An Unspoken Hunger

Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist who has emerged as one of the clearest, most powerful voices among this country’s essayist. Her first work of nonfiction, REFUGE, chronicled the gradual loss of her mother to cancer and the near-“loss” of Great Salt Lake to flooding. In this most recent collection, Williams covers wider ground, embracing the landscapes of Alaska, Africa, as well as her home territory of Utah. As she does so, she explores those themes closest to her imagination and to her heart: the themes of family, of place, of self. These themes cohere, finally, into an expansive vision that describes the vital connection between the Self (both individual and familial) and Place.

This sense of place is central to Williams’ vision. As a result, these essays often seek to describe both a “politics of place” and an “erotics of place.” The former locates itself in the landscapes of Nevada and Utah, where nuclear tests and nuclear fallout have evoked the ghostly menace of cancer for Williams and her family. The latter refers to Williams’ intuitive feel for the sensuous tie between the feminine and the natural spirits. Both in these essays in her latest poetry, Williams (like other women naturalist writers) teases out a blood-bond that runs through the body (particularly the female body) and into the earth itself. What she describes is woman (and man) in new relation to the planet and to their planetary home.

Home, in fact, is one of the clear problems addressed in these essays. Home possesses several meanings, according to Williams, and we must reconcile our conceptions of the homescape with the ways in which we exist within that homescape. Home is inextricably bound up in the natural history of any particular place, and humans must become natural historians of their particular places within the wider geography. In these essays, Williams helps readers chart a surer way through the physical and physic terrain often troublesomely called home.