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September 2012

Bearing Witness

Nattadon Dawn

From "An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams" by Jana Bouck Remy in Irreantum (2002):

"I do not write every day," says Williams. "I write to the questions and issues before me. I write to deadlines. I write out of my passions. And I write to make peace with my own contradictory nature. For me, writing is a spiritual practice. A small bowl of water sits on my desk, a reminder that even if nothing is happening on the page, something is happening in the room -- evaporation. And I always light a candle when I begin to write, a reminder that I have now entered another realm, call it the realm of the Spirit. I am mindful that when one writes, one leaves this world and enters another.

Nattadon Dawn

"My books are collages made from journals, research, and personal experience. I love the images rendered in journal entries, the immediacy that is captured on the page, the handwritten notes. I love the depth of ideas and perspective that research brings to a story, be it biological or anthropological studies or the insights brought to the page by the scholarly work of art historians.

Nattadon Dawn

"When I go into a library, I feel like I am a sleuth looking to solve a mystery. I am completely inspired by the pursuit of knowledge through various references. I read newpapers voraciously. I love what newspapers say about contemporary culture. And then you go back to your own perceptions, your own words, and weigh them against all you have brought together. I am interested in the kaleidoscope of ideas, how you bring many strands of thought into a book and weave them together as one piece of coherent fabric, while at the same time trying to create beautiful language in the service of the story. This is the blood work of the writer.

Nattadon Dawn

"Writing is also about a life engaged. And so, for me, community work, working in the schools or with grassroots conservation organizations is another critical component of my life as a writer. I cannot separate the writing life from a spiritual life, from a life as a teacher or activist or my life intertwined with family and the responsibilities we carry within our own homes. Writing is daring to feel what nurtures and breaks our hearts. Bearing witness is its own form of advocacy. It is a dance with pain and beauty."

Nattadon Dawn

From an interview with Terry Tempest Williams by Derrick Jensen in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros:

"I've been thinking about what it means to bear witness. The past ten years I've been bearing witness to death, bearing witness to women I love, and bearing witness to the [nuclear] testing going on in the Nevada desert. I've been bearing witness to bombing runs on the edge of the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, bearing witness to the burning of yew trees and their healing secrets in slash piles in the Pacific Northwest and thinking this is not so unlike the burning of witches, who also held knowledge of heading within their bones. I've been bearing witness to traplines of coyotes being poisoned by the Animal Damage Control. And I've been bearing witness to beauty, beauty that strikes a chord so deep you can't stop the tears from flowing. At places as astonishing as Mono Lake, where I've stood knee-deep in salt-water to watch the fresh water of Lee Vining Creek flow over the top like water on vinegar....It's the space of angels. I've been bearing witness to dancing grouse on their leks up at Malheur in Oregon.

Nattadon Dawn

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As a writer, this is my work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Nattadon DawnDawn breaks in the hills above Chagford


An Unspoken Hunger

The morning place.

From "The Politics of Place," an interview with Terry Tempest Williams conducted by Scott London (on the Insight & Outlook radio show):

London: You've said that your connection to the natural world is also your connection to yourself. Do you think that's true for everybody?

Williams: We're animals. I think we forget that. I think there is an ancient archetypal memory that still exists within us. If we deny that, what is the cost?  So I do think it's what binds us as human beings. I wonder, what is it to be human? Especially now that we're so urban. How do we remember our connection with place? What is the umbilical cord that roots us to that primal, instinctive, erotic place? Every time I walk to the edge of this continent and feel the sand beneath my feet, feel the seafoam move up my body, I think, Ah, yes, evolution. You know, it's there, we just forget....

Faery light.

...I worry that we we are a people in a process of great transition and we are forgetting what we are connected to. We are losing our frame of reference. Pelicans pass by and we hardly know who they are, we don't know their stories. Again, at what price?

I think it's leading us to a place of inconsolable loneliness. It's what I mean by "an unspoken hunger." It's a hunger than cannot be quelled by material things. It's a hunger that cannot be quelled by constant denial. I think that the only thing that can bring us into a place of fullness is being out in the land with other.

Then we remember where the source of our power lies.

Into the light.The full interview can be read in A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (USU Press, 2006).


When Women Were Birds

Birdie copyright T Windling

I've recently read Terry Tempest Williams' new book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, and I'm completely under its spell. It's a beautiful meditation on land, love, family, faith, activism, and art...all rooted in the red rock of southern Utah; a book that I already known I'll return to often in the years ahead.

When Women Were BirdsWhen it ended, I found myself so unwilling to part with William's clear, honest voice in my ear that I pulled out a stack of her previous books: Refuge, Red, Leap, etc.. They are wonderful to re-read all at once, in the sequence of publication, which allows one to follow the evolution of her work, politics, and spiritual beliefs. And although I first read these volumes when I, too, lived in the American South-west, returning to her books from the green hills of Devon underscores how universal our need is for connection to the wild.

So this, dear readers, is "Terry Tempest Williams Week" here at The Drawing Board, with a week's worth of quotes drawn from various books, essays, and interviews. Today's quote is from When Women Were Birds -- excerpted from a passage in which Williams reflects on the powerful art installation pictured below. (The birds are made out of X-ray film from hospital MRIs.)

"Now, in a shift of light," Williams writes, "the shadows of birds are more pronounced on the gallery's white wall. The shadow of each bird is speaking to me. Each shadow doubles the velocity, ferocity of forms. The shadow, my shadow now merges with theirs. Descension. Ascension. The velocity of wings creates the whisper to awaken....

"I want to feel both the beauty and the pain of the age we are living in. I want to survive my life without becoming numb. I want to speak and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become the landscape where I dwell. I want to possess a light touch that can elevate darkness to the realm of stars."

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Swoop by Julia Barello"Swoop" by Julia Barello. Please visit the artist's website to see more of her work. If you're in the mood for further reading, an old article on mine on the folklore of birds is here.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Both tunes today are by singer/songwriter Jeremy Messersmith, from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, with animation by Eric Power. Messersmith has three albums out to date, all available on his website as pay-whatever-you-want downloads.

Above: "A Girl, a Boy, and a Graveyard." (A live performance of the song is here.)

Below: "Organ Donor." Both tunes are from the most recent CD, The Reluctant Graveyard.