Filling empty pages: A review of When Women Were Birds

  • When Women Were Birds

 

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Terry Tempest Williams
224 pages, hardcover: $24.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Sarah Crichton Books), 2012.

Terry Tempest Williams' new book, When Women Were Birds, resonates with her signature gift -- the ability to salvage beauty from great heartbreak. Like her acclaimed memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, When Women Were Birds is also a brave and deeply personal story. In Refuge, Williams reflected on her mother's death from cancer and the simultaneous flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Utah. Now, 20 years later, Williams reveals another haunting facet of her family history.

Williams' mother died at age 54. Now 54 herself, Williams discloses what her mother shared one week before she died: "I am leaving you with all my journals. … But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone." When the time came, Williams found "three shelves of beautiful clothbound books." One by one, she opened the journals, only to find that each was completely blank.

Leavened with honesty and introspection, When Women Were Birds is a 54-chapter exploration of Williams' pursuit of her own voice -- her lifelong determination to "speak the truth of our lives at all costs." Williams takes readers through her struggle to understand her mother's unfilled journals. Describing watershed moments in her own life, such as how a speech therapist corrected her lisp in fourth grade, she articulates each insight like the poet that she is. "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."

Williams candidly recalls anecdotes from her experiences as a daughter, granddaughter, spouse, teacher, and the mother of a recently adopted child. She describes symbolic encounters with birds:  An owl foreshadows danger, a hawk reminds her how death can swoop down any moment, and a painted bunting provides comfort in grief. She devotes chapters to artists and activists who have inspired her, including painter Gustave Courbet, composer John Cage, and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai.

True to form, Williams stitches this patchwork of topics together using a single thread fastened to family and place. As she does so, she leads readers across the vivid landscape of her life -- to the California seashore, the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho, and of course, back to the Utah wildlands she calls home.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.