"When Women Were Birds"
An environmentalist writes a moving - and best-selling memoir based on her life growing up in Utah. Shoofly book columnist Carole McKellar shares elements that have made this book a favorite in her library.
Williams’ mother was a private person who often said, “I don’t like people knowing my thoughts.” Throughout the book, Terry speculates on the mystery of the blank books:
“My Mother’s Journals are an act of defiance.
My Mother’s Journals are an act of aggression.
My Mother’s Journals are an act of modesty.
Terry began writing as a child, confirming from an early age that she “experienced each encounter of my life twice: once in the world, and once again on the page.” Unlike her mother, she states, “I cannot think without a pen in hand. If I don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist.”
In fifty-four short chapters, Terry explores of the experiences that shaped her life. She learned a love of nature from her parents and her paternal grandmother, who was an inveterate bird watcher. She gave Terry her first field guide to birds at the age of five. Williams writes, “It is the first book I remember taking to bed. Beneath my covers, I held a flashlight in one hand and the field guide in the other. I studied each painted bird carefully and took them into my dreams.”
While working at a bookstore in Salt Lake City, Williams met Brooke, to whom she has been married for more than forty years. She admired his book selections which included Peterson’s “Field Guide to Western Birds.” Of her marriage, Terry wrote, “We have never stopped loving all things wild and unruly, including each other.”
In one particularly amusing chapter, Williams described her first adult job as a biology teacher at the conservative Carden School in Salt Lake City. The headmistress insisted that Terry never use the word “biology” with her students because it “denotes sexual reproduction, and we will have none of that here.” When asked if she was an environmentalist, Terry replied that she indeed was. The headmaster leaned toward her and asked, “Did you know that the Devil is an environmentalist?”
In addition to championing conservation of public land, Williams is an advocate for women’s health issues. Nine members of the Tempest family have had breast cancer including her mother and grandmother. Williams believes that exposure to radiation from the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1962 is the reason so many members of her family have been affected by cancer.
In describing the power of poetry in her life, Terry credits a speech pathologist with helping her overcome a speech impediment. “I did not find my voice—my voice found me through the compassion of a teacher who understood how poetry transforms us through the elegance and lyricism of language.”
Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was another mentor to Terry. The Green Belt Movement founded by Maathai empowered women in Kenya to plant forty-three million trees in response to the environmental crisis of deforestation. Working alongside Maathai and the women in Kenya inspired Williams to start a similar movement in Utah. After hearing of Maathai’s death, Terry sighted a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering nearby. “This was Wangari’s favorite bird, the one who put out a forest fire, one beak full of water at a time.” This story was told by Maathai to illustrate how small actions can change the world.
Terry Tempest Williams’ writing is both poetic and wise. She is a marvelous story teller. I’ve read this book twice in the past year and given it to friends. She has shown me that there are many ways to experience and react to the world, and the choice is ours.
“How shall I live? I want to feel both the beauty and the pain of the age we
are living in. I want to survive my life without becoming numb. I want to speak
and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become
the landscape where I dwell. I want to possess a light touch that can elevate
darkness to the realm of stars.”
Picador, AN and imprint of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, published this edition. The book itself is visually and tactually beautiful. I went to the Picador Press website, www.picador.com, to find out more about the books they publish. The site contains a book blog which recently featured “beautiful and unique book covers.” I recommend all book lovers explore their book selections and this book blog.