By Margaret Regan
TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS believes writers shouldn't try to escape from the particular conditions that have shaped them.
"Each writer writes out of his or her own biases," says the author by telephone from her home in Salt Lake City. "I write out of my biases of gender, geography and culture. I'm a woman living in the American West who is a Mormon."
To that cluster of characteristics, add Williams' gifts as a literary stylist and her expertise as an environmental scientist (she's naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History). This unique set of "biases" has resulted in five acclaimed books of nonfiction that chart an unusual terrain where the scientific, the personal, the political and the religious meet.
Williams, who will be in town Wednesday, March 20, to give a reading in the UA Poetry Center series, has defined "an interesting intersection between science and the arts," says Mark Wunderlich, acting head of the UA Poetry Center. "She's helping to redefine those fields."
In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, the 1991 book that Wunderlich says made Williams' reputation, the author chronicled the slow rising of the waters of the Great Salt Lake and her mother's gradual descent into death from ovarian cancer. As Williams' mother struggled through unsuccessful treatments, the high water was flooding the nesting marshes of the birds whose cycles Williams regularly followed as a scientist. Eventually Williams learned that her mother's fatal illness may have been triggered by exposure to radiation during the nuclear tests of the '50s. Both calamities--the loss of bird life and the loss of her mother--seemed to be related to willful human degradation of the natural environment.
"Each of my books is spurred by a question," Williams says. "With Refuge, it was 'How do you find refuge in change?' What I always counted on had changed."
The subject of radiation fallout was part of a larger debate first surfacing when Williams published the book, Wunderlich says, "but it had never been filtered through the lens of art and literature. Terry is one of a number of writers who has blurred the distinctions."
For her part, Williams says she doesn't hold with the artificial distinctions we love to make between our culturally constructed categories.
"There is no separation between the interior landscape and the eternal landscape," she says. "The story is the bridge between them."
Williams believes both her notions of storytelling and her intense love for the land come from her Mormon heritage.
"I'm fifth-generation Mormon, living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Every Sunday there were four generations around the table. We children listened to the stories, the stories rooted in landscape. My family has a pipeline construction business and my father, my brothers and my grandfather made their living outside, digging in the earth. We would go with my father all around Utah. Our affection toward each other is the same as our affection toward the land.
"The Mormons wanted religious sovereignty and they found it in the land. A hundred years later we've forgotten our roots."
Though she was raised in a religion that taught her to respect authority, Williams nowadays doesn't hesitate to advocate fiercely for the disappearing wilderness, for the rights of women, for environmentally linked health issues. (Refuge ends with her arrest at a protest at a Nevada nuclear test site.) She's still a woman of faith, but she's met with subtle disapproval from Mormon leaders.
"I am constantly bumping up against the patriarchy," she says.
Right now she's battling the proposed Utah Public Lands Management Act, which would significantly reduce the wilderness lands held in the state by the federal Bureau of Land Management. One of her arguments against the bill comes right out of her Mormon faith: The government ought to increase the proportion of lands designated as wilderness, she says, setting aside a "tithe for creation."
Wunderlich says Williams' work in praise of wilderness is "part of the American literary heritage going back to Thoreau and Emerson," but she also counts her late friend Edward Abbey as a literary and political hero.
"His influence continues," she says. "He embodies the sacred rage in regard to the land. I think about him all the time, and the writer's obligation...I think it is the obligation of the writer to hold a mirror up to the problems of society, as well as to make a work of beauty. We stand outside the culture. We must tell a story that bypasses the rhetoric and pierces the heart."
Terry Tempest Williams will give a free reading at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, in the UA Modern Languages Building Auditorium. An informal reception follows. Williams' books will be for sale. For more information call 321-7760.
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