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New Harmony: Adding words to pages that were blank

Published: Wednesday, May 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Terry Tempest Williams.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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We have writers who are LDS and we have writers who aren't LDS.

And then we have Terry Tempest Williams.

Williams — a naturalist by temperament and training — is a breed apart.

Like Sacajawea, she has plotted her own course. She loves her tribe, but she also loves to explore. So Williams decided to go on a "mission" — a mission of her own making.

For years now she has been on a grand writing expedition.

Williams once told me her editor said she should push things as far as she dared, then push them a little further.

One can almost hear Lewis and Clark giving such advice to Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who helped blaze the trail.

As for Williams, her latest "report from the field" is called "When Women Were Birds" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23).

And it's a book with a curious premise.

When the author's mother died, she left all her journals to her daughter.

Excited to read what her mother had to say, Terry began digging through the hundreds of pages.

The pages were blank.

All of them.

What, she wondered, could possibly be the meaning of such a thing?

Answering that question triggered the book "When Women Were Birds."

Like most of Williams' books, this one covers a lot of ground — on the page, and in the world. For Terry, there has never been a barrier between the natural world and the world of the supernatural. Hey, there's not even a speed bump. The two worlds swirl together like river water tumbling into the sea.

The author's Mormonism surfaces here from time to time — as it does in much of her work. Sometimes the LDS Church is used to offer context, sometimes it's used as a lightning rod.

But one never feels any antagonism.

Williams seems to see The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a big, shiny stone in her collection of shiny stones.

Perhaps, in her mind, the Mormon church is the agate.

As for the rest of the writing in the book, it dips and swoops about like a bird itself, coming to rest, more often than not, on the theme of communication and personal voice.

Her mother left a shelf full of blank journals.

Terry Tempest Williams, when she departs this world, will leave a shelf filled with books brimming with words.

This book, "When Women Were Birds" is where these two "bird women" meet.

It's a thrilling rendezvous — not unlike the rendezvous between Sacajawea and those Shoshone women who welcomed her home after her treacherous, transcendental journey.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears every other week in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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