Author Profiles | Literary Arts

Terry Tempest Williams: Mormon Songdog

The Salt Lake Tribune reports today that University of Utah professor Terry Tempest Williams has tendered her resignation after a dispute with the University over the nature of her courses within the Envrionmental Humanities Program. This seemed an appropriate time to post Camille Pack’s essay on the acclaimed author that appeared in our 2014 publication Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists.

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Terry Tempest Williams, photo by Zoe Rodriguez, 2014.

I lit all the candles to write this piece. On Terry Tempest Williams’ desk there would also be a bowl of water. She smiles and says it’s about evaporation—something actually happening when she sits to work, but if you’ve read Williams’ books or listened to her speak, you know that’s a flip response.

Terry shares with her audience like they’re in the innermost circle, privy to the personal. She carries talismans—turquoise tucked into a boot, sage in her pocket, red colored earth in a suitcase. In Leap she describes sitting with Brooke, her husband, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake as they burned their marriage certificate, readying for new vows in front of a natural witness.

Williams is ardently Mormon and equally unorthodox, treasuring the community at the same time she’s admitted Salt Lake City can make you feel like there’s a hand around your throat. She’s hailed for transparency but can also be as private and impenetrable as the red rock cliffs she loves. Take, for example, the unexplained motives behind her destroyed marriage certificate, her mother’s empty journals, or the blank pages added to When Women Were Birds. Left to imagine the reasons, you generate your own, and so her intimacy ends up revealing you to yourself.

Perhaps this partially explains her reach, how beloved she is by opposing camps, how skilled she is at bridging divides, and why, despite her internationally renowned status as an author, dozens of the people I spoke to think she is most powerful in person.

“I have known Terry off and on for more than 40 years now,” says bookseller Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders’ Rare Books, “and consider her to be a natural and national treasure . . . a magical human being. She acts as an example, a conduit and a catalyst for the way we know that we should behave. She is a force of nature and absolutely must be experienced in person.”

Williams is widely regarded as the heir to Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. “She’s the undisputed queen,” says Betsy Burton, writer, bookseller, and co-owner of The King’s English Bookshop. “She combines spirituality and a deep, deep scientific knowledge and passion in a way that nobody else does who’s writing today. I think she’s right at the forefront and always has been.”

Mike Matz, Director of U.S Public Lands for the Pew Charitable Trusts confesses, “I really think you’d have to go back to folks who aren’t around anymore to meet her match, like Mardy Murie, who similarly stuck her neck out. If I were President, I’d nominate her in a heartbeat for Interior Secretary. Terry believes in the power of people and democracy.”

Even for former intimates who have largely lost contact over the years, like writer David Petersen, her presence remains profound. “It’s one thing to read something on a page and another to hear an eloquent, expressive, passionate person evoke those things. People will wait two hours to speak to her for one minute. For that one minute, she’s 110% with that one person, so she’s worth waiting for.”

Petersen first met Williams at a memorial service for Edward Abbey in 1989; he would later edit Abbey’s personal journals. “She was in a gingham dress and barefoot, the picture of youthful innocence. She could tell I felt a little awkward around famous people like Wendell Berry, and she just grabbed me and took me around and introduced me.”

“She’s the universal mother,” Petersen says. “She approaches people that way, and people respond to her that way. People come to her as a stranger and pour their hearts out to her; she’s just a unique human being. One of a kind. Period. I can’t think of anyone who comes close.”

As a child, Williams witnessed a nuclear explosion. It dusted her family’s car with ash and turned into a recurring nightmare. “I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women,” she wrote in an essay. “My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead.” She suspects the nuclear fallout from multiple tests led to the family’s cancer. Operation Plumbbob was essential to so-called national security in 1957. It easily trumped public health.

In the same essay she compares nuclear policy to her religion. “In Mormon culture, authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to ‘make waves’ or ‘rock the boat.’”

“‘Just let it go,’ Mother would say. ‘You know how you feel, that’s what counts.’”

“For many years, I have done just that—listened, observed, and quietly formed my own opinions, in a culture that rarely asks questions because it has all the answers. But one by one, I have watched the women in my family die common, heroic deaths. We sat in waiting rooms hoping for good news, but always receiving the bad. I cared for them, bathed their scarred bodies, and kept their secrets.”

“The price of obedience has become too high.”

“The fear and inability to question authority that ultimately killed rural communities in Utah during atmospheric testing of atomic weapons is the same fear I saw in my mother’s body. Sheep. Dead sheep. The evidence is buried,” Williams writes.

Florence Krall Shepard taught educational, environmental, and feminist studies to the undergraduate Williams at the University of Utah. Years later, they co-taught courses, and Shepard remembers watching her teach a segment on birds. Williams jumped and flapped her arms, popped forward, rocked back, and twirled around, “dancing like a Sandhill Crane in courtship, showing the students—like ballet in the classroom.” Shepard says for as long as she knew her, Williams combined passion with questioning. “Terry was, you can imagine, interested in everything that had to do with nature, and she always had something that made people laugh.”

“But as an inquirer, Terry had a lot of hard questions and did a lot of processing on her own. She didn’t take too well to conventional assignments,” Shepard laughs. “She interpreted them in her own way, and she read voraciously; she was always reading, and she wrote constantly. If we went on a weekend workshop, she’d fill a journal, so she was very skilled and also very inquisitive.”

“After her mother passed, and then her brother Steve,” says Shepard, “she was absolutely heartbroken. I tried to bring her some solace, but it’s impossible to soften such grieving. She was very brave and philosophical about death and continued to provide support for her family.”

In 1991 Williams published the story of her mother’s cancer and the rise of the Great Salt Lake, an event that threatened “the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and with it the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams had come to gauge her life by.” The open-hearted vulnerability in Refuge was bottled lightning to Williams’ career.

According to celebrated landscape writer Stephen Trimble, “she changed the course of nature writing in the West by her brutal honesty about her emotional life and her ability to weave that into her love of the land. Terry moved the line.”

Historian Jana Remy says Refuge also “emerged at an important moment for Mormon women who found themselves on the margins of their communities. At the time, the LDS Church was openly silencing its feminists and intellectuals, so Mormons who thought or behaved differently than the norm tended to do so very quietly.”

Williams’ books, particularly Leap, published in 2000, served as a spiritual model and lifeline for many LDS women, says Remy, giving them courage to tell their own stories and “live with greater authenticity in the Mormon community.” They couldn’t celebrate Williams openly however “due to her heterodoxies, like drinking wine, eschewing temple rituals, and forgoing childrearing.”

“She’s probably Mormonism’s most famous [literary] writer,” says George Handley, an environmental writer and humanities professor at Brigham Young University who thinks she is underexposed in the Mormon community because of apathy and ignorance, not antipathy.

Michael Austin, provost and academic VP at Newman University and compiler of Williams’ interview collection A Voice in the Wilderness, says Mormon writers are often seen as parochial and insular. They don’t penetrate the larger literary market, but “Williams is seen as one of the major explainers of Mormonism to the world,” and in that role she’s “lovingly critical.”

“I was drawn to her because she spoke to my experiences as a Mormon in a somewhat hostile intellectual world,” says Austin, “and she was challenged on being Mormon, and she really responded professionally and compassionately. I saw her as someone who had really negotiated those landmines and created a path I could follow.”

Despite the praise, George Handley says Williams’ extraordinary impact nationally and internationally far exceeds her impact on the Mormon community. Handley doesn’t think Mormons read a lot of fine literature—due to competing interests and entertainment obsessions—just like the rest of American society. We aren’t “geared to self-reflective exercises, and you can see that reflected in our relationship with the natural world.”

“We treat nature as a commodity, rush through it, own it, use it, but don’t want to make it cause us to question who we are, our values, the purpose of life, and have existential crises.” And if we’re not doing that, Handley says, we’re less likely to resonate with writers who are.

“If Mormons read Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey, they’ll read her, but the readership of nature writing in Utah is smaller than certainly I would like to see.”

Even so, when Williams did a reading at Brigham Young University a year ago, Handley says the students “came out in droves. They loved it, and she loved it. It was a great exchange, and she was very vocal about how proud she is to be a Mormon and how grateful she is for the people at BYU who care.”

“She wanted Mormons to see how much more she had to offer them than just a source of tension about feminism or controversial views, and many students, including my own daughter, were really touched—touched by her writing and by her person. She’s extraordinarily loving and generous,” says Handley.

For Betsy Burton, it’s Williams’ “wonderful combination of gentleness and radicalism. She can work inside the local culture successfully as well as outside. Most people are in one world or the other; Terry has one foot firmly placed in each and can bring those worlds together.”

“She comes from a place of deeply rooted passion. In everything she says and writes, people believe in her utterly, and she inspires people to make change.” Not because she’s seeking a leadership position or starting a movement, Burton says, but because she’s “trying to change people’s lives in basic ways, in how they see the world and each other.”

Burton describes a luncheon last year for independent booksellers where Williams received one of five awards. Everyone said they loved indies. “They were gratifying and funny and some were impassioned, but Terry always manages to take it outside, to put you in the situation where you’re empathizing. You’re there understanding in that real way.”

When Williams stood for the award, Burton remembers her saying, “I have to tell you a story.” It was 9/11. The streets were full of people, and she was in the Politics and Prose Bookstore in D.C. talking to co-owners Barbara Meade and the late Carla Cohen. They were reflecting, shocked, coming to grips, and a Muslim man walked in, frightened and at sea, and he said, “The world is turned upside down, and I don’t know where to go. I don’t feel like I’m safe. I don’t know what to do.”

And Barbara says, “You’re safe here,” and put her arm around him. Recounting it, Burton started to cry. “That’s what we do,” she said. “When Rushdie was threatened, too. Independent bookstores are bastions of freedom, and Terry took that subject and reduced it to what everyone was trying to say and got to the heart.”

“She has a very unusual mind; it’s her combination of global and humanistic thinking. There’s horror and beauty at the same time.”

In Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Williams describes helping genocide survivors in Rwanda to build a memorial and also working to preserve endangered prairie dogs at home in Utah. “Most people wouldn’t dare to put those together,” says Burton.

“Her writing is very brave, and Leap is just extraordinary. You really have to give it time. You have to think while you’re reading it—which is why it didn’t sell well. Her ability to embrace the whole and honestly see the parts is what makes her work so extraordinary.”

Or take her most recent book, When Women Were Birds, Burton offers. “There are multiple epiphanies from page to page. I would think, Holy Jesus. I never thought of it that way. It’s meditative, deeply personal, and you learn by osmosis.”

With Stephen Trimble, Williams directly impacted the preservation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. They solicited and put into the hands of Congress the collected stories of 20 writers committed to landscape.

When President William Jefferson Clinton protected the nearly two million acres, he held up a copy of Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness and said, “This little book made a difference.”

Phillip Bimstein, composer and former mayor of Springdale, Utah, remembers testifying with Williams before Congress on behalf of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. “She speaks from the heart with soul and spirit. She definitely brings a spiritual gravitas to the table,” he says. One of her stories transformed his life. It’s a Navajo legend she tells about a coyote, a “songdog,” says Bimstein. “The songdog came out of a hole in the ground and sang the world into existence. It’s a metaphor for our personal creativity. We all have that ability. We can all sing our world into existence.” He put the reminder on his license plate: SONGDOG. “It always keeps coming back.”

In 1998, Bimstein wrote a string quartet based on Refuge and recorded Williams speaking selected phrases. “I just want to listen to the silence with you by my side,” says Williams in refrain with the strings. The words were first spoken by her mother on her deathbed. “I just want to listen to the silence with you by my side. I just want to listen to the silence.”

In the last piece, in counterpoint to repeating chords, Williams says, “I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward.” Even if it’s a message that only reaches a subset, even when entertainment culture dominates great literature, George Handley doesn’t think it’s a big issue.

“Great literature only needs the right readers to transform and be transformed, and then they transform others. It may always be a small minority,” he says, “but those people matter a great deal.”

Camille Pack teaches Language Arts at a private boarding school and received her MA in Literature and Writing from Utah State University.

1 reply »

  1. This is a fantastic profile. Thank you for re-posting this. When I told the U of U Dean of Libraries that Terry Tempest Williams had quit she said, “Who’s that?” I guess that’s the problem in a nutshell. Administrators who didn’t know who she is didn’t have a clue why they should value her way of teaching.

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