When Utah naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams talks about her family, she often speaks of “the clan of one-breasted women.” Nine women in her family have had mastectomies. Seven have died of cancer–starting with her mother in 1987.
These deaths are no coincidence. Williams and her family are “downwinders,” people the U.S. government knowingly exposed to radiation during nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s. At 38, Williams is a time bomb herself. As a child, she saw a mushroom cloud explode. Doctors say it is a matter of when–not if–she will be stricken with cancer.
After her mother died, Williams committed civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site to oppose ongoing nuclear testing. In 1990 she joined the D.C.-based governing council of the Wilderness Society, where she educated communities on the connection between health and the environment. But she recently abandoned Beltway politics to return to the land she knows best–the West.
“Sometimes the most radical act is to stay home,” she explains. There, “issues are not abstractions–they are our lives. That creates action, impassioned action, born out of love and urgency.”
Since her return, Williams has become embroiled in a heated public-lands debate. With the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, she is organizing grassroots support for congressional legislation that would designate 5.7 million acres of federal land as wilderness.The effort has pitted conservationists against everyone else: the state government, mining and grazing interests, and rural communities that depend on those industries.
Taking such a stand in Utah comes with risks. Yet Williams has embraced her Mormon roots, incorporating them into her writing as she searches for language that will heal the divide between people on opposite sides of the debate. Like her friend and mentor, the late Edward Abbey, she draws on her love of the “wasteland of the West.” In her latest book, “An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field” (Pantheon), she articulates the spiritual need to preserve wilderness.”With love of land comes a fierce responsibility,” she says.
Williams feels that legislators don’t understand this. People in Washington talk about the West “in terms of economics. But what about the spiritual resources?” she asks. “We don’t have the language in this nation to speak of these things.”