at 80 mph (in "wilderness-equipped" vehicles). "When one of us says, 'Look, there's nothing out there,'" she acknowledges in Red, "what we are really saying is, 'I cannot see."'

"I've been thinking a whole lot about the notion of how absence is presence," Williams says. "You certainly tend to know that in the desert." Desert places are where mystics go for spiritual renewal -- Jesus, Mohammed. "It's because of the absence. It's not that the desert is devoid of sounds; it's devoid of abstractions. It's the negative space that creates that presence. You go to the Grand Canyon, it's not so much for me what remains but what has been washed and eroded away. Where I live in Castle Valley, I'm so mindful of wind and water and the whole weathering process and the whole notion of erosion and how powerful that is -- spiritually powerful and geologically powerful."

Williams then turns these observations to the urban landscape and the urban monuments that have just been destroyed. She talks about how the original conception of the World Trade Center was as a monument to peace, until money, power and real estate pushed the original design beyond the human scale. "Isn't that interesting that now, only in their absence will the presence of peace remain?"

Red is the color of blood, the stain that remains after great damage. Red is the color of danger, and red is the color of passion. Williams offers, as a gift, a red stone from the country where she lives. "We're talking about restoration," she says, "restoration of the land, restoration of our souls. I don't think you can separate the two."