Terry Tempest WilliamsSee all fellows >
USA | 2018
Terry Tempest Williams (born 8 September 1955), is an American author, conservationist, and activist. Williams’ writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah and its Mormon culture. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women’s health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.
Williams has testified before Congress on women’s health, committed acts of civil disobedience in the years 1987–1992 in protest against nuclear testing in the Nevada Desert, and again, in March 2003 in Washington, D.C., with Code Pink, against the Iraq War. She has been a guest at the White House, has camped in the remote regions of the Utah and Alaska wildernesses and worked as “a barefoot artist” in Rwanda.
Williams is the author of a number of books: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert; The Open Space of Democracy; and Finding Beauty in a Broken World
The shape and arrangement of each olive grove has its own geometry, but the shape of the olive grove at Santa Maddalena bears the shape of stories. The distance walked between the Tower and Beatrice Monti della Corte’s home for meals cannot be measured in meters or feet but in what happened along the way.
For example, there was the time that a friend of the Baronessa made a surprise visit one evening and filled the dining room with a hundred white votive candles and cooked a spaghetti dinner with his family’s secret tomato sauce that som how we got drunk on. The next night, he came to get me from the Tower. I was irritated, as I was mid-sentence on a long awaited paragraph that had just found its way on the page, but he was not to be deterred. He followed me down the narrow windowing staircase until we were outside the Tower, now walking side by side through the olive grove, with various trees blessedly between us. Where there was a break in the assemblage of trees, he leaned
over to kiss me, when a wasp miraculously appeared and stung him on the upper lip!
“You are a witch!” he screamed as his hand applied pressure on the cleavage point below his nose.
“Just a naturalist,” I said. “…the wasps protect me.”
How many steps does it take to cross the olive grove? Just enough to get you to the stone patio quickly when in need.
Or the time, walking back to the Tower from another electric dinner party where Beatrice holds court and counsel at once, where Max or Colm or Isabella or any other literary or elegant figure you can conjure up is seated around the table sharing their stories ends with the serving of pears and we eat the soft sweet fruit of Tuscany. Afterwords, Kamila and Emma and I walk back to the Tower on a summer night where it is impossible to tell where fireflies end and stars begin and make vows to trust our voices as women and speak when it is all too easy to become mute while under the male gaze.
Or the night, when Diran fell asleep on the couch in the living room still holding his cigarette that was resting on the cushion, now in flames. He picked up the burning cushion and ran outside through the gauntlet of olive trees yelling, “Fire, Fire!” but nobody heard him so he left the cushion outside to smolder when he thought the wet grass beneath the trees had put the fire out. Minutes later, the Tower filled with smoke and I awoke coughing seeing only smoke, the terror of smoke. I ran down the stairs into Diran’s room yelling, “Fire, Fire!” and we both ran out to see the flames rising outside the door inside the olive grove.
By now, the Croatian caretakers were beating the cushion as I ran through the olive grove in search of a hose or fire extinguisher. I knew I had seen one in Beatrice’s house hanging on the wall. I ran into her house, grabbed the red object off the wall only to realize it was not an extinguisher at all, but an art piece. I grabbed a pitcher of water, lame as it was and filled it with water and ran back through the olive trees, nightgown caught on low lying branches. I heard it rip. I doused the cushion. The fire was out.
The next morning at breakfast, Beatrice heard about the fire. She was more amused than upset. Later that afternoon, she met me in the olive grove. I was standing on a ladder beneath a canopy of narrow light-streaked leaves, picking olives with the Croatians so they could meet their deadline. I climbed down the ladder and threw a handful of olives on to the white sheet below. Her message was simple and direct, “Don’t take life so seriously, Terry.” She paused. “Your work, yes, thanks god — but life, no.”
The shape of this olive grove keeps expanding with the harvesting of our stories. And it was in the private hours of their enduring beauty that I watched rooks come and go like shadows when I couldn’t write. There was comfort in the robins and redstarts I watched as I forgot myself as a writer and remembered myself as a human being. It was then, that my lost words were returned to me, alongside, the joy.
At night, after I finished writing, I would lean out the window of the Tower and watch bats circle the olive trees in moonlight. I remember thinking there was no place on the planet I would rather be — so magical was this platinum-tipped grove of trees — where even in darkness the climbing pink roses wrapped around the gnarled trunks were still visible.
But the true measure of Santa Maddalena’s silver-leafed olive trees, both ethereal and enduring at once, is in the measure of the Earth, itself. Each season of each year of each decade creeping into the next century, the roots of the olive trees reach deeper and wider into the Tuscan red dirt. Not far from the olive grove, Gregor von Rezzori is buried. I like to imagine the roots of these generous trees are now intertwined with the great writer’s bones. A stone triangle marks his grave. Creativity is the geometric equation that Beatrice has given to each of us through her invitation to write in her community tied to the Italian countryside of Donnini. Literature interfaces with ecology. Roots. Bones. Pages. Leaves. The spines of all the books that have been written here equals the number of stories held in thought as each author walked through the olive grove dreaming.