Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hope, Faith, and Fallout: Terry Tempest Williams

Yesterday's post about Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article and the end of the Holocene Age and the Holocene Extinction which we're currently experiencing made me need something hopeful.  Happily, the NPR program On Being offered this interview with Terry Tempest Williams (you can listen here as well as find all sorts of resources, like some of her writings).

Careful readers of this blog may remember that I've written about her before (go here to refresh your memory).  People who note synchronicities may say, "What are the odds that a radio programmer unknown to you would have a Terry Tempest Williams interview during the same time when you're thinking about nuclear pollution and its downriver effects?"

At the On Being website, you can read (or reread) her essay, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," an essay which neatly demonstrates her writing as feminist and naturalist.  It also documents her family's experience with being exposed to nuclear pollution.  That essay later became a book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

The radio show includes a passage from the book, where Williams remembers a conversation with her father, shortly after her mother (Diane) died of breast cancer:

"Over dessert, I shared a recurring dream of mine. I told my father that for years, as long as I could remember, I saw this flash of light in the night in the desert — that this image had so permeated my being that I could not venture south without seeing it again, on the horizon, illuminating buttes and mesas.

'You did see it,' he said. 'Saw what?' 'The bomb. The cloud. We were driving home from Riverside, California. You were sitting on Diane's lap. She was pregnant. In fact, I remember the day, September 7, 1957. We had just gotten out of the Service. We were driving north, past Las Vegas. It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explosion went off. I thought the oil tanker in front of us had blown up. We pulled over and suddenly, rising from the desert floor, we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the car.'

I stared at my father. 'I thought you knew that,' he said. 'It was a common occurrence in the fifties.' […] It is a well-known story in the Desert West, 'The Day We Bombed Utah,' or more accurately, the years we bombed Utah: above ground atomic testing in Nevada took place from January 27, 1951 through July 11, 1962. […]

When the Atomic Energy Commission described the country north of the Nevada Test Site as 'virtually uninhabited desert terrain,' my family and the birds at Great Salt Lake were some of the 'virtual uninhabitants.'"

Thankfully, for now at least, we no longer allow aboveground testing of nuclear weapons.  It boggles the mind, the fallout issues, the lack of warning, the lack of concern for the land, the animals, the humans.

Williams has also written about the Gulf oil spill, which also boggles the mind.  During the interview, Krista Tippett, the host says, "You've said sometimes the most radical act is to stay home."

She could mean this in all sorts of ways, from our cars and air travel and all the other ways we use fossil fuels and thus become complicit with the oil companies.  It's also a radical act to let ourselves get deeply rooted in our communities.

In this interview, Williams talks about the art of writing and the art of activism, and she also talks about the art of mosaic, which she learned.  Tippett and Williams talk about mosaic as metaphor.  Williams says, "You know, I have a friend, Linda Asher, who's a translator of Milan Kundera. She was an editor for years at The New Yorker, in international fiction in particular. And she said something very provocative the other day where she said, 'I'm not sure eloquence is enough. I'm not sure language is enough." And that really stopped me because for me words are everything, and I know for her words are everything. But she said, "You know, that's too easy. It's like being too beautiful.' And she brought it back down to the notion of action. And I realized, I said, 'Thank you for reminding me.' And I think that was the power for me in making the mosaics. It took me out of my head into my hands, into creating something real with other people. I mean, mosaic by its very nature is a collaborative process. And, you know, beauty is not optional, but it is a strategy for survival."

When I feel at my most despairing, I make bread.  That's not the only time I make it, but it's good to remember my essential self.  It's good to get out of my head and my hands into dough.  The action of the yeast--small particles making bread dough puff up--I love that metaphor.

I've covered this territory numerous times in poems.  One of my favorites can be found at the end of this blog post.

Whatever we do to maintain hope or faith in the face of great odds, it's important to keep doing it, whether it be writing or baking bread or gardening or making mosaics.  It's good to have people like Terry Tempest Williams and Krista Tippett to remind us.

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