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      Reviews: RED

Williams takes bold stand for the land in 'Red'

by JOANNA ROSE, published 09/23/01 in the Oregonian

Terry Tempest Williams' new book, "Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert," is a collection of essays, fablelike pieces, stories and scenes from her life, all written in her delicately evangelical voice.

I dearly love this voice for its courage in the face of its own community, conservationism being generally no friend of Utahans or Mormons, of which Williams is both.

I also love this voice for its willingness to use pure language in the face of laws that need to be changed and lawmakers and citizens who need to understand that there is another way to see.

Those who have the mind-set that conservationism is at best a luxury, at worst a waste of resources, are not in a position to make that decision until they have read and understood works such as "Red" or Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" or Mary Hunter Austin's "The Land of Little Rain," two among many such works that Williams weaves into "Red."

She has always written of family, and in "Red" she looks onto the larger family of humankind with no distinction.

She says simply, "Wilderness holds an original presence. . . . Wilderness revives the memory of unity."

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on this country, and how we must respond to them, it is difficult not to see metaphors everywhere.

The piece "To Be Taken" includes some of her finest writing, simple sentences and images that are impressive feats of the ordinary. The male members of her family at an annual gathering: "Their polished boots could kill spiders in corners."

As that family gathering becomes a heated discussion of the Endangered Species Act and a particular species of desert tortoise, Williams stops to speak of that particular desert creature: "The tension tortoise inspires calls for wisdom."

And there it is again -- the surprising metaphor. She goes into how tortoises nest in groups together, year after year, and live for a hundred years; their struggle to co-exist, and then, back to the family argument, and the human struggle to care.

Her graceful movement in and out of a scene; elegant juxtapositions that are what Terry Tempest Williams is, at her best, all about.

"Red" includes some previously published pieces from Desert Quartet and Coyote's Canyon. It also includes her address to the Senate Subcommittee on Forest and Public Lands Management in 1995. "Red's" appendix includes the text of the America's Redrock Wilderness Act as well as a list of names of those members of the House who introduced it.

The Redrock Wilderness Citizens' Proposal includes the names of specific sites in a list that speaks in the ancient language of story.

And there is a list of supporting organizations, including phone numbers and e-mail addresses. And so "Red" becomes a demand for citizen action and a practical handbook within its last few pages.

And it is the right place to speak such a truth as this: "It is no longer the survival of the fittest but the survival of compassion."

Joanna Rose of Portland regularly reviews fiction for The Oregonian.