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Her antidote for 'climate grief' and a shrinking Great Salt Lake? Don't look away

Evaporation ponds that are pinkish-red due to high salinity levels are visible on the north section of the Great Salt Lake in August 2021 near Corinne, Utah.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Evaporation ponds that are pinkish-red due to high salinity levels are visible on the north section of the Great Salt Lake in August 2021 near Corinne, Utah.

We all have those places where we feel most inspired, content — most alive.

For me, it's Teton County. That stretch of high plains and higher mountains that extends from the southeastern most corner of Idaho and into Wyoming. I've spent a lifetime watching the sun rise and set over the Teton mountains. But a couple of summers ago, I watched those same sunrises and sunsets with dread.

Wildfires from as far as Oregon had blown so much smoke into the valley that you couldn't make out the tops of the mountains. And the sun was an electric orange fireball — the most stark kind of warning that things on this Earth are not as they should be. I felt sick. Not just because of the smoke that seeped into our clothes and our lungs but because of what it meant. I had understood the effects of climate change from an intellectual level for a very long time. But this was the first time I felt it in a much deeper, more personal way.

The experts call this "climate grief." I wanted to understand what this felt like to someone who has spent their life writing and thinking about our psychic and spiritual connection to the natural world. Terry Tempest Williams immediately came to mind. I first interviewed Williams 25 years ago at a writer's retreat in Yosemite National Park and I've never forgotten that conversation and the reverence with which she talked about the forests, the mountains, the air, the birds.

Sometimes it can be hard to talk about the effects of climate change in the aggregate — it's all so massive — the loss is so hard to wrap your head around. Williams has been writing about how she has seen a very particular place change over time — a place knitted close to her sense of identity — the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Here's an excerpt from an essay called, Believe:

I wanted to talk with Williams about how she is processing her own climate grief, what advice she has for the rest of us, and her lifelong relationship with the Great Salt Lake.

Terry Tempest Williams.
/ Kwaku Alston
Kwaku Alston
Terry Tempest Williams.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: You and I are from the same part of the world. You're from Utah, many generations. I was actually born in Salt Lake City and anytime I would go home to Southeast Idaho, I had to either drive by or fly over the Great Salt Lake.

For me, that place was always a mystery because as a kid, I didn't really understand why there was this big, beautiful, colorful lake and we couldn't go swimming in it and we couldn't play in the sand along the shore. It seemed sort of scary and confusing to me. How did it sit in your consciousness growing up?

Terry Tempest Williams: Oh, I think very much the same early on. My parents hated it, you know, there was the obligatory one time where my mother and aunt took a station wagon full of kids, my cousins and brothers and I, and they sat in their chairs very elegantly on the shore quite a ways away.

And we ran in just thrilled, thinking, "Oh, this is our ocean!" And after the impact of going too far in, we all started screaming because kids have, you know, cuts and scratches on their legs. And it was just so salty that it hurt. Then we ran back in and as kids do, and we pushed each other in.

And when we left I just remember we were all stuck to the seats. We'd been pickled and dried, we looked like little crystals. And I never went back again until much later. And fell in love with it because of the birds that surrounded the lake.

Martin: Walk me through how your perception of that place has changed as it has been changing because of environmental degradation.

Williams: I remember going out there with my husband, Brooke Williams, when we were courting, because I wanted him to love what I loved. Then Great Salt Lake started to rise in the early '80s, around 1983. And that piqued my attention because I wondered what was going to happen to the birds. And I must've gone out every week until the high water.

During that time, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. And so the lake, the rise, the demise of the birds, my mother's illness all became inextricably linked. I'm 68 years old. I've seen Great Salt Lake at its historic high 4,212 feet above sea level. And now, at its historic low, which was last November at 4,188 feet.

So, it's remarkable in a life to see the span of a lake expand and contract at once. Both causing its own concerns to the ecosystem at large. But the drought is something different.

As my mother was dying, she became more her essence, and in my mind became more beautiful. I feel like the Great Salt Lake is showing us her essence too, and it is so stark and so bare, it's haunting.

Martin: Can you describe for me what it looks like? I mean, for the millions of people who don't have an image of this space and place.

Williams: We can now stand in the lake bed where water once was. I mean, there was a moment where you couldn't go to Antelope Island, an island in the middle of the lake, for many, many years, for a decade, because the water covered the causeway. Now you walk out to Antelope Island and it looks like a stretched buckskin. There is no water. The birds are still there, but the numbers are lower.

This year has been a series of dates for me. I'll never forget January 5th when the Brigham Young University report came out on Great Salt Lake. Shocked all of us that Great Salt Lake, if we did nothing as citizens, would disappear, die in five years.

And then another date for me was June 29th when the headlines of the Salt Lake Tribune were that the white pelicans were gone. This is a bird of 30 million years of perfection. It was at Lake Lahontan with fossil records 12,500 years ago.

In March, they counted 5,000 white pelicans. The first part of June, 1,000. Around June 29th, all of the breeding pairs were gone, leaving only a few remnant juveniles hiding behind rock formations. They're gone. What do the pelicans know that we don't? So it continues to be a haunting.

Severe drought takes its toll on the Great Salt Lake.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Getty Images
Severe drought takes its toll on the Great Salt Lake.

Martin: So when you have been there in the past year, and you've seen these things, I mean, you describe it as a haunting. What does that mean for you specifically? What emotions?

Williams: It's still so beautiful. I mean, I just flew over it last night, coming home to Utah. The water yesterday morning was turquoise. It's brilliant. There's a clarity of light that is breathtaking. It's never not been beautiful.

Last year when I went with the photographer Fazal Sheikh, we walked a mile past the Spiral Jetty to the water's edge, and it was blood red because of the halophytes. I remember putting my hands in the water and suddenly I thought, "The Great Salt Lake is in retreat." What does that mean for us? What would that mean if we were in retreat?

It became much more complex than, the Great Salt Lake is dying. It was, the Great Salt Lake is in retreat. And while she is in retreat, how do we support her in this moment? And in this case, it's not so difficult. The Great Salt Lake needs water. So how do we add water?

Can the Mormon Church rise to this occasion for its people and continue to donate water rights? They were the first to do so. It was appreciated, but it wasn't enough. What about the Utah legislature? Can they do something more than pray? Obviously, they would tell you that their prayers worked. And maybe they did, but my great grandmother always said, "Faith without works is dead."

So I think we have to look at this as a moment of action. And extreme action in extreme times.

Martin: There are subsets of Christianity in which people find ways to dismiss these kinds of existential concerns about climate change because it's all part of God's plan, right? Have you encountered that? Have you engaged in these debates?

Williams: You know, I'm teaching at the Harvard Divinity School and we talk about this a lot. In fact, there's a group of students that have organized and every Tuesday night we meet in what is called a fire salon around the fire in the commons.

Have I encountered that mindset? Yes, I've encountered that among my own relatives and family members. That climate change is inevitable. But on the other hand, I'm hearing more about how we can bring the spiritual into the political debate. You know, do we have the courage to understand that this is not just an ecological crisis or a political crisis or even an economic crisis?

Because it is all of those things, but at its heart, it is a spiritual crisis. And I think what I'm seeing with our students and what I'm seeing with leadership around the Great Salt Lake is that people are speaking from the heart. They are speaking in terms of our responsibility, that it is our obligation when someone is in pain to come to their aid.

What used to be considered a narrow lens environmental focus is now being seen as a broader lens, where all of our identities are being held. And therefore, it concerns all of us. I actually feel encouraged by religious engagement. Whether it's Muslim, whether it's Christian churches, whether it's pagans, whether it's Buddhists. We're seeing engagement all around in an interdenominational embrace of concern.

Martin: You mentioned these groups, the student groups happening at Harvard Divinity School. Do you hear young people experiencing angst and spiritual despair over climate change? Is it that deep?

Williams: It is so deep. Climate grief is real. And when we started the students were in tears. We started something called weather reports, asking different people from different walks of life, from scientists to artists to theologians, "What's the weather report where you are?"

I would say the first four weeks were all about managing and discussing and embracing climate grief. But I noticed something interesting. In the 10 week course we had, at the end, climate grief had moved to engagement. It allowed all of us to see that there is something deeper than hope. And that is action. Engaging and building community.

When they first came, they were isolated, they were scared. We were on the heels of George Floyd's murder. Grief was central. But in the shared grief, a grief shared is a grief endured. We realized together that grief is love and that ache we feel, that angst we feel is because of loss. And what do we do with that loss?


Martin: It seems self-evident to me that you have managed your own climate grief by first embracing it and not pushing it away. And focusing on action. Is that your best guidance for other people who might be listening who feel something similar?

Williams: You know, I remember when my mother was dying. When I was with her, I was calm. When I was away from her, I panicked. And I want to be as close to the Great Salt Lake as I possibly can. I want to be laid bare on the desert as the desert burns. As much as I can.

Simone Weil said attention is a prayer. I feel that if we can pay attention, we will know what to do. If we are present, we will know what actions are needed. For me, Rachel, it's a mobilization of love and love in the deepest way. Of gratitude, of compassion, of deep listening. It's that we're cloaked in beauty even as we're weeping.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.