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Terry Tempest Williams

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Terry Tempest Williams
Born (1955-09-08) 8 September 1955 (age 68)
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
LDS Church
Years active1985–present
SpouseBrooke Williams (m. 1975)

Terry Tempest Williams (born 8 September 1955), is an American writer, educator, conservationist, and activist. Williams' writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of Utah. Her work focuses on social and environmental justice ranging from issues of ecology and the protection of public lands and wildness, to women's health, to exploring humanity's relationship to culture and nature. She writes in the genre of creative nonfiction and the lyrical essay.

Early life, education, and work[edit]

Williams was born in Corona, California, to Diane Dixon Tempest and John Henry Tempest, III.[1] Her father served 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.[2] 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 a Salt Lake City bookstore, where he was a customer. The two married six months after their first meeting. They both went on to teach at 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."[3]

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, in the Navajo Nation. She worked at the Utah Museum of Natural History from 1986–96, first as curator of education and later as naturalist-in-residence.

Williams has testified before Congress on women's health. She has 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 was featured Stephen Ives's PBS documentary series The West (1996) and in Ken Burns' PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009).

In 2003, the University of Utah awarded Williams an honorary doctorate. That year she also co-founded the University's Environmental Humanities master's degree program, where she taught for thirteen years and was the Annie Clark Tanner Teaching Fellow.[4][5]

In February 2016, officials at the University of Utah approached Williams about contract revisions, days after she and her husband successfully bid on an oil and natural gas lease for 1,120 acres of land near their home in Castle Valley, Utah to protest federal energy policies in what Williams described as environmentally sensitive areas of Utah.[4][6] According to Brian Maffley of The Salt Lake Tribune, the Williams' "gesture ... angered Utah's political brokers".[4] The University denied the contract issue was related to the oil and gas lease or Williams' other activism, stating the goal was to (as summarized by Maffley) "align the terms of her employment with university human resources and travel guideline".[4] Nevertheless in an April 25, 2016, letter to the University's associate vice president for faculty she wrote: "My fear is that universities, now under increased pressure to raise money, are being led by corporate managers rather than innovative educators."[4] Williams resigned from the University of Utah in late April 2016, after six weeks of contract negotiations she described as "humiliating".[4] The main point of contention was Williams's practice of taking students into isolated wilderness areas for extended periods, which University officials said exposed the school to significant financial liability and caused "resentment" among students who preferred to not travel.

After leaving the University of Utah, Williams became a Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School. She teaches several courses, including "Finding Beauty in a Broken World" and "Apocalyptic Grief and Radical Joy." She is working with the Planetary health Alliance and the Center for the Study of World Religions in establishing The Constellation Project, where the sciences and spirituality are conjoined. She has been a Montgomery Fellow[7] at Dartmouth College where she served as the Provostial Scholar from 2011 to 2017. She divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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).[8]

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.[9] and the Mountain & Plains Booksellers' Reading the West Book Award for creative nonfiction in 1992.[10]

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.[11] 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."[11]

Williams' writing on ecological and social issues has appeared in The New Yorker; The New York Times; Orion magazine; and The Progressive.[12] 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, Edward Riddell, and Fazal Sheikh.

Williams was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019.[13]


Williams wrote and spoke about the impact of the BP oil spill.[14][15]

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."[16]

On February 18, 2016, as part of the Keep It in the Ground movement, Williams attended a federal auction of oil and gas leases and purchased several parcels totaling 1,751 acres in Grand County, Utah through a company she formed called Tempest Exploration in order to keep them from energy development.[17]


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.
  • Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Pantheon Books, New York, 2001, ISBN 0375725180.
  • 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
  • Erosion, Picador Paper, 2020, ISBN 978-1250758248
  • The Moon Is Behind Us (photographs by Fazal Sheikh), Steidl, Goettingen, 2021, ISBN 978-3958298804

Poetry collections[edit]

Essay collections[edit]

As editor[edit]

  • 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. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Mencimer, Stephanie (March–April 1994). "A fierce responsibility". Mother Jones. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  3. ^ Williams, Terry Tempest (2012). When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. New York: Sarah Crichton Books. p. 85. ISBN 978-1250024114.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Maffly, Brian (5 May 2016). "Terry Tempest Williams leaving U." The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  5. ^ "Terry Tempest Williams profile". College of Humanities. The University of Utah. Archived from the original on October 16, 2015. Retrieved 16 December 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  6. ^ Maffly, Brian (17 February 2016). "Auction of Utah oil & gas leases spurs author Terry Tempest Williams to (legally) buy lease". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Books". Coyote Clan. Terry Tempest Williams. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  9. ^ "Previous Evans Winners". Mountain West Center for Regional Studies. Utah State University. Archived from the original on 7 January 2015. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  10. ^ "Reading the West Book Awards Winners – 1990 through 2015" (PDF). Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "About The Progressive, Inc". The Progressive. The Progressive Inc. 16 June 2005. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  13. ^ Fedor, Ashley. "2019 Newly Elected Members". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ "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. ^ Riswold, Caryn (16 June 2014). "'It Is Time.' Terry Tempest Williams' Open Letter to LDS Church Leaders". Patheos. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  17. ^ "Keep It in the Ground: Author Terry Tempest Williams Buys 1,750 Acres of Oil & Gas Leases in Utah". Democracy Now!.
  18. ^ "2019 Newly Elected Members/". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Archived from the original on 8 April 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2018.
  19. ^ Oakes, Elizabeth H. (1 January 2004). American Writers. Infobase Publishing. p. 375. ISBN 1438108095. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  20. ^ "STEGNER AWARD". Center of the American West. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
  21. ^ "Community of Christ International Peace Award". Community of Christ. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
  22. ^ 21 Books to Curl Up With This Fall, Newsweek


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 Williams and Her Vision of the West. Mercer University Press, ISBN 0881463884.

External links[edit]