The Power of Storytelling

Nature writer Terry Tempest Williams challenges us to take part in spirited conversation and honest storytelling.

| June/July 2007


Terry Tempest Williams near her home in Utah. Many of her essays address the power of natural landscapes, especially those of the Southwest.


On a wet and windy morning filled with the smells of rain-soaked earth and eucalyptus, a small group of students, staff and faculty assembles outside Conference Hall 1 at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, Calif. Nursing steaming cups of coffee, they chat about the woman they’ve come to meet — Terry Tempest Williams.

Williams is the author of 14 books, many of them collections of essays about nature and community. She’s a storyteller who uses personal experience and her training as a naturalist to explore how individual and collective health are tied to the health of the land.

“We’re animals — mammals,” she’s fond of saying. “Our deepest memories are of Earth. I think we forget, but reconnect with those ancestral memories when we go out into nature. We remember that everything is interrelated. Nothing stands alone.”

Connection to Place

The daughter of one of the first Mormon families to settle Utah’s Salt Lake Valley and make a living from the land, Williams honed her storytelling and listening skills in the vast, untrammeled wilderness of the Colorado Plateau. She often writes about the Southwest and is probably best known for her sixth book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It chronicles the unfolding of two devastating events in Williams’ life — the flooding of her beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge just north of the Great Salt Lake, and the death of her mother from ovarian cancer.

The cancer, which has stricken eight other women in Williams’ family and numerous others in her community, is not hereditary. It is thought to be the result of living downwind from a nuclear test site in Nevada.

Williams’ struggle to come to terms with these losses led her to question everything from her upbringing in the Mormon faith to the policies of the U.S. government. “In Mormon culture, authority is respected,” she says. “Obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to ‘make waves,’ or ‘rock the boat.’”

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