My heroes have always been writers—especially writers whose literary landscape is the American West.

Good evening and welcome to our 20th annual Guardians Gala. I’ve met many of you but not all of you. I am John Horning and I am the Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians. Welcome to La Fonda—it’s such a beautiful, historic hotel nestled in the heart of Santa Fe. This occasion is one of the highlights of my year because it fills my heart to see so many WildEarth Guardians supporters together—thanks to each of you for being a part of it. I’d like to extend a special welcome to my mom and dad who journeyed from Washington, DC to be here.

We gather tonight on the southwestern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in the heart of the Rio Grande watershed which is the historic homeland of the Tewa people. This place we call Santa Fe the Tewa people recognized as Oga Pogeh, meaning White Shell Water Place. I offer this land acknowledgement to honor the indigenous people who came before us and who still live among us.

Tonight we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and renew our commitment to its defense. It’s a visionary law that the U.S. Congress passed to create a safety net for the vanishing and vulnerable natural world. The Act articulates the belief that all wildlife have intrinsic value and that we—as a nation—have a moral obligation to protect the natural world. It’s a law without which there would be no wolf’s howl in the Greater Gila, no hoot of the Mexican spotted owl in the Southwest’s mountain forests, and no song of the Southwest willow flycatcher in our cottonwood-willow bosques. Protecting each of these icons, as well as countless other species, has been the heroic work of the staff of WildEarth Guardians for decades.

My heroes have always been writers—especially writers whose literary landscape is the American West.  Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, and… Terry Tempest Williams.  I didn’t know why writers were my heroes until about a decade ago, when a friend introduced me to the philosopher Richard Rorty.  Rorty believed the best way to help the vulnerable, the dispossessed, was to tell sympathetic stories about their struggles.   For decades, Terry Tempest Williams has been telling sympathetic stories about wild things.  I can’t begin to guess how many people have been drawn to our cause by the brilliance of her words.  

When asked by a reporter, “who is the most powerful person in the West,” Terry replied, “the Sage grouse.” The reporter responded “I am serious” to which Terry replied, “So am I.” This small act reveals a coruscating mind – one that aspires to a lofty goal – endowing the natural world with “personhood.”  It’s a great idea, but like most great ideas, it has met with considerable resistance.  

It took over 1500 years for the sun to be accepted as the center of the universe.  Great ideas are rarely, if ever, accepted right away.  I am not willing to wait 1500 years.  So, I must ask myself – and ask you – how do we get there?  How do we win hearts and minds for critical ideas?  And that brings me back to Rorty and his theory about stories.

Another philosopher wrote, “even logicians know that you do not change a person’s mind with logic.”  Instead, we must look to the example of Harriet Beacher Stowe and her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It has been argued that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, more than anything else, catalyzed the abolitionist movement and led to the end of slavery.  How?  By creating empathy for slaves by telling a story that illuminated their misery – by telling a story that allowed, insisted, that the reader place themselves in the position of the individual experiencing cruelty—real cruelty.

You see, the opposite of cruelty is not kindness – it is curiosity.  Where there is no curiosity, there is indifference, and indifference is our greatest obstacle to protecting the natural world.  Terry knows this truth.  She once wrote:, “writing requires an aching curiosity.”  This may be her greatest gift – a gift she generously shares with those who know her.  If you are lucky enough to have a meal, or even a cup of coffee, with her, you will find out that her curiosity for nature is matched by her curiosity for people just like you and me.  And that, along with her enormous talent and passion, makes her one-of-a-kind.

It is my great honor to introduce Terry Tempest Williams.

A recording of John Horning and Terry Tempest Williams speaking at the 20th Annual Guardians Gala will be available soon!

Check out our photo gallery from the 20th Annual Guardians Gala here. 

About the Author

John Horning | Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

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