University Lectures Closes Year with Activist Terry Tempest Williams

Throughout the evening, the environmentalist and author shared personal stories that helped her find her own voice.

Conservationist and environmental scientist professor at Dartmouth College, Terry Tempest Williams, closed out this year's University Lectures series with a conversation on finding one's voice, as well as her perceptions of America and the world in the past, present and future.

Williams' presentation, titled "The Writer as Witness," was held Thursday evening in Hendricks Chapel. It was formatted as a conversation with Syracuse University geography professor Don Mitchell.

Photo: Veronica Magan
Terry Tempest Williams speaks in Hendricks Chapel Thursday night for this year's final University Lectures series event.

Mitchell started the conversation by discussing Williams' latest book, “When Women Were Birds,” which touches on themes of voice, silence and women's role in society. The discussion prompted Williams to recall an experience with her mother that taught her the importance of finding her voice.

When Williams' mother died, she inherited her mother's journals. A month after the death, Williams went to read them. "They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves, beautiful bound journals," Williams said. "I opened the first one, it was empty, I opened the second one, it was empty, I opened the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth; all of my mother’s journals were blank."

Williams was raised as a Mormon and said she was taught there were two things expected from women: keeping journals as a record of your family and having children. When she found her mother's empty journals, she saw it as an act of defiance. It was the first time she reflected on the themes in "When Women Were Birds."

“I only know my voice as a woman, that’s what I am,” Williams said.

Williams was further able to find her voice, she said, through her community past and present. Mitchell, the moderator, replied that it is hard to find a place to be rooted in a globalized world. Williams' response: "Motion can be a place, too," a quote from American poet Robert Pinsky.

But Williams agreed there are serious identity issues in America. She tied the issues to greed, the economy and “putting money before family and community,” she said. But people have been able to find community recently with the Occupy movement, she said.

As the conversation turned political, Williams brought up the themes of another one of her works, an essay titled "The Open Space of Democracy." The essay discussed how finding a voice is as important as tolerance and diversity in a free country.

Williams explained her brothers' struggles with addiction to emphasize her point about having a voice in an open debate - an important debate right now being health care.

“I was in L.A., I found him more dead than alive," Williams said. "I took him to the hospital and they wouldn’t treat him because he had no insurance. They gave me enough Advil to get him back to Salt Lake City to detox him so he wouldn’t have a seizure and die. This is my brother. This is our country.”

The conversation then turned to the future. Williams raised the question of a future where there’s a larger empathy to other species besides humans. She said she appreciated the efforts for cleaning Onondaga Lake and the statewide discussions about hydrofracking because it shows care and understanding for other species that have no voice.

“So much of our conversation is short term not long term, and that’s a question we need to continue to bring to the forefront of any political and community conversation,” she said.

Students in attendence said they were inspired by Williams' speech.

“I was so moved,” said Gabrielle Alber, an environmental studies sophomore at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “At ESF we’re all trying to change the world, so maybe that will happen and we’ll be able to actually do something and make a difference.”

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.