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Great Salt Lake Book Festival

Keynoter Terry Tempest Williams hopes stories in ‘Red’ provide a jolt

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Terry Tempst Williams, a fifth-generation Mormon whose ancestors followed Brigham Young to the Great Basin in 1847, is one of the most celebrated writers of the American West. Eloquent and prolific, she has written several books and numerous articles that express her love of the Utah landscape.

Among her highly praised books are "Coyote's Canyon," "Desert Quartet," "Unspoken Hunger," "Leap" and her most recent, "Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert."

A former naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History, Williams now lives with her husband, Brooke, in Castle Valley, Utah, the red-rock country she loves. During a telephone interview from her home, she said it is her hope that the stories in "Red" would "jolt us out of complacency. Democracy is based on individual action. If Americans err, it is in taking what we love for granted."

Williams denies, however, that she intended the book primarily for politicians, although she hopes some of them will read it. "As a writer you always hope you can broaden the discussion, but if it is your intention to change political minds, your prose becomes pedantic. We all will differ about these issues. If we can engage in conscientious dialogue, that's all I ask."

Williams ardently supports the Red Rock Wilderness Act now before Congress. If successful, it would designate 9.1 million acres in Utah as wilderness. Since 144 members of the House of Representatives and 12 members of the U.S. Senate are listed as co-sponsors of the bill, Williams is cautiously optimistic about its passage. It is highly controversial, though, in Utah and the West, where environmentalists are often viewed with suspicion.

"We all get caught in the polarity," says Williams. "People love living in

Utah because of the landscape and the way it shapes our souls. Unfortunately, we get caught in the vice of politics that asks us to choose sides. We love it in the desert. It's been deeply humbling to live here. The other night, a neighbor came over and brought us home-grown tomatoes, zucchini, melons and plums. On paper, we would look to be very different human beings, but we have such real warmth for these people. Castle Valley has the full gamut of diversity. Regardless of politics, we've come together to preserve the beauty of this valley."

Williams recalls attending a funeral where family friends were in attendance, including Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. "Sen. Hatch and I talked, and we couldn't be farther apart on wilderness — but we sing the same songs. We have a shared history. That can take us to a new, more enlightened sense of community. Even in my darkest days, I feel that is possible."

When Williams and her husband moved from Salt Lake City to red-rock country, some friends thought it was "an act of madness. But Brooke and I looked at each other and said, 'This is it.' And we have not had one minute of regret. There is a quietness here, a stillness that affects you. There is also a sense of humility — there are flash floods, winds that threaten to blow out your windows and a less distractive, more simple lifestyle."

Of course, Williams travels considerably because of her teaching and writing, but when she comes home, "it is deep solitude. When I'm gone, it's intensity in another way, but one informs the other."

Williams believes that "healthy communities are dependent on a healthy landscape and open minds fueled and fed by open land."

She believes that many of us "are losing what defines us. Even Moab is becoming more urban. All of us are realizing we are at risk of losing the very thing that has made us Western. Because of population growth, affluence and the craziness of our lives, we are in a perpetual state of exhaustion. One of the great gifts of the desert is perspective, but each person has his own place of enchantment. I love that idea."

According to Williams, we could all benefit by "learning to speak the language of Red — to speak from the heart. When we're alive, we feel the spirit — whether in Mormonism, Buddhism or natural history. It's something larger than ourselves."

Although prolific and gifted in her writing, she finds the process "painful, soul-searching, excruciating. When you tell the truth, there are always risks. Growing up Mormon, much of my writing has been asking questions, although always out of a spirit of love. The evolution of thought always needs love and criticism. Asking those questions is what the creative process is."

Referring to her own need to write, Williams says, "Writing is an act of love, exploration, inquiry. I think we can create our own prayers. Maybe that is what writing is. We're so lucky to live in Utah where we have a history that matters and we belong to a culture that honors the sacred. My heart will forever be in Utah."

When asked how it feels to be a national figure, Williams recoils. "I don't see it that way. I'm just a person who lives in a weird, pink house in Castle Valley. I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do. Originally, all I wanted to be was a teacher. I had a master's degree in environmental education. Brooke and I started our marriage teaching at the Teton Science School."

Of course, Williams has her detractors, too, people who strongly disagree with her writings. "There are people in the community who view my work as blasphemous. I use the word 'sacred lands' in my writing. When the Grand Staircase National Monument was created, we came home and our mailbox was beaten down with a baseball bat. That might have been coincidence. So disagreement goes with the territory."

Williams' hope is that if she met her critics, "they would see there is more that binds us together than separates us."

Asked what her next book will be, she chuckles and says, "I have no idea. Nothing. I'm excited! I don't know what's next. Maybe that's what it is to approach middle age. The last two pages of "Red" says it: 'The great silences of the desert are not void of sound but void of distractions.' One day, this landscape will take the language out of me."

Williams will speak about her new book Saturday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m., in the Jewett Auditorium on the Westminster College campus. She is the major speaker for the 4th Annual Great Salt Lake Book Festival. Cost for her speech is $10; tickets may be purchased in advance through Utah Humanities Council, 359-9670, or at the door.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com