Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Necessary Writer: Terry Tempest Williams

In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams confronts the fearsome beauty and power of nature in her descriptions of the rise of the Great Salt Lake and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and tells the tragic yet life-affirming story of the cancer delivered by nuclear weapons testing that has ravaged her downwinder family.

In An Unspoken Hunger, Terry, as outspoken as she is gracefully and meticulously artistic, articulates the mystical bond between women and the wild. In Leap, Terry recounts her immersion not in a living landscape but rather in a painted world, Bosch’s wildly detailed triptyph, The Garden of Delights, a journey of the imagination that asks, among many other provocative questions, why we don’t value nature as highly as we do artistic masterpieces?

In Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, and in The Open Space of Democracy, Williams forthrightly and creatively extends her poetics of place into a politics of place, recognizing that one must defend what one loves.

A naturalist, writer, and activist hailed as a visionary, Williams has testified before Congress, gone to jail for acts of civil disobedience, and journeyed to Hiroshima and Rwanda to participate in acts of art and healing. Williams has contributed to numerous newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, and she advocates tirelessly in person for wilderness and justice. Williams has received the Robert Marshall Award from the Wilderness Society, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association and the Wallace Stegner Award. She is the recipient of Lannan and Guggenheim fellowships. Terry Tempest Williams is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah, and the University of Wyoming's first Eminent Writer-in-Residence.

Terry has said, “Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.”

The truth of this observation is born out in her newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Here’s the Booklist review:

Ecologist and writer Williams composes gracefully structured inquiries lush with unexpected and revelatory correspondences. In her most far-reaching and profoundly clarifying work to date, Williams considers the complex beauty of brokenness and the redemptive art of creating wholeness from fragments in a triptych of explorations. She begins in a mosaics workshop in Ravenna, Italy, and then brings the understanding gleaned from working with tesserae to her day-by-day observations of a beleaguered Utah prairie dog town. Williams marvels over this tunnel-building, highly communicative species and dubs them “prayer dogs” for their habit of standing and watching the sunset. Prairie dogs are crucial to the biodiversity of the grassland ecosystem, a living mosaic, yet they have been brutally massacred and driven to the brink of extinction. The story of her brother’s death entwines with Williams’ riveting account of her trip to Rwanda with visionary artist Lily Yeh to help create a genocide memorial. Brokenhearted in this land of bones and sorrow, Williams gathers shattering stories of death and resilience with the help of an extraordinary survivor who becomes her son, bearing witness to the horror of neighbors slaughtering neighbors in an attempted annihilation. Scientific in her exactitude, compassionate in her receptivity, and rhapsodic in expression, Williams has constructed a beautiful mosaic of loss and renewal that affirms, with striking lucidity, the need for reverence for all of life.
— Donna Seaman

Listen to my Open Books interview with Terry Tempest Williams. You'll find it in the Nonfiction section.

Among the many things we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, in a time of cruel diminishment and fear, of catastrophic lies and high crimes, are writers of Terry Tempest Williams' eloquence, insight, compassion, passion, and courage. Let us be thankful, too, that we will have a new President who reads signifiant books, out of respect for the past and the knowledge and experience of others, and who has written books in pursuit of understanding and coherence, truth and inspiration.

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