Finding a recent essay by Terry Tempest Williams online in The New York Times' opinion section, I not only copied it—in case I can't find it again on the Internet or in my public library—but also browsed the collection of her books in my study. I'd begun reading her among other western nature writers—memoirists and essayists modeling how to engage terrain unfamiliar to a Great Lakes boy like me—when I served two weeks as an artist-in-residence at Rocky Mountain National Park and later attended writing workshops in Montana and Idaho. Like Gretel Ehrlich, Kim Barnes, and Reg Saner, Terry Tempest Williams became one of the most reliable western writers I continually sought.
The first book of hers I read was Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, a multi-faceted book, thoroughly informative about the history and climate of Great Salt Lake. Williams grew up near Salt Lake City, her Mormon family residing there for generations. When she wrote Refuge, she was partly concerned about the effect of nuclear testing on people in Utah. Her closing chapter, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," deals with health issues—including cancer and death—due to radiation. A parallel narrative running throughout, ostensibly centered on birds, focuses on her mother's death. It's both a significant family memoir and a powerful narrative of place.
In the thirty years since Refuge appeared, Williams has published a number of books I considered essential reading. For example, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks takes her to twelve different parks. To each she brings her own individual perspective. I've visited eight of them, a couple for the first time after reading her book. Erosion: Essays of Undoing, grounded in landscape, is one of her more forthright argumentative collections, examining issues of place that call for remedying.
In Spring 2017, while teaching graduate writing at Ashland University, I assigned students to read Williams' Leap and respond online to each other's reviews of it. It generated a lively discussion among my students about her reflections on Hieronymous Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (El Jardín de las Delicias). Williams had visited the painting at the Prado in Spain several times, her reaction to it initiated by having reproductions of the two end panels depicting Paradise and Hell posted above her childhood bed while the central panel displaying a garden of earthly delights was deliberately kept hidden. Leap follows Williams into that central panel at considerable imaginative length, reflecting on its Christian commentary and her Mormon education. I found it to be a powerful book on every level and my students' readings of it were rich and insightful.
Williams' New York Times opinion piece, "I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake," is an intense essay. Describing her visit to Great Salt Lake with the photographer Fazal Sheikh to examine drought conditions that had lowered the lake, she mentions how construction had divided the lake into north and south arms and cut off the flow between them, which "could be a terminal decision for a terminal lake." Images supported information about the shrinkage of six major salt lakes around the world, illustrating how Great Salt Lake, once 100% full in 1872, has declined to 29% in 2023, having "lost almost two-thirds of its total volume since 1985" due to industrialization and agricultural consumption. "Two-thirds of the natural flow going into the lake is currently being diverted: 80 percent of that diversion by agriculture, 10 percent by industries and 10 percent by municipalities." Politicians claim melting snowpack will replenish the lake, but Williams points out that "very little if any of that runoff will find its way" there and that "one high water year does not solve decades of overconsumption."
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources reports that "[b]ecause the Great Salt Lake is terminal (i.e., with no water outlet), large amounts of minerals have built up in the lakebed, including heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic." Lakebed exposure allows dust particles to enter the air and "pose a significant concern to public health." Williams identifies several: "cardiovascular events from strokes to heart attacks to respiratory diseases such as asthma, pneumonia and lung cancer." She emphasizes: "The laws of nature do not negotiate with generations of abusive behavior. Our needs are overtaking the needs of Great Salt Lake at our own peril."
Reading Terry Tempest Williams' reliably observant books, you come away feeling as enriched as if you yourself have been to the place she's recreated on the page. Especially with her Great Salt Lake books, you become aware of the effects of the passage of time not only on her thoughtful perspective but also, memorably, on your own sense of place. It haunts you.
Terry Tempest Williams, "Opinion: I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake". Photographs by Fazal Sheikh. The New York Times, March 25, 2023: 25.
Nathan Rott, "More than half of the world's largest lakes are shrinking. Here's why that matters." NPR, May 20, 2023: 5:30 AM.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "Great Salt Lake water levels," April 13, 2023. https://wildlife.utah.gov/gslep/about/water-levels.html