Terry Tempest Williams

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Terry Tempest Williams
Born (1955-09-08) 8 September 1955 (age 63)
Corona, California
OccupationAuthor, educator
EducationB.A. degree in English with a minor in biology
MSc. in environmental education
Alma materUniversity of Utah
wilderness preservation
women's health
Mormon culture
Years active1985–present
SpouseBrooke Williams (m. 1975)

Terry Tempest Williams (born 8 September 1955), is an American author, conservationist, and activist. Williams' writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah and its Mormon culture. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women's health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.

Williams has testified before Congress on women's health, committed acts of civil disobedience in the years 1987–1992 in protest against nuclear testing in the Nevada Desert, and again, in March 2003 in Washington, D.C., with Code Pink, against the Iraq War. She has been a guest at the White House, has camped in the remote regions of the Utah and Alaska wildernesses and worked as "a barefoot artist" in Rwanda.

Williams is the author of a number of books: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert; The Open Space of Democracy; and Finding Beauty in a Broken World.

In 2006, Williams received the Robert Marshall Award from The Wilderness Society, their highest honor given to an American citizen. She also received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association and the 2005 Wallace Stegner Award given by Center of the American West (of the University of Colorado Boulder).[1] She is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction and a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship in creative nonfiction. Williams was featured in Ken Burns' PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009) and in Stephen Ives's PBS documentary series The West, which was produced by Burns. In 2011, Williams received the 18th International Peace Award given by the Community of Christ.[2]. In 2014, the Sierra Club honored her with their highest award, the Sierra Club John Muir Award.

Williams is the current Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in the Environmental Humanities Graduate program at the University of Utah[3] and has written for The Progressive.[4] She has been a Montgomery Fellow[5] at Dartmouth College where she continues to teach. She divides her time between Moose, Wyoming and Castle Valley, Utah, where her husband Brooke is field coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Early life, education, and work[edit]

Terry Tempest Williams was born in Corona, California, to Diane Dixon Tempest and John Henry Tempest, III.[6] Her father was serving in the United States Air Force in Riverside, California, for two years. She grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, within sight of Great Salt Lake.

Atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site (outside Las Vegas) between 1951 and 1962 exposed Williams' family to radiation like many Utahns (especially those living in the southern part of the state), which Williams believes is the reason so many members of her family have been affected by cancer. By 1994, nine members of the Tempest family had had mastectomies, and seven had died of cancer.[7] Some of the family members affected by cancer included Williams' own mother, grandmother, and brother.

Williams met her husband Brooke Williams in 1974 while working part-time at Sam Weller's Bookstore, a Salt Lake City bookstore, where he was a customer. The two married six months after their first meeting and began their life together working at the Teton Science School in Grand Teton National Park.

In 1976 Williams was hired to teach science at Carden School of Salt Lake City (since renamed Carden Memorial School). She often clashed with the conservative couple that led the school over her unorthodox teaching methods and environmental politics, but she respected their gift of teaching through storytelling and prized her five years there. "Teaching helped me find my voice," she later wrote. "The challenge was to impart large ecological concepts to young burgeoning minds in a language that wasn't polemical, but woven into a compelling story."[8]

In 1978, Williams graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in English and a minor in biology, followed by a Master of Science degree in environmental education in 1984. After graduating from college, Williams worked as a teacher in Montezuma Creek, Utah, on the Navajo Reservation. She worked at the Utah Museum of Natural History from 1986–96, first as curator of education and later as naturalist-in-residence.

Writing career[edit]

Williams published her first book, The Secret Language of Snow in 1984. A children’s book written with Ted Major, her mentor at the Teton Science School, it received a National Science Foundation Book Award. Over the next few years, she published three other books: Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajo Land (1984, illustrated by Clifford Brycelea, a Navajo artist), Between Cattails (1985, illustrated by Peter Parnall), and Coyote’s Canyon, (1989, with photographs by John Telford).[9]

In 1991, Williams' memoir, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place was published by Pantheon Books. The book interweaves memoir and natural history, explores her complicated relationship to Mormonism, and recounts her mother's diagnosis with ovarian cancer along with the concurrent flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a place special to Williams since childhood. The book's widely anthologized epilogue, The Clan of One-Breasted Women, explores whether the high incidence of cancer in her family might be due to their status as downwinders during the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's above-ground nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s. Refuge received the 1991 Evans Biography Award from the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies at Utah State University.[10] and the Mountain & Plains Booksellers' Reading the West Book Award for creative nonfiction in 1992.[11]

In 1995, when the United States Congress was debating issues related to the Utah wilderness, Williams and writer Stephen Trimble edited the collection, Testimony: Writers Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness, an effort by twenty American writers to sway public policy. A copy of the book was given to every member of Congress.[12] On 18 September 1996, President Bill Clinton at the dedication of the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, held up this book and said, "This made a difference."[12]

Williams' writing on ecological and social issues has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Orion magazine, among others. She has been published in numerous environmental, feminist, political, and literary anthologies. She has also collaborated in the creation of fine art books with photographers Emmet Gowin, Richard Misrach, Debra Bloomfield, Meridel Rubenstein, Rosalie Winard, and Edward Riddell.


Williams wrote and spoke about the impact of the BP oil spill.[13][14]

On 13 June 2014, Williams posted an open letter to the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressing "solidarity with Kate Kelly and her plea to grant women equal standing in the rights, responsibilities and privileges of the [LDS Church], including the right to hold the Priesthood."[15]


Honors and awards[edit]

Book awards[edit]


  • The Secret Language of Snow (for children; co-authored with Ted Major, illustrations by Jennifer Dewey), Sierra Club/Pantheon Books, 1984, ISBN 039486574X.
  • Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland (illustrations by Clifford Brycelea), Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1984, ISBN 0826309690.
  • Coyote's Canyon (photographs by John Telford), Peregrine Smith, Layton, Utah, 1989, ISBN 0879052457.
  • Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Pantheon Books, New York, 1991, ISBN 0-679-74024-4.
  • Leap, Pantheon Books, New York, 2000, ISBN 0679752579.
  • Finding Beauty In A Broken World, Pantheon Books, New York, 2008, ISBN 0375725199.
  • When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, Sarah Crichton Books, New York, 2012, ISBN 1250024110.
  • The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks, FSG, New York, 2015. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2016, ISBN 0374280096
Poetry collections
Essay collections
As editor
  • Great and Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Centennial Reader (edited with Thomas J. Lyon), Peregrine Smith, Layton, Utah 1995, ISBN 0879056916.
  • Testimony: Writers in Defense of the Wilderness (compiled with Stephen Trimble), Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 1996, ISBN 1571312129.
  • New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community (edited with William B. Smart and Gibbs M. Smith), Peregrine Smith, Layton, Utah, 1998, ISBN 0879058439.


  1. ^ "STEGNER AWARD". Center of the American West. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
  2. ^ "Community of Christ International Peace Award". Community of Christ. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
  3. ^ "Terry Tempest Williams profile". College of Humanities. The University of Utah. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  4. ^ "About The Progressive, Inc". The Progressive. The Progressive Inc. 16 June 2005. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  5. ^ Barber, Bonnie (1 January 2010). "Terry Tempest Williams and Christo Are Winter Term Montgomery Fellows". Dartmouth News. Trustees of Dartmouth College. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  6. ^ Tredinnick, Mark (29 September 2005). The Land's Wild Music: Encounters with Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest William, and James Galvin. Trinity University Press. ISBN 1595340181.
  7. ^ Mencimer, Stephanie (March–April 1994). "A fierce responsibility". Mother Jones. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  8. ^ Williams, Terry Tempest (2012). When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. New York: Sarah Crichton Books. p. 85. ISBN 1250024110.
  9. ^ "Books". Coyote Clan. Terry Tempest Williams. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  10. ^ "Previous Evans Winners". Mountain West Center for Regional Studies. Utah State University. Archived from the original on 7 January 2015. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  11. ^ "Reading the West Book Awards Winners – 1990 through 2015" (PDF). Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  12. ^ a b Summer, David Thomas (Spring–Summer 2002). "Testimony, Refuge, and the Sense of Place—A Conversation with Terry Tempest Williams". Weber. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  13. ^ Williams, Terry Tempest (November–December 2010). "The Gulf Between Us: Stories of Terror and Beauty from the World's Largest Accidental Offshore Oil Disaster". Orion. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  14. ^ "6 Months Since BP Oil Spill, Writer and Environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams Asks "Where Is Our Outrage?" (video interview)". Democracy Now!. 21 October 2010. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  16. ^ Maffly, Brian (4 May 2016). "Terry Tempest Williams leaving U.; critics say school prioritized paperwork over what she taught a generation of students in Utah's wild landscapes". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  17. ^ Oakes, Elizabeth H. (1 January 2004). American Writers. Infobase Publishing. p. 375. ISBN 1438108095. Retrieved 26 September 2016.


Further reading[edit]

  • Chandler, Katharine R. and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. (2003) Surveying the Literary Landscapes of Terry Tempest Williams: New Critical Essays. ISBN 978-0-87480-770-7.
  • Austin, Michael (editor). (2006) A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams. Utah State University Press, ISBN 0874216346.
  • Whitt, Jan. (1 April 2016) The Redemption of Narrative: Terry Tempest Wiliams and Her Vision of the West. Mercer University Press, ISBN 0881463884.

External links[edit]