"When Women Were Birds"
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple
understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal
the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten,
that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
Terry Tempest Williams is an American author and environmental activist. She has written poetry, memoirs, and essay collections, a total of fifteen books. She was born in California, but spent most of her life in Utah. The landscape of the American West deeply influenced her writing.
“When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice” is her most recent memoir. At the center of the story is Williams’ mother who died of cancer at age fifty-four. On her death bed she bequeathed her journals to Terry, her only daughter.
As Williams writes, “In Mormon culture, women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children.” When Terry opened the first journal, she found it blank. The second and all subsequent journals were blank as well. Shelf after shelf contained empty journals neatly arranged by year.
“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.
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 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.
“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.