Ayers Hall

Ayres Hall is the first building at the University of Tennessee to become LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

On Thursday night, writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams spoke on Zoom about her current work on climate change, wildfires and social concerns among the COVID-19 pandemic.

Williams’ work focuses mainly on environmental concerns and social issues as she thinks through living life as ethically as possible.

Her numerous books, such as “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” and “Erosion: Essays of Undoing,” have won multiple awards, such as the Sierra Club John Muir Award and have been featured in The New Yorker and various literary magazines.

Williams is also the Provostial Scholar at Dartmouth College and the Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School.

This event was part of the UT Humanities Center’s Ninth Annual Distinguished Lecture Series, which celebrates visiting lecturers.

Amy Elias, the director of the Humanities Center, introduced Williams and spoke briefly about the event. Elias also served as the proctor of the conversation with Williams.

“This is the culminating event of this series,” Elias said.

First, Williams spent about 10 minutes reading an excerpt of her work, which was written during the summer, inspired by the wildfires in California and the rising temperatures in Utah and in response to a friend who called on her for collaboration.

“She asked me to write an obituary of the land,” Williams said.

In reading this excerpt, Williams mourned the loss of land due to climate change and wildfires, and the dire circumstances that human beings are in.

“The landscape of the American west is burning, and we are burning too,” Williams said.

Williams also spoke about the concept of reassembling our values during this time of reckoning and realization of differences in America.

“The idea that our undoing can be our becoming is where we see ourselves now … and I think we’ve all been humbled, weathered by this,” Williams said.

Then, she spoke about national parks, national lands and community, as well as the increase in visitors to national parks among the pandemic.

“I can tell you as someone that lives near five national parks, our parks have never been more crowded than they are now,” Williams said.

Then, Elias asked Williams questions about her writing process, feelings about her subjects and her own experience.

“How do you balance rage against cooperation?” Elias said.

“My anger was transformed into sacred rage; that was the day I became a writer, I realized my pen was my weapon, I had to explore what possibilities there were, ” Williams said.

In the discussion, Williams looked at the importance of coalitions, especially within families. She spoke about her political differences with her uncle and his urges for her writing to be more depoliticized, and also the concept of beauty in nature and celebrating the Earth in its beauty, and how to show people this beauty.

“I want to remember the wholeness of the world, I want to remember the resilience of the world around us … that the world has its own perfection,” Williams.

Further, Williams discussed religion and her upbringing in the Mormon church, which she feels is changing, though her decision not to be a practicing Mormon remains.

Williams detailed the inspiration of the women of Bears Ears National Monument and the uplifting of their voices as they are “re-matriating the land,” as she called it.

The last 15 minutes of the event were reserved for questions from the audience. The conversation ended as Williams discussed the importance of bridging the gap between political divides.

“If we can bring our truest selves to the conversation, transformation occurs,” Williams said.

UT Sponsored Content