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WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice ~Terry Tempest Williams

It has taken me over two months to write my review of WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS because I wanted my words to be perfect and truly share what an amazing book this is and what a significant read; I wanted you to know how much this book meant to me.   I would finish reading the book and then go back to the beginning and start again.   I set it aside after each read and read 6 other books in between . I am sure I have highlighted at least 60% of the words in the book.  I put it on my smart phone and read bits when I am waiting or just need a fix!

The writing is as marvelous as a bird’s morning song.  The journals are about integrity and maintaining self.

Fifty-four years ago Terry Tempest William’s mother died and then her two grandmothers, all from cancer which the family believes was related to being down-winders to the nuclear testing sites.  Terry’s mother was told by her religion to keep journals and she faithfully had a number of shelves of journals which she gave to her only daughter and requested that she not read them until after she had died.  Williams honored her request and a significant time later took them off the shelves and opened each one.
Every single Journal was empty!

The author contemplated what her mother was trying to tell her and because she was a writer she began to fill the blank pages as memoir and to figure out what it was that her mother intended.  She included lots of references to her Paternal Grandmother who was quite a character and a bird watcher extraordinaire.  The book is about the author’s work and study and how she lived her life and explored.

The book is a journey about leaving religion behind, not living life as a series of prescribed roles, it is about embracing nature and the environment and how women have made a difference globally, nationally, and locally.   Williams introduces the reader to an ancient written code in China where women who were not allowed to read or write could share stories and ideas with each other in code.  The character for woman was the head of a bird.

The book is about silence, beauty and privacy.  The journals are creation myths.

The story weaves around the politics of life and the requirements to be part of making decisions which change women’s lives.   Her mother gave many speeches about the Equal Rights Amendment and thought it was necessary and important for women.  Williams traveled internationally representing the USA and women and the environment.   She sat on the Board for Wilderness Issues for the Secretary of the Interior, and testified before the House and Senate.  Under the 2nd Bush administration her words were ignored and rudely went unheard.  She left the National scene and came home to do the work locally and got her book Testimony read into the Congressional Record during a filibuster and that succeeded in keeping 22 million acres of wilderness preserved in Utah – which was not reduced to 1.8 million by that Administration.

The beauty of the words in WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS is awesome and inspiring.  I was soothed and comforted and called into action.  May we never stop singing our song, telling our story, loving Mother earth or our birth control!

Who do you know has lost their life to an environmental cancer?  What are you doing to keep her story alive?


When Women Were Birds  is a book from my own library and I did not receive anything from marketing individuals or publishers to promote this book.

If you purchase anything from Powell’s or Amazon  from this site, I will receive a few beans in my bucket!  Thank you

Related Reading:
The Paper Garden
The Long Goodbye 

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19 Responses to “WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice ~Terry Tempest Williams”

  1. Jeffrey Willius Says:

    Sounds like a wonderful book, Patricia! I’m fascinated by the image of all those journals being blank.
    Jeffrey Willius recently posted..HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 TipsMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    Jeffrey Willius,
    and I am amazed about how the author filled those journals up –

    my guess is that the mother’s journals are about privacy and being an autonomous woman in a religion that controlled everything for women –

    but the book is more about the environment and the promise humans made to nature and ignored for personal and institutional gain.

  2. Colleen Says:

    I will definitely be looking at this book Patricia. Your passionate and eloquent review speaks volumes. She sounds like an fascinating and inspiring woman.

    Patricia Reply:

    I do not think you will be disappointed.

    I was sitting in the waiting room at the Doc’s today and went back to reading another section of this book – I just keep learning so much more..

    and it was interesting to see who these strong women are related too…

  3. Patricia Says:

    Correction: 24 years before writing William’s Mother died…the author is 54 years old when writing the book

  4. Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Patricia – WOW! What an incredible review. You can bet your bottom dollar I’m on this like white on rice!

    Patricia Reply:

    I do not think you will be disappointed in the least….I am reading it again as part of my in-treat this week.

    Thanks for your good words

  5. suzen Says:

    Hi Patricia,
    Well ya got me too! I just clicked on Amazon from your site, added it to my wish list which I’m ordering later today. Wow, empty journals? Can’t even begin to imagine that, journal junkie that I am! I have BOXES of them squirreled away – all quite fulll.

    Don’t know anyone specifically dying of “environmental” cancer but to a great degree, so many cancers are triggered by the noxious chemicals we are subjected to everyday. Who’s to say?


    Patricia Reply:

    thanks for the click from my site…

    It is an amazing book – read.
    after disposing of my mum’s journals and seeing how all of the information in all 44 of them was things I could look up in the newspaper – my mum just recorded the weather and what she did that day = 73’F, morning clouds to sunshine, went for a walk, did laundry, and had a education meeting in the evening. There was not a juicy biography there either :) and I decided to throw out my journals so my children would not be burdened – my journals are filled with rants and brain stumping….thought they would be a burden.

    I like how she had to analyze what her mother and grandmother were thinking and how their actions correlated with their actions. and then how her life, thinking and actions came through those perceptions….fascinating

    suzen Reply:

    LOL, I have a LOT of boring in those boxes (time, temp. weather, daily must do’s etc.) but wow, there are some pages RAGING. I went through 10 years of them a few yrs ago and tore out writing ideas, character sketches and a few dialogues with myself and burned the rest in a ceremonial campfire. Time to do another decade one of these days. Otherwise somebody would say Geeez, another Diary of a Mad Housewife! (not in a good way!)
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    Patricia Reply:

    You made me laugh….yes lots of raging going on/in
    better there than out in the world!
    Patricia recently posted..Emotional Chaos to Clarity: How to Live More Skillfully, Make Better Decisions, and Find Purpose in Life ~ Phillip MoffittMy Profile

  6. Joanna Paterson Says:

    I heard about this book from a friend a little while back, and she was equally positive. It really does sound amazing – thanks for the prod to get this book on my list.
    Joanna Paterson recently posted..The Landscapes of HomeMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    I think you will truly like this read – an amazing writer and it is a good memoir and story

  7. Cathy | Treatment Talk Says:

    Love your review of the book. Sounds interesting with so much family history and a wonderful tribute to women. Thank you for sharing. I will add it to my list.
    Cathy | Treatment Talk recently posted..What I’ve LearnedMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    I do not think you will be disappointed in reading this book. I am going to pass it on to one of my book groups too.

  8. J.D. Meier Says:

    > May we never stop singing our song, telling our story
    Beautifully put.

    Patricia Reply:

    Hey JD
    It is an amazing book – I hope I did it justice here…the author hopes to keep the birds singing – I hope we will keep telling our stories

  9. Davina Haisell Says:

    What struck me about this review, Patricia, was how the book unmistakeably struck you. It’s obvious that it had quite an effect and yet your review was gentle, graceful and yet powerful, like a continual warm fire that nourishes you without too many noisy sparks and crackles!

    Witnessing and sharing in this with you, feeling your sense of appreciation for the author and the writing, speaks millions about this book. Plus, I’m truly intrigued by the journals having been blank!
    Davina Haisell recently posted..Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!My Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    Thank you for coming by and commenting…yes this book is still having an effect on me – I am reading little pieces of it almost daily – and keeping it a part of my meditations. It is assisting me in becoming more compassionate to myself and to others and yet still step by step work on the issues that are important to me.

    It has helped me to see the beauty of the earth…and our world and that we truly must not lose what we have – I just need to find a different way to proceed in my living each hour…

    The author is a descendant of that Mormon Family that went to Mexico to perpetuate polygamy and then came back to Utah. I am fairly sure she did not vote for her relative who was just running for the President of the US because he did not show respect for the environment or women’s health

    I wonder if this will be the author’s last book, she has a brain tumor – part of the cancer story of tribe of one breasted women.
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