by Terry Tempest Williams
Non-fiction: Essays and Stories
Paperback, 288 pages
I recently spent three weeks traveling around the American West and spent much of that time in southern Utah, a vast, wild land of stunning red cliffs and winding canyons, natural bridges and arches, views of distant mountains, the meanderings of the Colorado River, and an astonishing variety of plant and animal life.
I picked up Red at the visitors center in Moab and read a good portion of it while sitting on a sun-warmed boulder under a massive red butte next to the Colorado River. Reading this book about the beauty of the desert and the importance of conserving it while being able to look up and contemplate the multi-hued, ever-changing colors in the rock around me made for the perfect reading experience.
Red is a collection of stories and essays about the desert of southern Utah and the necessity of preserving it. None of the stories are more than a few pages long, and they serve to evoke a sense of place for the reader who has not been to these majestic lands. Although some of the stories felt a bit flat on their own, I think as a collection they fulfill their purpose. More compelling than the fictional creations are Williams’ personal recollections and essays.
In “Labor,” Williams muses upon one of her visits to The Birthing Rock, a boulder with an image of a woman giving birth etched onto it. This ancient Anasazi petroglyph prompts her to contemplate her decision not to have children and the way she and her husband have chosen to define family.
“I look across the sweep of slickrock stretching in all directions, the rise and fall of such arid terrain. A jackrabbit bolts down the wash. Piñon jays flock and bank behind a cluster of junipers. The tracks of coyote are everywhere.
Would you believe me when I tell you this is family, kinship with the desert, the breadth of my relations coursing through a wider community, the shock of recognition with each scarlet gilia, the smell of rain.”
Other essays argue for the value of wilderness and the importance of conserving it. However, the struggle to protect wild lands is a difficult battle when corporations are clamoring to develop them. In “To Be Taken,” she recounts how the issue of conservation vs. development and profit divides even her own family. A family gathering at Christmas becomes tense when her uncle vents his frustration at his business’ work being held up by environmental groups because the land they want to develop is a desert tortoise habitat.
Williams’ writing fits well with the desert setting she describes. At first her words seem almost spare, but as you wander deeper into her pages, you see that her thoughts have a quiet power to them that reflect her seemingly barren but actually vibrant surroundings.
“These wildlands are alive. When one of us says, “Look, there’s nothing out there,” what we are really saying is, “I cannot see.”
The Colorado Plateau is wild. There is still wilderness here, big wilderness. Wilderness holds an original presence giving expression to that which we lack, the losses we long to recover, the absences we seek to fill. Wilderness revives the memory of unity. Through its protection, we can find faith in our humanity.”
Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert is an evocative, slowly meandering book about the vulnerability, power, and beauty of the desert. Terry Tempest Williams makes convincing arguments for conserving America’s wild lands for future generations in this collection of passionately written pieces.