Courtesy of Maria’s Bookshop
Courtesy of Maria’s Bookshop
Utah author and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams’ most recent memoir, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice, continues the intertwined threads of family, habitat and nature introduced in her 1991 memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History Of Family And Place.
Refuge chronicled the life and death of Williams’ beloved mother Diane Tempest. In Refuge, Williams also correlated the unprecedented flooding of the Great Salt Lake to her mother’s long goodbye. In addition, Williams described the devastation of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. It was a painful, multiple loss for the budding activist.
Williams was devastated by her mother’s death. She describes her loss thusly: “Sorrow has a voice. It is the cold scream of silence turned inward.” A month later, Williams approached the legacy left by her mother with great expectations.
Three shelves of beautifully bound journals were lined up before her. She opened the first one – blank. The next one – blank again.
All were empty, devoid of word or image. The result of Williams’ ensuing quest for understanding her mother’s gift is the 54 chapters in When Women Were Birds, lyrical essays on voice, silence and meaning.
Williams puts forth many thoughts on what her mother’s empty journals might represent. Here are a few of her proposed meanings:
My Mother’s Journals are a blinding light.
My Mother’s Journals are white flags of surrender.
My Mother’s Journals are made of gauze to wrap a wound.
My Mother’s Journals are clouds.
My Mother’s Journals are words wafting above the page.
Williams is a fifth generation Mormon who defies the church stereotype of a woman who marries, stays home and produces many children. As the author of 14 previous books, it feels as if her works stand in for the children she might have otherwise had. It seems the world is richer for her choice.
Williams and her family were “Downwinders.” These are people living in Utah who were probably exposed to radiation fallout in the ’50s and ’60s when the government was still doing above-ground nuclear testing. Nine members of her immediate family had breast cancer and mastectomies and by 1989 seven of the women were dead.
Williams has a master’s degree in environmental education, which helps in her activist battle to save wildlife and wild places. In 1995, Williams and fellow writer Stephen Trimble edited the collection Testimony: Writers Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness, a small but powerful tome that was instrumental in saving millions of acres of wild land in her home state of Utah. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was formed at that time.
Williams has traveled extensively. In Africa, she was inspired by Wangari Maathai. Maathai was an environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who worked with women of her country to plant trees. Williams also taught on the Navajo Reservation, which, to many Americans, is a foreign country. She learned how the Diné lived in harmony with nature and lightly on the land.
When Women Were Birds reflects Williams’ unique voice. Her writing is engrossing, complicated and compelling. She truly is a voice in the wilderness. She continues the fight to save the places and creatures she loves who are without a voice. Williams also shines a light on the importance of family, and especially women who have such a great capacity for love, devotion and strength. Williams’ work is an ode to her love of her mother, all women and this earth. It is an inspiration for all who battle to preserve all things wild for now and the future.
Freelance reviewer Leslie Doran may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux