Hearing stories, finding family, returning home

  • Terry Tempest Williams and Ted Major teaching at Teton

    Terry Newfarmer
  • Cross-country ski students

    C. Carver photo
  • Student writing

    C. Carver photo
  • Student reading

    C. Carver photo

It was May 23, 1974, when I knocked on David Raskin's door at the Behavioral Science Building at the University of Utah. The only thing I knew about him was that he was one of the world's leading experts on polygraph machines and that he had given Patty Hearst the lie detector test after she had been kidnapped. I knocked again.

He opened the door. "Yes? May I help you?"

"Yes, Dr. Raskin. My name is Terry Tempest and I have some material for you from Ted Major regarding the Teton Science School. I just returned from a field course there and I promised him I would deliver these brochures and papers to you."

"Thank you, come on in. How was it?" he asked.

I burst into tears.

"That bad?" he asked.

"No, that good," I said, trying to regain my composure.

"Sit down, please." he said. "Tell me what happened."

For the next hour or so, I explained to this compassionate stranger how a weekend field course on the natural history of Jackson Hole had opened a door in me that I could never close again. I told him about pine bark beetles preparing a lodgepole pine forest for fire. I asked him if he had ever heard the word, "serotinous." And then I explained without a bit of self-consciousness how these cones open as a result of extreme heat, fire, and then drop their seeds to regenerate the very forest that is burning.

"Isn't that incredible?" I asked. "Have you ever heard of anything that amazing in your life?"

He smiled, and asked, "Now that you are home, what are you going to do?"

I paused, and then said, "I have to go back."

"Just a minute, let me check on something," Dr. Raskin said, shuffling through papers on his desk. "It just so happens that we have a scholarship in this department in environmental studies and as luck would have it, yes, here it is (he pulled out an application form), today is the deadline and no one has applied yet. Are you interested?"

By the time I left David Raskin's office, I had a $1,000 scholarship to study tourist behavior in conjunction with Grand Teton National Park's Interpretive Program. My only hesitation was wondering if my parents would let me live in Wyoming for the summer. Ted Major was a Democrat, the first one I had ever met. They consented, and three weeks later I was living in a log cabin at the Teton Science School on a $3 a day stipend. I was their first intern.

Quite simply, the Teton Science School changed my life.

Ted Major and his wife, Joan, brought me and thousands of other young people into a community of committed individuals and gifted teachers who cared about ecological relationships and the environmental problems we were facing in the American West. They believed in exposing the youth to hands-on biology in the field, and the field was the Jackson Hole ecosystem.

"The Teton Science School was conceived as an innovative experiment in outdoor education with the four classroom walls expanded into the out-of-doors," writes founder Ted Major. "The living experience should be simple and non-materialistic. The educational experience should be vigorous, both physically and intellectually."

Major's environmental philosophy infiltrated our bones. And it was rigorous, both physically and intellectually. We learned to take nothing for granted. I can't count the times we would ask him a question expecting an answer, whether it was exploring the Red Desert or hiking over a pass in the Wind Rivers, and he would reply, "I don't know, what do you think?" No easy answers. What mattered was discipline, how we thought about the issues. Our minds stretched. Our hearts opened. Perhaps the one thing Ted Major didn't count on was the emotion he inspired. We fell in love with the land and the people who understood it.

How could our lives not be changed when we were able to spend an afternoon with Mardy Murie in Moose, Wyo., listening to her stories about accompanying her husband, Olaus, while he did biological research on the Sheenjek River in Alaska in 1956, or seeing her slides of the Brooks Range, now the Arctic Wildlife Refuge? How could we ever think about geology in the same way after spending days in the field with David Love, learning about the fault-block construction of the Teton Range? Frank Craighead taught us about bears and radicalized us by showing how institutions and wildness can clash. Franz Camenzind taught us about coyotes and their pack behavior on the Elk Range. Jack Major taught us how to key plants and how to see them through the precision of a hand lens. Virginia Huidekoper brought us the history of Wyoming through archival photographs. It was a baptism through stories.

And then, after we had been taught and trained, knowing how little we knew, Ted and Joan Major would have us teaching fourth-graders in Jackson Hole. We learned the generational stance of teaching each other about home, how the process of education is the process of reprocess.

The Teton Science School has survived, even flourished, because of a circle of friends who were committed to the ideals of preservation of the natural world through education. I think of Georgie and John Morgan, who hosted an annual picnic on one of the islands of Jackson Lake to raise money for the school, the Barker and Ewing families, who took us on float trips down the Snake River, and Med Bennett, who always brought ethics into workshops on nature. We gathered in the library with a fire roaring and listened to other storytellers talk about culture and landscape: Buckminster Fuller, Peter Matthiessen, Gary Snyder, Wallace Stegner, Barry Lopez, and Simon Ortiz. We were able to engage in conversation, ask them questions and listen. In the process, our ideas were forming.

Consider some of the alumnae: Louisa Willcox, who has been a force in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem for more than a decade; Renee Askins, who helped restore wolves to Yellowstone; Bart Kohler, who is helping preserve the Tongass National Forest in Alaska; and Will Morris, director of interpretation at Mesa Verde National Park.

Just last week in Wisconsin, I met a former student and intern who said how much the school has meant to him. This tradition is continuing as I see another generation of young people whose lives are being shaped and changed, young people like Merrilyne Lyndall, a high school student from Cache Valley, Utah, who attended the Teton Science School last year and this spring traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on behalf of Utah wilderness.

And I think about the past directors, how much they have given to keeping this tradition of compassionate intelligence and advocacy alive.

It is not easy. It has never been easy.

The power of the Teton Science School is the power of community, a community brought together by the vision initiated by Ted and Joan Major In 1966. That vision is still in place and it is largely a vision of love, love for the land and the relationships we forge in its presence.

My husband, Brooke, and I were married on June 2, 1975. Two days later, we were working at the Teton Science School as field instructors. The pattern of our life together was set in those early summer days under the Tetons. We would listen to the stories of our elders and in time we would carry them home.

For all of us who have been taught at the Teton Science School, it is the story we share.

Writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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