A hand reached up to ring one of the bells strung from the ceiling of Gulf of Maine Books, quieting the electric murmur of the gathered town.
“Alright, folks, keep it down. We’ve got the fire department right on the corner, you know,” Gary Lawless, owner of Gulf of Maine Books, said to the crowd crammed amongst the bookshelves. “We welcome [a] writer for the earth and from the heart: Terry Tempest Williams.”
Last Friday, the gathered community—a mixture of Brunswick locals and Gulf of Maine regulars, Bowdoin students, professors and outside guests including students from the Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki—welcomed the educator, environmentalist and acclaimed author of “When Women Were Birds,” “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” “The Hour of Land” and numerous other books.
This year, Williams was awarded the L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement, for her 30-year career engaging deeply with the American West, placing her in the company of luminaries like Ursula K. Le Guin and Gary Snyder.
Currently the writer-in-residence at the Harvard Divinity School, Williams spoke about her love for Maine and her relationships with the community, including Lawless and his wife Beth, who she called her “most careful readers.”
In her most recent book, “Erosion,” she associates the term not with canyons or riverbeds, but with a different type of erosion: political.
“We are witnessing an erosion of public trust,” she said.
Commending the courage of witnesses during the ongoing impeachment hearings, she made parallels between environmental degradation and government dysfunction, working towards her ultimate question:
“We are eroding and evolving all at once,” she said. “How do we bring those two hands together in prayer?”
In her essay, “Dwelling,” Williams spoke on the gutting of Bears’ Ears National Monument in Utah by the Trump administration in stark, uncompromising terms. She relayed the stories of Native activists seeking to protect these ancient lands, among them tribal leader Willy Grey Eyes, whose words she repeated throughout the night.
“It can no longer be about anger. It has to be about healing,” she said.
Tears were never very distant for audience members and at times for Williams herself, as she told stories about the large-scale specter of fossil fuel extraction in her home state of Utah to the intensely personal account of her brother’s cremation.
In her reading and the question-and-answer session that followed, Williams balanced often harsh subject matter with calls for hope, strength in solidarity and intergenerational conversations. In a room where college students stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Brunswick residents of every age, all leaning in to hear her words, those calls seemed close to reality.
Hayden Keene ’22, the leader of internal communications for Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA), says she was able to connect with town residents and Chewonki students interested in the upcoming climate strike on December 6.
Keene spoke with Williams herself during the signing following the reading and shared BCA’s initiatives combining activism through the Sunrise Movement with storytelling. Williams’ response was immediate.
“Thank you for your work,” she said.
“Her incredible perspective, her expertise on telling compelling narratives about the environment—she has so many powerful things to say on the human aspect of activism,” said Keene.
That human aspect is so strong that Williams says she doesn’t primarily consider herself a writer.
“No, I’m serious,” she said over audience laughter. “First, I am a community member and a teacher.”
An audience question on her work as a teacher revealed a still raw story about how she left her post at her alma mater, the University of Utah. After her classes examined the auctioning of ancient Native lands by the Bureau of Land Management, Williams and students participated in protests, and in an act of civil disobedience she purchased over a thousand acres of remitted land. The backlash was immediate. After a protracted struggle with the university’s administration, she recognized that she would be forced into an “academic straitjacket.” She resigned, but says that she has grieved for this severed tie to her home ever since.
But others had been watching. The Harvard Divinity School offered her a position, holding that the issues she wrote about were more than environmental—they were spiritual.
“So I’ve started praying again,” she joked.
Williams has taken up her new post not with dogma but with what she calls deep listening. At Harvard, as in the crammed bookshop where you could have heard a pin drop between her words, Williams insists on the solace and strength that comes with community.