Reading Terry Tempest Williams’ new book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, is like dreaming. You float through endless colors and textures, hear tribal chanting from generations gone by, and—against your nighttime skin—feel the desert wind hot off the hills that seem to undulate below a forever sky.
A collage of essays, stories, poems, journal entries, and congressional testimonies, Red is, above all else, a book about love – the love of the Redrock Desert, the love of language and story, the love of family, friends, and community. Red bridges the gap between the poetic and the political; it shows how the harshest and most fragile of landscapes can remind us why wilderness and wildness are crucial for the earth, and for the soul. “I don’t think there is a difference between the political, the personal, the spiritual,” says Williams, who is best known for her book Refuge and for her writings on the landscape of the American West. “My book moves between these as if they were different hues of the same color; it was written as one whole piece of desert writing.”
Though active in her fierce commitment to protect the Redrock Wilderness from the human forces of destruction, Williams is at her most powerful when sharing this commitment to and love of the land through her writing. “It is the story, always the story,” she writes in Red, “that precedes and follows the journey.”
In “Bloodlines,” we read about a woman who lives a quiet life as a tailor. One day while hiking in the San Rafael Swell, she is brutally raped. She does not see her assailant and in those moments of horror, she loses her voice. She returns to her needles and threads and fabrics, but does not speak or share her experience. Instead, she takes a large spool of red thread and returns to the Swell. There, she cuts a six-inch piece of thread, one three inches, another twelve and so on and lays them on the land. She sees them as bloodlines, as loose stitches making up a seam in the land. She cuts more and more pieces, remembering the animals she has seen and spent time with over the years on that land. “Time and space shift … [then] she places her palm on the boulder and screams.” Standing alone, the story is simple, a fable almost. However, placed in the book directly after Williams’ statement before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Forest and Public Lands Management regarding the Utah Public Lands Management Act of 1995, the story becomes a metaphor. “I wrote ‘Bloodlines’ in response to that Senate bill,” she explains. “At that time, I was asking myself how we find healing and sustainability when what we love, what is a part of our very souls, is being threatened. In her way of being broken, the woman in the story weaves her world back together with thread.”
In “The Bowl,” a sick woman takes leave of the city, her husband and her children and returns, like a salmon swimming upstream, to the desert to “retrieve her soul.” Here in “…the place of her childhood, where she last remembered her true nature,” she bathes in the river, wanders in and out of the slick-rock maze, drinks from the springs, and eats the purple fruit of prickly pears. When it is time, when “the cottonwood branches [swayed] above her head and had sprouted leaves,” she knew she could go home. For Williams, whose mother died of cancer almost a decade and a half ago, writing this story was a way to heal. “My mother took leave of us like this when she was sick,” she says. “It was her plea for solitude. When she came home, she didn’t explain anything. One of her greatest legacies was the way she protected her solitude. This story is a meditation on what she did when she left for those days.” Beyond the personal, “The Bowl” is about being true to one’s soul, and the process of holding on, letting go, taking flight. In “Changing Constellations,” Williams and a friend, while hiking in a beloved spot, make crosses out of the orange tape and stakes that developers have thrust into the land. Later, she writes, she was not proud of that act of defiance. When asked about this regret, Williams says: “When you live in the American West, you are driven to do insane acts. I am not proud of that now. I wish I could dwell better in conversation and collaboration. But, what are we to do at times with all of this sacred rage? We have to make peace with our own contradictory nature, with the paradoxes in our own hearts.”
In 1995, Williams and several other western writers presented a chapbook to Congress called Testimony. Some people scoffed at it, saying it was a ludicrous waste of time; the desks of Congressmen were heaped up as it was with unread materials. However, a few months later, then-Sen. Bill Bradley read selections from it in Congress, saying that the land belongs to all people. “It is important to fight for what you believe in, to put it out there, no matter how,” says Williams. “Writing is always an act of faith.” In one section of Red, Williams lists names of places in Utah. For almost seven pages she lists name after name: Little Goose Creek, Wild Horse Mesam Mussentuchit Badlands, Moon-Eyed Horse Canyon. Why? Perhaps because in reading them, you feel a warm hand lead you to these places—to the buttes and mesas, spires and sandstone faces. Because, lost in those pages of poetic onomatopoeia, you suddenly understand Williams’ fierce commitment to this land, to the connection that nature has to the soul. Because reading these names allows you to hear the heartbeat of the Redrock Desert.
“My hope, if only for myself, is that the confluence of language and landscape can inspire that place of balance and wholeness, what the Navajo call hózhq, so that we as individuals can live life with greater intentions.” Pausing, Williams adds, “My hope is that by simply looking around ourselves, we can be reminded what it means to be human.”