Dogma doesn't hold me. Wildness does. – Terry Tempest Williams
Post-Election 2012 seems like a fine time to reflect for a moment on an author who has changed my life: Terry Tempest Williams. I first read Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place (New York: Pantheon Books/Random House), in 1991, when it was published, a pioneering piece of creative nonfiction prose and environmental thought. I have reread it at least a dozen times since, most recently this week.
Refuge intertwines two events. A rising Great Salt Lake devours the ecosystems of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, one of Williams's sacred places, as cancer devours the body of Diane Dixon Tempest, Williams's fifty-two-year-old mother.
Cancer is rampant in Williams's family. She herself was directly exposed to radiation fallout from bomb testing in the 1950s. And Refuge takes us, among other places, to bombing ranges in the desert. They are not devoid of life. Wildness, Williams observes, endures, and wild nature sustains her at every turn.
Williams happens to be a Mormon. In fact she has Romneys in her family tree. But there is scarcely a whisper of any kind of dogma whatsoever in any of her writing. Instead, readers will find an abiding, generous, life-loving spirit that, as I once heard her explain, is not married to sadness but refuses to look away from it. Life will be full of suffering and death, her writing reminds us. If we turn our backs on these, we turn our backs on part of life. I'm grateful for Williams's words. They enact the beauty that can happen when one refuses to look away, and they model profound courage.
I'm reading her newest book, When Women Were Birds (New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). I'll write about it here soon.