Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Terry Tempest Williams in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
“I don’t perceive myself as a writer,” says Terry Tempest Williams, 40, the author of seven books. “But I have always cared about language and landscape—and story bridges those worlds.”
Williams’ eloquent stories of her native place, northern Utah, are also bridges from memory to family to the flash of a vireo’s wing. They are impassioned manifestos of a deep ecology that sounds the depths of the human heart. In Refuge (1991) she tells parallel stories: her mother’s battle with a malignant tumor that was almost surely caused by A-bomb test fallout, and the encroachment of the flooding Great Salt Lake upon Williams’ beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.
“That book really asks the question: How do you find refuge in change?” she says. For Williams the answer has everything to do with the true meaning of wildness. “It’s frightening to embrace change and paradox. But living with paradox means living with a wild heart, and that means finding a certain comfort in the contradictory nature of things. When I'm out in the natural world,” she says, “I can be fierce and compassionate at once, loving the grizzly and the elk and watching the grizzly take the elk calf down.”
As she continues writing (Williams’ latest book, An Unspoken Hunger , combines family portraits with essays on other female writers and visionaries who have loved the wild), she also fights cancers like clear-cutting and nuclear testing with the Wilderness Society—and with the Women, Health, and Environment Network, whose insistence that environmental issues, health questions, and women’s concerns be addressed together resonates with Williams’ sense of the unity of her indignation. “I’ve watched every woman in my family die from being “downwinders,” victims of atomic tests. There is no separation whatever between me as a writer, an activist, and a Mormon woman.”
In fact, her religion’s powerful, grateful love of place and its refusal to separate the spiritual and the secular are living traditions for this sixth-generation Mormon wife and mother; yet her engagement with her culture implies both love and struggle.
“Mormon culture is the force I write toward and against,” she says. “I try to do what I think we all need to do to bring about change—to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. At the same time, the deep roots I have enable me to take risks. If you know where you are, you know who you are.”
And the taking of risks is, ultimately, the wild heart of Terry Tempest Williams’ work. “What are we afraid of that makes us accept so much that is intolerable?” she asks. “We’re afraid of intimacy, of wildness, of love; afraid of the very things we desire, because if we acknowledged them we would have to acknowledge the possibility of losing them.
“If we fail in this century, it won’t be because of arrogance, it’ll be because of fear.”