Podcast: Finding Beauty in a Broken World

April 21, 2021
Terry Tempest Williams, HDS Writer in Residence / Photo: Zoe Rodriguez
Terry Tempest Williams, HDS Writer in Residence / Photo: Zoe Rodriguez

The modern environmental movement was born 51 years ago when millions of people took part in protests and rallies in streets, parks, auditoriums, and on college campuses as part of the first-ever Earth Day.

Yet today, as species continue to face extinction, and as weather events, heatwaves, floods, and wildfires around the world wreak havoc on populations and our planet, it can seem like, when it comes to protecting and healing our natural world, we’re taking one step forward but two steps backward.

So, how do we face the harsh realities and the loss associated with climate change, while still finding joy in the natural wonder that surrounds us? How do we reconcile beauty and brokenness?

I’m Jonathan Beasley, and this is the Harvard Religion Beat, a podcast examining religion’s underestimated and often misunderstood role in society.

Today, I’m speaking with Terry Tempest Williams, activist, conservationist, Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence, and author of numerous books, including the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

For Earth Day 2021, I wanted to speak with Terry about the course she’s teaching this semester, and about the spiritual implications of climate change, and how we can still find beauty despite the chaos that surrounds us.

Listen to the episode:

HDS: Thanks for joining me today, Terry. In the syllabus for your spring 2021 course, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” you say: "Beauty and brokenness surround us. How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?" I know this question is specifically meant for your students, but I'd love to ask it of you. How have you found the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts? How have you found the courage to not look away from destruction? And why is that important to do?

TTW: I remember, years ago a friend said to me, Terry, you're married to sorrow. And I said no, I just choose not to look away. And I believe it's about bearing witness to both that which is beautiful in the world and that which pains us in the world, that on one hand, we have this beauty. On the other hand, we have this destruction. How do we bring these two hands together in prayer.

And for me, it is about bearing witness. I think oftentimes, we think bearing witness is a passive act. I don't believe that. I think bearing witness is an act of conscience and consequence. And by bearing witness, we bring forth action based out of our own lived experience. And I think so much of a spiritual life is about bearing witness.

So for me, having the strength to not look away is understanding the wholeness of what we are a part of, life and death, beauty and destruction, even in this moment of climate crisis, even in this moment of a pandemic that we thought was a pause that is now a place.

Climate chaos is not an abstraction. It is very real. It is not something in the future. It is here and now. And it makes me grieve. I also know that even as the trees are burning, they are dropping seeds and that the new forests are already in the ground. So again, it's this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

HDS: I'm thinking about the class and the relationship that you have with your students and you hearing their stories and hearing their concerns. Does it give you hope for this younger generation that they will sort of pick up the mantle of climate activism with the same vigor and passion as you and your peers have done? And also, what do you hope your students take away from these courses? What do you hope they leave with?

TTW: I love my students, and the great joy I have of being at the Harvard Divinity School is teaching and being with them. They are my teachers.

And what do I hope the students get out of it? I can only tell you what I am getting out of it, and that is watching their voices soar, watching the depth of their being come forth fearlessly, joyously, with such intellectual rigor and such spiritual resiliency.

How can one not find faith in the future and be able to embrace hope with this generation as a force field and energy field that is shifting the outcome? I don't know what the outcome will be. These are really difficult times.

And the news that we see through the science that is coming to us is bleak, and I think we have to stare that down, too. But when I see what's happening in Indian country with Indigenous people, with Indigenous women, with [U.S. Interior] Secretary [Deb] Haaland at the helm, that is a force field. When I hear the sermons of our students as we did today, that is a force field.

And I believe anything is possible if we place our collective consciousness, our capacity to bear witness to beauty and destruction. We can't know what the outcome will be, but we can know of the courage to not look away.

HDS: Terry, you've been a climate activist and environmentalist for decades. You still have so much to give and so much to teach us. Is there anything that you look back and are most proud of? And then further to that, what do you know now that you wish you'd known back when you first started out as an activist?

TTW: How do I say this, Jonathan? I don't ever not remember caring about the land.

You know, my grandmother told me that one of the first things I said was, Mimi, God's playing the piano, and it was wind blowing through the sycamore trees as she held me as a child. You know, my uncle said to me recently, we always knew there was something odd about you because you were the last one when we were on vacation to leave the ocean, and I don't know what hocus pocus you were involved in.

I've always had this very strong sense of ritual and ceremony and reciprocity with the land. I don't know where that comes from. My spirituality has always been tied to the land.

But what we didn't know early on when we were looking at wildness, wilderness, the protection of these lands in the West, public lands, was that it was all integrated, interrelated, that 40 years later, the very public lands we have been advocating to protect from oil and gas development and mining, et cetera, what we didn't realize is that the protection of those lands then is now the protection of the carbon that is in the ground.

You know, we didn't know that then. We know that now. And that whole notion of keeping the fossil fuels in the ground, rather than emitting them, which is now—25 percent of all carbon emissions from the United States are coming off of development of our public lands. So this pause that [President Joe] Biden has enacted is a profound act of resistance and restraint on behalf of climate. That's what I wish I had known then.

What am I most proud of? I can't answer that. But I can tell you where my heart is, and that is with my students, with the next generation. That is my greatest joy. That is my greatest pleasure. That is my greatest challenge.

And when you talk about the class, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World,” I think this is the third or fourth class I've taught with that. And last year, when we were brought home halfway through, and Harvard shut down, you know, I'll never forget our last meeting. We all expressed our love. We all prayed that we would be safe and our families and that we would have the resiliency to create in the midst of this terror.

And we threw away the syllabus with the faith that something would come forth. And it did. We had an opportunity to partnership with the University of Utah Medical Center, which is a satellite hospital in the American West in the Intermountain West. And the students came forth. They had an opportunity.

What was needed was inspiration, curated inspiration for the front-line workers, doctors, technicians, nurses, et cetera. And our class came forward with a five, six-week coyote chaplaincy on inspiration. And this was the book that came out of it.

And these 14 students wrote poems, stories, did photo essays, made calls, wrote letters. And the staff at the University of Utah published this for their doctors, for the patients, and for our students. And I was just so proud of them.

This is what chaplaincy looks like. This is what coyote chaplaincy became, and they were offerings. And rather than sink into despair, the students did not look away. And they became vessels in the service of something larger than themselves. To me, that is finding beauty in a broken world.

HDS: What does our government need to do to help this planet recover from climate abuse and climate change? If you had President Biden's ear, what would you be telling him?

TTW: At this moment, I would ask him to listen to Indigenous women, to the women of Bears Ears, of why Bears Ears National Monument must be restored, that this is not protecting Bears Ears for native people but for all people. I would ask him to keep fossil fuels in the ground, that this not be a pause, but a policy on behalf of all generations, even beyond our own species.

And I think all of us right now have to listen to people of color, Indigenous women, Black women, you know, brown, Asian. I think we are in this moment of reckoning, and it is both a reckoning and an awakening at once. And I think that this is in direct relationship to the spiritual implications of climate change. We can no longer live in the way we have been living, with each other, with the planet, with the future, with disregarding the past. So I think we are in a time of deep consideration of what does it mean to be human and how do we have those difficult conversations on behalf of each other, on behalf of the land.

HDS: April 22 is Earth Day. I'm just wondering, does Earth Day hold any special meaning for you, or is everyday Earth Day, and should every day be Earth Day for all of us?

TTW: You know, I think about my mother. She really loathed Mother's Day. You know, she said, what, you're going to give me a little potted plant for one day of the year. You know, and I have friends, Black friends, who feel that way about Black History Month you know whether—I have friends who feel that way about every holiday. It's a marker.

Earth Day—I remember the first Earth Day, and I appreciate the people who were behind it. But again, it's not a day. It's a way of being. And I think that's really important to remember. And I think every single day, I want to make sure that I have a personal encounter with another species, whether it's a plant, whether it's a red oak, whether it's the Say’s Phoebe that just arrived two days ago. You know, I want to be able to make prayers to the other beings that we share with this planet alongside the gestures of recognition and empathy toward our own species.

JB: Thanks to Terry Tempest Williams for sharing her thoughts and concerns and her hopes with us today. When I spoke with Terry last week over Zoom, she took her laptop outside to show me the desert and the monuments and the mesas of the Four Corners in the American West. I have to admit I’m not sure if I’ll ever see a more beautiful Zoom background than the land outside her windows.

Thanks for tuning in to this special episode of the Harvard Religion Beat. The show is written, hosted, and produced by me, Jonathan Beasley, and edited by the truly fabulous Caroline Cataldo.

We’ll have another new episode coming out in the next few weeks that takes a closer look at religious dimensions of the Myanmar protests. It’s super interesting, and you won’t want to miss it, so subscribe to the podcast if you don’t already.

Until next time…