Terry Tempest Williams
naturalist, writer, wilderness advocate
In the early 1990s, during one of the periodic episodes of change in my life, I read Terry Tempest Williams' book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Although I had not personally suffered, as Williams did, the encounter with breast cancer and its recovery, her descriptions of family dynamics and links to the state of our various environments gripped my heart. Like Annie Dillard's writing in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Williams describes everyday flora and fauna in delicate and dramatic detail. And she connects them to human feelings, thoughts, and actions with impressive clarity.
The interventing years have seen Williams, like the late Edward Abbey, become an outspoken advocate for the delicate life of the desert wilderness found in the American West, writing several books that concern the Canyonlands of Utah and the value of other seemingly desolate spaces.
But deserts and wilderness, whether environmental or emotional, are not Williams' only focus. She applies her naturalist's eye to many subjects, including Hieronymus Bosch's fifteenth-century Flemish masterpiece, The Garden of Delights. Her book Leap takes us inside that painting and its world, while making connections to contemporary life. In an interview about Leap, Williams asks, "How do we marry our joy with our sorrow in a world as delicate and strong as spider's silk? How do we continue to find faith in a world that seems to have abandoned the sacred?"
Williams' questions are intended for everyone, whether or not they follow a recognized wisdom tradition. She challenges us to expand our vision and open our hearts to new possibilities and more congenial ways of living in the world.
In a more recent work, The Open Space of Democracy, Williams again asks us to look at our circumstances with new eyes. Rather than frame everything as confrontation, she encourages us to discover approaches to reconcile ourselves to each other in all our peculiarities and to our environment, in all its diversity, richness, and tenuous carrying capacity. In the latter part of 2004, Williams went on a 'reconciliation tour' around the United States, asking us to open our own spaces.
As she says, "In the open space of democracy, we are listening — ears alert — we are watching — eyes open — registering the patterns and possibilities for engagement. Some acts are private; some are public. Our oscillations between local, national, and global gestures map the full range of our movement. Our strength lies in our imagination, and paying attention to what sustains life, rather than what destroys it.... Open lands open minds.
On her Coyote Clan website, you'll find links to Williams' books, interviews, and articles, as well as an extensive bibliography of this prolific writer's affecting works.