We Too Must Sing
"When Women Were Birds", by Terry Tempest Williams
Published: April 12, 2013
Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds is a montage of thoughts and memories of her mother who died more than 25 years ago. But it is more than that, as any memoir worth a damn, must be. It must raise universal themes or fail as literature, and there must be something at stake in the telling. Williams’ search for meaning in her mother’s blank journals is the backbone of her complicated story of personal losses. We are always brought back to the meanings in those disappointing blank pages: they are, in Willams’ words: “paper tombstones”, “an opera,” “a meditation,” “a koan,” “a creation myth,” “a scandal of white,” “a harmony of silence,” “a creation myth,” “an artifice,” and many, many other things. She gives a poignant example of each quality as she writes. Ultimately, however, they represent the mystery between a mother and her daughter in a “narrative of the imagination.”
I met Williams in the 80’s when she was writing her beautiful book, Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place, about her mother’s dying and the flood of the Bear River Migratory Refuge. I worked for The Wilderness Society in those days trying to protect the wild country in Utah and the two of us had a connection in our concern for the land, water, and wildlife in the West. Coincidences seemed always to bring us together.
It took me quite a few pages to be fully engaged in her most recent book and that came with Williams’ telling of a squirrel that escaped sure death by suddenly confronting a frenzied weasel that chased it; it screamed, and ran off, leaving the weasel too surprised to kill. There’s no other way for us to escape the predicament of destroying our planet or ourselves than through intuition, wisdom, and sheer guts. And the squirrel displayed all three. Nothing seems certain in Ms. Williams’ life but the circle of her relations, recognizing recurrent difficulties in traveling the path that her mother did toward death. Then we suddenly are shown beauty in the plumage and presence of an off-course bunting that has made itself comfortable in our off-kilter world.
Ms. Williams has written what is at stake in our lives in subtle ways that we have never conceived possible--but were always inevitable--and she has made a decision that may yet cost her her life. I’ll bet it won’t, but if it does, she will fly from the outstretched hand of her husband offering intuition, wisdom, and guts. You see, how life surprises! It may also be true that women are Ms. Williams' real subject and that they give, and she gives, the notion that the world is meant to be celebrated in wordless song. There are no words for profound feelings and we too, must sing.
Mike Medberry has served as a senior environmentalist for several local and national conservation organizations and holds an MFA from the University of Washington. Over the past twenty years he has written nonfiction for Northern Lights Journal, High Country News, Black Canyon Quarterly, Hooked on the Outdoors, Stroke Connection and the e-magazine Writer’s Workshop, as well as short fiction.