"It is a simple equation," writes Terry Tempest Williams, "place + people = politics." Nowhere is this more apparent than in the American West, where millions of acres of wilderness are at stake in the redrock desert of southern Utah. "How are we to find our way toward conversation?" she asks. One story at a time. Red traces Williams's lifelong love of and commitment to the desert, as she explores what draws us to a place and keeps us there. It brings together the lyrical evocations of Coyote's Canyon and Desert Quartet with new essays of great power and originality, essays that range from a family discussion on the desert tortoise to an investigation of slowness to startling encounters with Anasazi artifacts (including a ceremonial sash made of scarlet macaw feathers).
Pursuing the question of why America's redrock wilderness matters to the soul of this country, Red bridges the divide between the political and the poetic and shows how this harshest and most fragile of landscapes inspires a soulful return to "wild mercy." The preservation of wildness is not simply a political process but a spiritual one.
With grace, humor, and the subtleties of her perception, Williams reminds us of what we have forgotten in the chaos of our lives and what can be reclaimed in the stillness of the desert.
Red is further proof that the writings of Terry Tempest Williams possess a revelatory power and an emotional intelligence at once rare and authentic.
Shaped by wind, heat and the etchings of rare water, the deserts of the American West are at the heart of Williams's numerous writings on the need to preserve wilderness (Leap; Refuge). This new collection of writings (some of which have been published before) is inspired by her daily experiences with the Southwestern desert, Anasazi petroglyphs and small shifts in time at her home outside Moab, Utah. Contributing to the movement to protect these fragile landscapes, she encourages her readers to consider the desert as a threatened national commons, drawing in the life around her to express just how the desert inhabits her and makes her more human. Included here are two of the works that have defined Williams as a central voice in the environmental movement: "Desert Quartet," which is made up of simple and erotic personal essays, and "Coyote's Canyon," comprised of the lovely tales of desert people. To these she adds pieces that center on her move out of Salt Lake City, her study of the meanings of the color red and, most importantly, the imperative to create national protection for land that cannot protect itself from each step of development and population growth. Although there are repetitions between the sections and at times Williams sounds desperate, the collection resonates with an inspiring and convincing devotion that cannot be set aside.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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October 06, 2002
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Excerpt from Red by Terry Tempest Williams
from Chapter 1 Home Work It is a simple equation: place + people = politics. In the American West, the simplicity becomes complicated very quickly as abstractions of philosophy and rhetoric turn into ground scrimmages--whether it's over cows grazing on public lands, water rights, nuclear waste dumps in the desert, the creation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, or the designation of wilderness. This territory is not neutral. The redrock desert and canyon country of southern Utah provokes powerful divisive opinions. How are we to find our way toward conversation? For me, the answer has always been through story. Story bypasses rhetoric and pierces the heart. Story offers a wash of images and emotion that returns us to our highest and deepest selves, where we remember what it means to be human, living in place with our neighbors. I came to the stories in Coyote's Canyon through a question: "What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place?" I had just finished a long inquiry into Navajo oral tradition and had been working on the reservation in various public schools. It was clear to me, both the elders and children alike had deep ties to the land through story. Whether it was Shiprock, Window Rock, or the ruins at Hovenweep, each landform, each significant site, seemed to have a name accompanied by a story. The stories they told animated the country, made the landscape palpable and the people accountable to the health of the land, its creatures, and each other. This is not to romanticize the Dine (as they call themselves), only to voice my profound respect for their intricate and complex cosmology. How do the stories we tell about ourselves in relationship to place shape our perceptions of place? Is there room for a retelling of our own creation stories, even Genesis? In the Colorado Plateau--roughly the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona--I believe we are in the process of creating our own mythology, a mythology born out of this spare, raw, broken country, so frightfully true, complex, and elegant in its searing simplicity of form. You cannot help but be undone by its sensibility and light, nothing extra. Before the stillness of sandstone cliffs, you stand still, equally bare. These redrock canyons in southern Utah are an acquired taste. They are short on water and, as a result, short on green. Green recalls pastoral comfort, provides a resting place for the eyes. There are moments when I long for the canopy and cover of a forest to hide in, to breathe in, to breathe with, and delight in the growing shades and patterns of green. I never forget I inhabit the desert, the harsh, brutal beauty of skin and bones. Although we have mountains here of extraordinary stature and elevations--the LaSals in particular, rising to twelve thousand feet--the high points of excursions into the Colorado Plateau are usually points of descent. Down canyons. Down rivers. Down washes left dry, scoured, and sculpted by sporadic flash floods. It's tough country to visit. It's even tougher country to live in. So powerful is the sun in summer, one adopts a perpetual squint. Summer can bring biblical periods of forty days of heat well over one hundred degrees, reducing you to a lizard state of mind, no thought and very little action. You sleep more and you dream. It is a landscape of extremes. You learn sooner or later to find an equilibrium within yourself; otherwise, you move. Desert as teacher. Desert as mirage. Desert as illusion, largely our own. What you come to see on the surface is not what you come to know. Emptiness in the desert is the fullness of space, a fullness of space that eliminates time. The desert is time, exposed time, geologic time. One needs time in the desert to see. As the world becomes more crowded and corroded by consumption and capitalism, this landscape of minimalism