Faith, hope and bird-watching

What kind of woman takes binoculars and a field guide to watch a painting at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain?

Here’s a hint: It’s the same kind of woman who fought for wilderness in Utah and who seeks balance between her Mormon beliefs and her desire to upset hierarchies whenever possible. This exploration of new structures drives the writing of naturalist Terry Tempest Williams‘ latest book, Leap.

“We are on the cusp of another reformation, an ecological reformation,” Williams said. “We are in the process of inventing. That gives me great faith.”

Williams, who may be best known for her memoir, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, read portions of Leap and talked informally about heaven, hell and her love affair with the earth to a packed house Monday at the University of Nevada, Reno. An evening lecture on “Homework: The Art of Living” honored environmentalist women.

In Leap, Williams wrote of a spiritual quest during her trip to Spain, where she sought rest, the acquisition of a new language and a reason to use up her frequent flier miles.

The writing was sparked by her mother’s death and a bird-filled painting, Hieronymus Bosch’s “El Jardin de las Delicas” (The Garden of Earthly Delights), which Williams saw at the Prado. The painting is the middle part of a triptych and is book-ended by panels featuring scenes from heaven and hell. The book, Leap, is assembled similarly, with sections on paradise and a nightmarish world polluted by toxic waste, deforested land and endangered fauna.

“There is such a thing as evil,” Williams read from Leap, after telling the audience about how she journeyed into the painting’s dark psychological abyss. “I can find no friends in hell.”

That’s as bleak as it gets. Williams’ view of the future is cautiously optimistic.

“If we really face the world we’ve created right now, it’s over,” Williams said. “It’s too much to bear … so we ask what can we do to make a difference.”

She said she sees progress.

“The whole West is in flux, in the middle of a war,” she said. “But even though we see this split, I don’t think it’s representative of what’s going on in this country.”

Writing Leap, Williams said, strengthened her relationship with her nontraditional Mormon views.

“It’s the lens I see the world from,” she said. “It’s also ultimately my audience.”

Change begins, she said, by giving individuals within a patriarchal system a chance to express differences and be heard: “In any orthodoxy, creativity is squelched in the name of the collective.”

It’s an encouragement to Williams that some organized religions are “greening"—moving away from the position that equates man’s dominion over the earth to a “natural” right to exploit natural resources.

"We don’t have a good history within the Christian tradition with regard to the land," she said. "It thrills me to see these shifts. … We are not going to get far with land ethics unless churches are open to change. It’s not just a political issue, but a spiritual one."