Terry Tempest Williams —
The Vitality of the Struggle

Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist and writer, a biologist by training with a literary mind, who comes from a long Mormon lineage in Utah. She draws political, spiritual, and creative inspiration from her experience of the interior American West. She offers stories of neighborly collaboration that turns into environmental protection, and the value that comes from vitriolic disagreement inside families.

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is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. Her books include Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and The Open Space of Democracy.

Pertinent Posts

This story has us all mystified. It resulted in this "thought experiment" among our staff, which led to wildly varying interpretations. Take a listen and tell us what you think.

Selected Readings

A Child's Memories of Hiroshima

Hideko Tamura Snider describes the lasting impact of that fateful day when she survived the bombing of Hiroshima.
"We lived on this estate, our family and my father's elder brother's family, surrounded with beautiful, beautiful gardens, one mile away from the center of the town. So there was this dire contrast of the happy, peaceful, unsuspecting lovely morning suddenly turning into … entire destruction of all that was there … for me. The fire, the burning, the crushing…"

The Clan of One-Breasted Women: Epilogue

by Terry Tempest Williams

"I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women. My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two who survive have just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation."

The Gulf Between Us: Stories of Terror and Beauty from the World's Largest Accidental Offshore Oil Disaster

by Terry Tempest Williams

"This story in the Gulf of Mexico is not a new story. Living in the American West, I understand the oil and gas industry, both its political power in a state like Wyoming and its lack of regard for the safety of workers. Broken necks and backs are commonplace injuries. So are lost fingers. Occasional blowouts occur on land as well, resulting in fatalities. Production is paramount at the expense of almost everything else."

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I was dumstruck upon hearing Ms. Williams state that a neighbor "loved deer" followed by a story of how this neighbor built a platform from which to hunt them on. I know that it is probably not in Ms. Tippett's interest to challenge a guest on sucvh a matter, but I did think it odd that the comment went unnoticed. how can a person claim to love an animal that he or she spends time killing?

I, too, love deer. I am a hunter, tracker, painter, poet, Native American, and ecologist. I completely understood the meaning in this dialogue. Hunting an animal, in the spiritual tradition of hunting and sustaining a family, is a sacred act, full of gratitude and grace, even - and especially - in death.

"hunter, tracker, painter, poet, Native American.." You describe yourself as poetry, the words flowing into my consciousness, the words, your life, cause beauty all the way back to the great elders, the ancestors of the land.

An empty journal is the ultimate book of verse. If you need help, view an Agnus Martin painting and go from there. If I had a poet daughter like Terry, I would think the blank page would be perfect. All people evolve to symbols after their death. And those symbols spring from our imagination. I think that mother understood her little girl in ways that might surprise the poet daughter. Isn't that beautiful!

What was of interest to me was the title - "The Vitality of the Struggle." Those words hold dissonance and dissonance is the stuff of poetry. Terry appears to be aware of her own dissonance. One who can experience a Whitmanesque wonder of nature and then write an acrid op-ed must know dissonance...and wonder. Most of us, in fact, live that way. Terry is different only in that she is aware and vital to her struggle. I agree with you Krista. It is the poetry of her language that captivates me.

"Dissonance...and wonder." Such beauty in your writing, such grace in your thinking. i am greatly moved by the writing I read here, made possible by American Public Media.

"The Vitality of the Struggle" is inspired by Gertrude Stein.
I have always held that phrase close. It does feel like poetry
because it holds the paradox of our human condition.

Here is the exact quote: You always have in your writing the resistance outside of you and inside of you, a shadow upon you, and the thing which you must express. In the beginning of your writing this struggle is so tremendous that the result is ugly. . . But the essence of that ugliness is the thing which will always make it beautiful. I myself think it is much more interesting when it seems ugly, because in it you see the element of the fight . . . the vitality of the struggle. ---Gertrude Stein, How Writing Is Written

i listen to On Being. this was the next show. i listened. and i listened because it was good.
Terry Tempest Williams and i share some life themes... mother's journals; the reconciliation of ideology and inner essence with family tradition, decisions and choices; "ecological, biological literacy" (the loss of naming and/or recognizing gifts of nature - birds' songs, trees' names, the significance of rituals in seasons and cycles); and the sense of unbalance in, for example, nuclear testing and land warfare.
and i appreciate, very much, her geographic identity.
i was born in the south and spent a lot of time in the northeast and abroad. i had never been to the u.s. midwest until a few years ago. i was there acting in a movie. our wrap dinner was in this incredible restaurant with a full menu of...100% pure beef. at some point during the dinner i was compelled to stand and salute the fine midwestern people. without too much thought, i tapped my glass for their attention and raised my glass...
"you beautiful people! i've never been to the midwest and i thank you all for your kindness, for your hospitality. i must say, in the rest of the u.s., you are given a bad rap. and i just want to say i know now it is a lie. and i feel i have to tell you, dear midwesterners, the reputation spread does resemble that of the iraqi people."
and then a hush came over the restaurant.
well, after listening to Krista's interview with Terry Tempest Williams, i realize i was not far off mark... land war, large-scale marijuana crops, nuclear testing, oil and gas pipelines... not too far off mark.

As I listened to the program ; The Vitality of the Struggle; and Terry Tempest Williams account of her mother's journals it made me think of Walt Whitman's poem, "the song of myself." To paraphrase he says, "I depart as air-I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, you will hardly know who I am or what I mean; if you want me again look for me underneath your boot soles; for I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love; I am not in these journals, so you shall not find me there. You can no-longer look through my eyes nor take things from me, but you shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self."

The blank journals says to me that her mother is not there. As Terry pointed out in her interview; voice is so very important to discover. I believe her mother is telling her to find her own voice and live her own life. Her mother is gone and now it is her life that is most important. It is Terry's turn to find her own self in the runaway sun.

Thanks so much for your story. I know this isn't live, but here's what I would ask you if it were.

We just heard the story about your neighborhood working together to save their land, people who ordinarily don't have much in common and don't move in the same circles. They worked together, used their strengths and succeeded.

My question is: How are you all now? Has it made working together in the community or neighborhood easier now that you have learned to value each other? Is there a lasting effect?

Hearing Terry and Krista talk about the existential reality of the west after having lived for a time in Tucson, Arizona, ridden a bicycle in the desert and almost run out of water, climbed a canyon wall and almost fell, and knowing that many of the people who live there now are of the same mind as those who assured Terry, her family, and neighbors that the above ground nuclear test range upwind was harmless causes me to feel pure desperation. Somehow the conversation has to draw the parallel between the clear and present danger of radioactive fallout and the clear and present danger of climate change.

Having lived & worked in Utah for 4 years in the early 90s (a non-Mormon) I had the great pleasure of meeting Terry back then and still have her signed copy of Refuge. Regarding her mother's empty journals... it is clear to me that her mother felt she had no voice in her lifetime. In leaving the journals to Terry, she was encouraging her to continue speaking out and perhaps hoping she would expose an entire culture of Mormon women never allowed to think or speak for themselves - or perhaps not strong enough to realize they did not need permission from their husbands or their church to do so. I found Utah to be an extraordinarily beautiful place - I was essentially recruited to move there from New England specifically to work in the arts. It was a painful and consistent battle being an outspoken, educated New England woman in Utah. Initially, I received a warm welcome, however, the more inclusive inroads I made through my work - the more I was forced out so that my position could revert back to its Mormon-based mindset. I applaud Terry's work. She has learned from childhood how to make a difference - in a way that is not threatening to the Mormon culture - an outsider such as I never had a chance for longevity there!

Your comment has such poignancy for me. Sorrow in the muscles about my eyes, breath held. I want to smile for the pure, clear water that flows from Krista exploding like silk into consciousness, but heavy hearted I find myself lost for women of Utah. And for women I saw in Camarrillo State Mental Hospital in the mid 50's as a student nurse.. the women, gifted, charts full, doctor notes of soaring intelligence, on the back wards of a 6,000 population, of people.

To say everything would be to say little. Her language; her wisdom; the final story about her mother's blank journals. I pictured her mother privately planning and creating this gift over many years, choosing fabrics, like TTW chose mosaic bits and pieces, and binding the blank pages as her gift to her gifted daughter, trusting them to be filled with Terry's words, trusting they would tell the next generation what had preceded them. The gift was the loving structure, much like the love all mothers provide through their nurturing of their children, onto which her daughter could build tempests or temples. Told, as it was, right after that quote from the mother of environmental action, who said when asked what action was to be taken next, replied to put one foot in front of another and the little light that would shine would point the way, I was sure her mother had shone a light on the blank pages for Terry to take her next steps.

"Empathy rooted in action." This phrase spoke to me because so many of us have become so isolated a lonely. For me, this is a call to action...feel, but don't let it stop there...DO something!

I also have a strong feeling the the empty journals were left for Terry to complete...it's an invitation to do what her mother could not do...

Thank you for a wonderful show!

Cheryl Wiles
Framingham, MA

I am a science educator. At the heart of my concern lies the fact that humanity is moving ever so surely away from the natural state of the land. That our way of thinking about the planet is mostly imagined and less and less experienced. That as we move from the small farms and into the cities we alienate ourselves from the one true source that can save us, our natural resources. Terry sheds light on how to do more than give lip service to the issue. She gives us an action based example to follow.

With the exception, possibly, of love as a foundation to our shared being, Terry Tempest Williams describes a world not dependent on abstraction or ideology to derive right, and to damage or disappoint. I had the feeling - say from the visits that her Dad made to neighbors when they'd lost someone to death, or from her being undaunted by unresolvable disagreements and misunderstandings - that she perceives a meaningful presence in ourselves, in all of life and planet, perhaps. This is a most elegant statement of faith, and one completely absorbed in living.

"she perceives a meaningful presence in ourselves, in all of life and planet, perhaps. This is a most elegant statement of faith, and one completely absorbed in living. " How elegant your thought, hope for us all.

Being a naturalist/metaphysician myself, I enjoyed the dialogue for today's show. I found myself puttering around the kitchen as I do on Sundays, putting things in the kitchen compost bin, tidying up and missing family interactions (I am in Georgia and they are all in California). Yes, there is a growing sense of community which is vital and so heart-warming.

Then I remembered that when my son was in the 4th grade, I was asked to turn the story of Sadako and the Thousand Cranes into a play, which they performed, with music I helped them compose. The class had read the story and wanted to perform it for the school during the winter holiday season. I was touched by the connection they felt. Their teacher was very creative and willing to bring stories of substance to the children.

But what really hit me was her mother's blank journals. Listening to the interview, I was pleased to hear there was somewhere I could share my voice. It struck me so clearly that her legacy to her dauther was- "You fill the journals.... give your voice expression, for I did not." My mother also died of cancer and left not only blank journals, but many blank canvases and notes jotted down about books she would someday write. She never did.

Thank you for this opportunity to share.

I'm 65. A few years ago I realized that my spirit is as perfect as it was the day I was born, if not longer. I don't need religion, I need to protect my soul from the notion that it needs "work". It's understanding what it means to be human, in tandem with soul, that needs work. Having said that, I'm weary of the work. I always listen to your show. During your talk with T.T. Willams today I wished you would have a program with comedians. We all need a good laugh and don't humorists have a lot to say about being?

Good Afternoon Krista:
The interview ended with Terry telling about her mothers death. I was totally captivated by the gift of her mothers journals. The moment though of opening them to find them empty did not bother me. The pages full of her mothers wisdom will be revealed on day at a time as my mothers are. Not a day goes by that I don't think about my mother in a certain situation and wonder what she would do.
She died 8 years ago but is still with me. I am 61. I still need my mom.

Hi Just heard the end of your show broadcast on Feb 6th in NYC. At the end of the show your guest talked about finding after her mother's death that her her journals were blank, and you asked for listeners to consider a potential meaning. One purely practical thought that came to me is that possibly as a very private woman (after all she didn't reveal the existence of her journals until she died) that your guest's mother might have wished to protect her privacy by writing her journals in "invisible ink" - I believe that lemon juice is one way of doing this. Just in case this might be correct (though of course not very likely), your guest might want to take another look. I believe that light heat makes invisible ink appear - I'm sure one can find instructions on the internet. Just a thought. Phil

I'm really interested in the practice of "staying at home" and cultivating, as Terry suggests a deeper sense of neighborhood. It seems to me one of the deepest practices of our time. In our house, we've established a monthly soup night, where neighborhoods and friends are invited to our house to share food and speak about an issue or creative project in which they are deeply engaged. Friends invite friends, neighbors invite neighbors and the circle changes and gets larger. One small gesture moves a thousand waves. Thanks for this engaging and insightful conversation.

I am surprised you and your guest did not recognize the message her mother left for her with the blank paged dairy: she repents her lack of awareness and right to comment and invites us to reflect on her awareness of that fact and apply it to our moment to moment existence. I admit I could be totally wrong with my assesment. peace db

I have read Terry's work for years. Her thoughtful insights inspire in a way that resonates. She speaks of the difficulties of finding beauty in a broken world, of healing difference at the dinner table. She is incredibly generous and gives me a path to follow. I feel as though we are sisters at the table of peaceful revolution. I have so few siblings sitting with me there. I am so grateful to Terry for her passionate commitments and willingness to be disturbed, to listen, and to think otherwise...

While listening to Terry Tempest "The Vitality of the Struggle" in conversation with Krista Tippett link mosaics, small pieces placed carefully, and healing I was quietly relieved and heard that solid "yes" in my mind. Following 9-11 I created a community based, public made-public art project. Our mission is to give groups of non-artists a hands-on art experience expressing their thoughts about community health and ethics. We call this "La Familia de la Blue Sky: The Blue Sky Project"(www.theblueskyproject.com).

In Long Prairie Minnesota there was a drug related triple homicide in 2004. Very sensational, chilling, numbing. That central Minnesota town populaton 2000 collectively made three functional sculptures, two 12 foot planters and a 26 foot long sitting bench, each depicting time, past present and future. Sentence to Serve volunteers helped pour the concrete, new Hispanic immigrants,disabled adults, confirmation classes, senior citizens, and others collectively built the mosaic. We made handmade tiles following discussions about the crime, our grief and loss, healing, hopes and dreams.

I want to invite your producers to learn more about how a town made beauty out of tragedy. In July 2010 www.mnartists.org published a story about the Blue Sky Project in Harmony Park, Long Prairie. I would be happy to tell you about the seven other Blue Sky Projects. Thank you for helping us connect with Faith and Being.

Claire Witt

At the end, when you asked for people's ideas regarding the blank journals, actually even before that when the journals were just mentioned, my whole being was screaming "FILL THEM."

I'm not sure why Terry's mother made such a thing of leaving them to her and of Terry waiting until after mother was gone to look in them. One thing seems clear, that mother didn't want to answer any questions about them. Maybe she was embarrassed. Maybe she thought she had nothing worthwhile to say. But I think that she called attention to them perhaps as a way of telling Terry that her mother believed that her daughter had something worthwhile and important to say.

Almost three and a half years ago, when I just starting into my second divorce, I started keeping a Beautiful Things book. It's a short entry I make every night about one positive thing that happened that day. Sometimes it's something I did or something that I felt or saw or thought. It helps me keep a positive focus and I will be able to leave that as a legacy to those I love.

I haven't actually heard the interview, yet, but the reason I linked to her interview is that I believe I had her as a writing instructor at a workshop in Washington state, probably about 15-17 years ago, and found her enormously inspiring. I am not sure she is the same person, but that is why I chose to listen to her interview.

The empty journals of her mother was a powerful statement and probably made more of a comment about life
than the words that might have been in there. There are never the words that truly describe love, sadness, fear, joy or thoughts because the feelings that accompany these emotions are.........feelings.......not an endless array of descriptive words that just
aren't doing the reality of them justice.

Wow- that was a mind blower about the empty journals.Immediately-I thought it was an expression of angeror contempt;or something like -this is nothing,i'm nothing-my life as a practicing mormon-was a lie-;i believe in nothing. Or anger that -this unfilled,empty journal is like my life -unfilled and empty..i asked my daughter and she said it means that-i have no secrets from you-what you saw was what i was-no more-no less-remember me as i was was alive to you.Was it just an expression of anger that she was dying-and that anger truned to contempt -at life and everyone round her?I asked a friend and he said that we have to answer some questions to try to make sense of this strange story-like was she senile, what kind of relationship did the mother and daughter have ,were they close, did the mother know her daughter was into writing and this could be an inspiration to write?was the mother into mysteries,jokes? .Also why three journals -not one. Are there 3 members of the immediate family? -why 3? Also did the mother bind those journals herself with cloth-if so did the daughter check to see if anything is inside the binding?

I just told my husband about that empty journal story.He kind of laughed then said-it doesn't make any sense-the story makes no sense. I said -duh-that's the point-how do you explain this. He again said but it doesn't make sense. i said yeh-so it happened-how do you explain it -He said;the husband must have found the journals ,read them and did not like what was in them ,so he replaced them with empty journals knowing that eventually his daughter would be told about them . He must have done that when his wife was too sick to be writing in them-but expecting to see them in the closet and expecting that the daughter would be told they were there but that she would obediently not touch them till her mothers death.

1) Thanks Krista for consistently interesting shows, sometimes provocative, sometimes, sometimes inspiring, always intelligent.
2) I remember years ago reading the same story of a man whose father left several shelves of beautiful blank leather journals. Everyone had assumed that he was writing in them when he disappeared into his study in the evenings. In that case the author attributed the cause to intentions unfulfilled by action, dreams deferred not leading to invention

In her book When Women Were Birds, I believe Terry says that keeping a journal is a Mormon woman's obligation. Perhaps the blank journals are a comment on such obligations.

The term sacred sacred rage struck a chord with me. I am grateful to have become acquainted with Ms. Williams and will keep in touch!

I heard the rebroadcast of "The Vitality of the Struggle" on July 22, 2012. I was struck by several things at once: the original date of broadcast (right after the Tucson shootings of 2011), the resonance of that interview two days after the 2012 Aurora shootings, and so many of my own memories of the West (I have family and ancestral history in Utah). These things became pieces of the frame around a rare window into real human experience -- formidably vast, formidably intimate, and courageous beyond ideologies. I am awestruck in the old, mystical sense. And though I have written journals for many years, and have been given blank journals by friends and family who honored that activity in that way, I am just as struck by that legacy of blank journals, giving yet-unasked loved questions the gift of a place to live. My thanks to both of you for this.

The finding that Ms. Williams shared at the end of your broadcast interview blew my mind and moved me to tears. Talk about having no voice: What a challenge for anyone, but especially a writer, to find that your parent's life's journals are all completely blank.

Terry Tempest Williams said . . . Beauty is a strategy for survival. I want to quote her with her approval, or may I use these words
because it is not a direct quote from her writings?

Those empty journals Have given me pause. I listened to the interview with Terry Tempest Williams. She emphasized the importance and integrity of the human individual, noting the diversity of thought amongst her family. The thought for me in regarding that and the journals is in the direction of word/thought consumerism. When do I cross the line between thought and word that transforms me, creates spaciousness, and word/thought that is materialistic/consumerist? Her mother's empty journals remind me to be with the other, in real time, physically, depending less on that persons verbal repository left behind, enjoying the actual presence of the person. My dad and I could sit for some time, saying nothing. He died 20 years ago and still, I feel the presence of him in calm silence, no word consumed.

Our anxiety to find something positive in everything is evident in the comments about Terry Tempest Williams mother's blank journals.

The ambiguity surrounding the blank journals deprives them of any reliable sense of message. If one is intent on leaving someone a message, why not just write it in the book bought for that purpose and leave it as a personal keepsake?

When I think of the expectations that Ms Williams must have had as she opened the first journal, I can't help but feel her disappointment at finding it and the others blank.

Keeping a journal is no easy task. As Mark Twain noted in "The Innocence Abroad" - "But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty's sake, and invincible determination may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat."

A blank journal is not a failure or a defeat as no attempt has been made. A blank journal is but a good intention unfulfilled.

First and foremost, I want to thank Terry Tempest Williams for sharing bits and pieces of her life with me. Often times, I make the mistake of lumping Mormons into this homogeneous religious category, ignoring the diversity within all of us; a lifelong lesson for me. I was touched by her interest in her conversations with her uncle who is a minuteman, and her Jungian auntie who would ask her, “what did you dream last night?’ It seemed she approached all these conversations with an open heart, and that made me think of my family and the diverse opinions that can often create tremendous rifts. Strong barriers to meaningful conversation and understanding.
I happened to be reading at the time, the book by Joan Chittister, Welcome to the Wisdom of the World. And moments after the podcast, after Krista had asked us what we thought about the blank journals, I came upon this story:
The master of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protégé named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit the master's room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidance in which they were given koans to stop mind-wandering.
Toyo wished to do sanzen also.
"Wait a while," said Mokurai. "You are too young."
But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.
In the evening little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai's sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.
"You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together," said Mokurai. "Now show me the sound of one hand."
Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. "Ah, I have it!" he proclaimed.
The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.
"No, no," said Mokurai. "That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You've not got it at all."
Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. "What can the sound of one hand be?" He happened to hear some water dripping. "I have it," imagined Toyo.
When he next appeared before his teacher, he imitated dripping water.
"What is that?" asked Mokurai. "That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again."
In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.
He heard the cry of an owl. This was also refused.
The sound of one hand was not the locusts.
For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.
At last Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. "I could collect no more," he explained later, "so I reached the soundless sound."
Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.