“Your voice is the wildest thing you own,” Brooke Williams tells his wife, author Terry Tempest Williams. In her latest collection, When Women Were Birds, Williams considers the development of this wild voice through a series of 54 short essays.
The book is contemplative, meditative and profound. We journey with Williams and we are not always quite sure where we are going. At the heart of our journey is an enigma: When Williams’ mother died, she left her journals to her daughter. But when Williams began looking through them, she discovered all of them were blank.
The blank journals become, in Williams’ creative hands, a vast canvas for exploring her mother’s voice, and her own voice—and beyond this, the voices of all women. It sounds like a tall order, and it is. But, as you move through the graceful prose, you will find yourself underlining key phrases. Poetic and powerful, these phrases help unlock a topic that is as hard to explain as a blank journal.
To engage such a philosophical theme, Williams’ short essays balance abstract musings with specific scenes. We go on bird-watching trips with her grandmother Mimi. We run into a poet in a copy shop in the middle of the night. We read letters from Williams’ mother. Meanwhile, Williams engages the ideas of artists, activists and writers, on topics as varied as the use of white space, conservation and reproductive rights, to uncover truths that are deeply felt but rarely stated. This is a book that only Terry Tempest Williams could write.
Raised Mormon and half in love with the land she lives on, Williams’ book almost smells like Utah. The dry air and bright sunshine are palpable. Wilderness, in the text, is a metaphor for both the land she loves and her very voice as a woman. Both are untamable. Both are creative. Both are threatened.
If you haven’t read anything by Williams, When Women Were Birds is likely a good place to begin. She has taken an enigmatic inheritance and transformed it into a beautiful meditation that (far from remaining silent) speaks loud and clear.