An Introduction to Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is arguably one of Utah's most influential living authors. In her essays, poetry, and memoirs, she uses her distinctive voice to argue for a deeply personal connection between land, politics, and the individual human body.

Williams gives voice to a unique perspective within the environmental tradition of Utahn writers. Unlike Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, who wrote from the perspective of non-spiritual white masculinity, a voice of science or “reason,” Williams embraces the spiritual side of environment and the felt connection between each person and their surroundings. Williams does not reject science; she adds to scientific knowledge the important, often ignored, experience of living as a person with a (woman’s) body in a world that is at once beautiful and increasingly polluted.

As a founder of the “ecofeminist” school of writing, which argues for a connection between the oppression of women and the destruction of the environment, her work has influenced generations of environmental writers.

Williams’s writing about the victims of nuclear radiation helped to bring attention to Utahn “downwinders” who had been exposed to poisonous radiation during the atomic testing era. Her later work – exemplified by Red, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and Hour of the Land – argues that the preservation of public lands and wilderness areas serves to preserve humans’ connections to one another as well as to the natural world. She has advocated fiercely for her preservationist belief in the public sphere, buying land at Bureau of Land Management auction, and supporting the environmentalist Tim DeChristopher through his incarceration. Although her political and environmental beliefs have at times divided opinions of her work in Utah, Williams exemplifies the love of landscape that animates a great deal of Utahn literary production.

Landscape forms the backbone of Williams’s most famous work, Refuge, which creates parallels between the historic flooding of the Great Salt Lake during 1983-1984 and the decline in Williams’s mother’s health. Williams portrays her mother’s battle with cancer and chronicles the toll of atomic pollution on her family. Throughout Refuge, Williams weaves together the strands of her Mormon faith, her relationships with her family and husband, Brooke, and the beauty of the natural world embodied in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Williams delicately dances between mourning, righteous fury, and warm portrayals of filial love as she describes catastrophic flooding and her mother’s worsening cancer: her memoir ties together a world that Williams argues is entirely connected.

Ms. Williams taught at the University of Utah, Dartmouth College, Colby University, and currently teaches at Harvard Divinity School. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her writing and activism, has spoken at conferences on topics as widely-separated from one another as outdoor recreation, genocide, and religious tolerance. She continues to write and publish prodigiously.

The selections on this page try to show some glimpses of the breadth of Williams’s thinking. Bringing together apparently disparate threads of argument and experience has been Williams’s calling card throughout her career. As an essayist, she uses questions and juxtapositions like an expert knitter, bringing together seemingly unconnected idea and images which together make something absolutely beautiful. The excerpts below attempt to show the range of Williams’ thinking as well as the connections that she draws between her writing and Utah’s people and landscape.