Walt's Reviews > When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
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Mar 21, 12

really liked it
Read in March, 2012

Up against the voices of Terry Tempest Williams in WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, FIFTY-FOUR VARIATIONS ON VOICE my articulation wants to fly away to somewhere safe. It wants to find a place where it can hide --- maybe like an owl inside a tree. So my words in this review shouldn't be compared to hers. She is a study in voice, in language, in storytelling. Her book is inspirational in the way scripture can be.

There is a nice story arc to WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS. It is a hero's journey, although somehow I doubt Terry Tempest would claim it as such. Terry Tempest Williams establishes herself in a regular sort of world, as a normal sort of person with a family of origin --- a mother, father, grandparents. She has a husband, a career, and many, many worthy goals. Her mother then, upon her death bed, calls Terry Tempest to an adventure --- and what a unique, unspoken, pithy calling it is. Then Terry Tempest Williams, in various ways, tries to refuse her mother's call. After all, it's taken Terry Tempest all these years after her mother's death and her call to Terry Tempest to travel the empty pages, crossing thresholds and facing ordeals. But along her way Terry Tempest mentions mentors --- e.g. Wangari Maathai, Hélène Cixous, Clarice Lispector, Nüshu --- who help her. She faces tests. Allies come and help her along her way. But eventually Terry Tempest Williams survives and triumphs.

"I longed to hear her voice," Terry Tempest Williams says. Whose voice? I bet if you know anything about Terry Tempest you can guess. Whose voice do you long to hear? "What is voice?" Williams asks. And answers. Well, kind of answers. Read her book and get some idea of what she thinks. "Power is the sea's thundering voice…" she says. "Each voice is distinct and has something to say. Each voice deserves to be heard. But it requires the act of listening." "… performed through the various voices of a symphony." "Each voice belongs to a place." "… the voice of a scrub jay…"…my voice set down roots." She speaks of health problems: "A SPEECH impediment is an excellent way to lose your voice…" "…my voice found me through the compassion of a teacher…" "In every culture the voice of the Feminine emerges from the land itself." "It was a voice unlike any I had heard before." "…the voice as a knife that can slice, carve, or cut, shape, sculpt, or stab." And so many, many more allusions to what is so important in her story: voice.

It took me some time to gather myself for this review. I have kind of followed Terry Tempest Williams through the years ever since I read REFUGE when it first came out. Although I haven't read everything Williams has written or taken notice of all the causes she has advanced, we as human beings seem to have a lot in common, even though I'm male and she's female. Like her, I grew up near the Great Salt Lake. I'm acquainted with the Farmington Bay Bird Refuge and the Bear River Bird Refuge. In fact, this past Saturday I spent time at Antelope Island. My first job took me to Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole. I have a house near there. I had my mother die young --- at the age of forty-six. I am a Mormon, although probably not very orthodox. My ancestry includes pioneers who crossed the plains in handcarts. And, to some extent, I love words and stories, although my gift is not as refined or profuse as hers. I feel humbled beside her literary and conservation accomplishments. She is a bird who sings at dawn and dusk to heal the world through joy. She hears her mother's voice. She recognizes what is sacred inside is not secret, but a holy petition.

I wrote Alejandro the Great, Time for All Eternity, and Making Expression Less Taxing.
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