Even in its hardcover form, Terry Tempest Williams' new book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, is small enough to fit easily into your backpack, the one you might carry if you happened to be taking a trip through, say, the redrock country of southern Utah. The book's size is no accident. A collection of essays, topo-maps, newspaper clippings, journal entries, and congressional testimony, Red is like a pocket guide for the wilderness activist with a poetic bent. It's a compelling meditation on the burnished deserts of Utah, where Williams lives and writes. Beyond that, it's a useful resource. The appendix includes the text of the "Redrock Wilderness Act of 2001," and phone numbers for such conservation groups as Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
Despite the hue of the book's title, Williams' prose in Red can tend towards the purple. But what makes the book so satisfying is that as Williams juxtaposes her musings on the erotic nature of the desert with excerpts from the police blotter in a small town newspaper, she allows the language of each text to enrich the others. Never before have I read the findings of a congressional bill with such rapture. Legislation rings with poetry, and a private moment in a steep canyon is a moving testament to the importance of wilderness preservation. Ultimately, Red is an attempt to reconcile the divided West, through what Williams calls "the language of Red." She writes, "There is danger with red. Red is rage is hot, too hot to touch ... But to see red over time is to understand its capacity to transform. White horses in our valley eventually turn red." If our region's battles over land use are usually fought in the political arena, fueled by angry rhetoric and accusation, then Williams' book offers a tantalizing alternative. Red looks for a common language that might bring Westerners together on a personal level, through their passion for the land.