Terry Tempest WilliamsSee all fellows >
USA | 2002, 2012
Terry Tempest Williams author, naturalist, and environmental activist, has been called “one of the world’s most poetic and daring nature writers.” Her books include Refuge, An Unspoken Hunger, Leap and Finding Beauty in Broken World. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Fellowship in creative nonfiction, she lives in the redrock desert of Utah where she is a passionate advocate for the preservation of the American Western wilderness. She returned to Santa Maddalena in 2011.
Thank you for the richness of this experience at Santa Maddalena. It is hard to imagine that I did not know you before October 1, 2002. You now feel like family. We have shared deeply and traveled far together
in these six weeks. This is the most important gift I am taking home.
With your permission, my evaluation of this six-week fellowship is finding its form to you in a letter. This feels most appropriate because everything about this time here in Donnini has been forged within the realm of the
personal — the relationships between the other writers, the relationship to this exquisite landscape and our relationship with you within the generosity of your home. This is not an institutionalized retreat, rather
an invitation to be part of your world in Tuscany. We are your guests.
I believe the most profound work is done on the page and in the world through this sense of community, often times, around the dinner table.
I am leaving with a solid body of work that will serve as the soul and spine of my new book.
Much of my time here has been surrendering to the artistic struggle that inevitably comes at the beginning of a new project, the exploration and experimentation of discovering and uncovering the ideas and themes central to
the book. This requires a rigor of concentration and the luxury of simply swimming in the chaos of uncomposed ideas, following hunches, intuitions, and impressions. You become a hunter and gatherer of information. Santa
Maddalena has been a perfect atmosphere for this kind of mental retreat. I held on to my private time from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Knowing there was no disturbance, that these were the hours of creative sanctuary. I didn’t have
to see anyone or speak. I could become lost and found within my own creative solitude. During this time, I was able to write myself out of one voice into another — the voice of my previous book, “Leap,” has been discarded and a new voice is emerging. In many ways, this is the most difficult process of beginning a new book — to shed oneself from the comfort, rhythm and syntax of the language you have been living with in a completed book.
When one begins new work, you construct an imagined landscape with no maps. I had forgotten how hard it is to forge ahead in new territory, literally pulling words from the air, to create original text.
Yes, we write in isolation, but we create in community. During these six weeks at Santa Maddalena. I have had extraordinary experiences.
There was the dinner in Donnini where Sandro Beninni, the baker, was transformed into Sandro Beninni, the tenor. He created a six course Italian dinner for twenty people inviting us to sit down at his “table of peace.” For three hours, he sang “bella cantos” as we ate in bliss.
There was the surprise visit of Marco Cantoni, complete with evenings of champagne and candles, swooning to Burt Bacharach tunes, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” to being saved from a kiss by a sting from a wasp….madness intersects with tenderness, as we learn to accept the complicated life stories we all carry.
On another day, two friends from southern Toscano arrive and by the end of the afternoon, my bags are packed and I am on my way to see the mosaic park of Niki Saint Phalle in Garavicchio, Italy, near Grosseto. The
next morning was spent in the exquisite garden of Giuppe Pietromarch, a woman I now consider a friend and soul mate.
Trips to Florence with Anna Pavord and Diran Adebayo were extensions of work and friendships, bringing moments of revelation. It was in Florence, I realized that beauty and civic life are not separate but part of
the brilliance of the Renaissance ideal we so desperately need now. Standing before Michaelangelo’s “David” I wept over how giants can be slain and stone can be made to breathe. Sitting in the Convent at San Marco among the Fra Angelico frescoes, I was brought into a state of stillness I have rarely known. And Masacchio’s Adam and Eve expelled from Eden is an image central to the book I am writing, the psychic pain of being separated from the natural world.
Days walking down the dirt road from Santa Maddalena to the Donnini brought me into a sympathy with the Tuscan landscape, feeling the seasonal shift from autumn to winter, catching a bus to Reggello where I found the church of my heart in Cascia where the San Giovenale Triptych hangs, alive, witness to births and baptisms, masses and funerals. I cannot count the hours I sat inside that church writing at times, meditating, contemplating all that was coming in to my desert consciousness from Utah. I will always savor the day the Priest inviting me to see the relics inside the small museum. He must have taken pity on me for all those hours of sitting, wondering what could be churning inside someone to spend that much time in his church. Simplicity of form. Beauty. Solitude.
And silence with the smell of incense and candlelight.
My love for Masaccio was deepened by our excursion to San Giovanni to see an exhibit of Masaccio in this charming town with Max Rabino. Inside the Basilica, we saw another Fra Angelico.
There was the day with Massimo Sottani, former mayor of Reggello, now a dear friend, who took me to Frantoio di Santa Tea to taste the first cold pressed olive oil of the season on November 2. He invited me to his home
to have lunch with his wife, Rossella, and their children, Simone and Constanza. We later walked up to the Moorish Castle at the top of their village in Leccio to look out over Toscano. On our way, we stood before
the giant Sequoias brought to Italy from California.
One week later, Massimo and I walked side by side in the manifestation held in Florence at the end of the Social Forum. We walked as a slow moving river in the name of social change. The crowd was estimated at
a million. Macchiavelli was among us, his words rising from street, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take lead in the introduction of a
new order of things.” If I close my eyes, I can still feel the power of Italians singing “Ciao, Bella, Ciao,” the song of the partigianos, the Italian resistance against the fascists in World War II.
But perhaps the most powerful moments of this “retreat” occurred around the dinner table. Our conversations, sometimes gentle, sometimes turbulent, always provocative, led by your curiosity and presence, were transformative and binding. These I loved and anticipated.
And I loved Anna Pavord, Tomaž Šalamun, and my tower mate, Diran Abedayo. I loved our dancing in the living room. I loved our honesty with each other, how we transformed and penetrated each others’ work, how we have
found friendships beyond Santa Maddalena.
And then there has been Grisha. I not only felt his presence, but his influence. He appeared in my dreams twice. He didn’t speak. But it was eyes — molte contento. I appreciated the meditative space of the pyramid.
I think back to that first afternoon, when we were having coffee around the stone table. I asked you about Grisha; you briskly said, “Read his book, Memoir of an Anti-Semite, then I will talk to you. That night, I read
it in one sitting. For four hours, I did not move, although my eyes did.
After that, I somehow felt his hand on my shoulder in the Tower. I was aware of his wit, not taking life too seriously but taking one’s writing very seriously. I was also mindful of his disdain for ignorance, the
importance of honoring our contradictory natures, the revolutionary power of art. The place you hold for him is not only tangible, but palpable.
Finally, the Tower. Bless this holy writing space. Each morning, I opened the windows to the Tuscan landscape watching the fog roll through the ravine — and each night, I closed the shutters saying my prayers as the sun
set and the sky turned pink. This was my sanctuary of inspiration.
There is “A Natural History of the Tower” to be written, starring bats, redstarts, robins, rooks, owls, buzzards, woodpeckers, wasps, flies, moths, butterflies, katydids, spiders, lizards, and wild boars at night. Next time.
June in Santa Maddalena is a harvest of cherries and points of illumination with the fireflies. It is pink climbing roses creating flowering olive trees.
How can I ever thank you enough for this retreat, this return to the sanctity of Santa Maddalena. You have created both a home and a community for writers. And this time, I have been returned to myself.
Since my first visit in 2002, I realize I have been without this kind of sustained, reflective time. The American invasion of Iraq happened in March, 2003. My work as a political writer escalated as did my environmental work. Writing was no longer a point of contemplation, but a plea for justice during the injustices being committed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from 2003 through 2008.
During this period, my beloved brother Steve was diagnosed with lymphoma. We had hardly gone a day in our shared lives without speaking to one another. I helped care for him and watched another family member die from cancer.
The opportunity to travel to Rwanda emerged to help build a genocide memorial out of mosaics, literally out of the rubble of war. I said no. I didn’t want to go to a place so familiar with death. I said yes because I knew on some very deep level, my spiritual growth depended on it. Rwanda extended our family when Louis Gakumba, my translator, came to live with us.
During these years, these very difficult, beautiful years, I continued to write the book that was born in this Tower in 2002. I finished “Mosaic” in 2008. It became Finding Beauty In A Broken World and is held together by the initial weaving of ideas that originated here.
In the process of these nine years, I lost myself. In the four weeks I have been here, I found myself once again on the page. When Women Were Birds — A Memoir of Voice Through My Mother’s Journals was born in The Tower. I am leaving with a solid first draft, with passages about the two white paintings by Enrico Castellani, among them. Thank you.
The Tower is sacred space. Alchemy occurs here. Each writer who stays here helps the next writer begin. It is a lineage of literature where the open window creates an open mind that transforms empty pages into a book. I have now written two books here, beginning and ending each day with a prayer.
I loved our time together, Beatrice, in both gentle and spirited conversations. I loved our lunches by the pool and our dinners by candlelight. I loved Ted and Emma, brilliant and caring, both present in their individual integrity; Brigida’s knowledge of all things Italian was a compass point. Kamila and Javier, Bonnie, my Tower mate, and meeting Anne, have all contributed to the depth of my days. Friendships have emerged. Again, this is what living in community not only looks like, but feels like. Cross-pollination occurs not just in the lavender beds.
In the late hours after most had gone to bed, I sat with Castellani’s canvases in shadow and light. They became a template for my Mother’s journals. I now see her empty journals as a piece of conceptual art where the process is the work itself. Roland Barthes says “That which cannot be named is a disturbance.” My Mother’s Journals are a disturbance like Manzoni’s cans, like Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” like John Cage’s performance of 4’33”.
My daily walks along the road moved these ideas through my body. And the Big Dipper pointing to Polaris became my center point as I would walk back to The Tower. Each night, I lit a candle in the pink-striped bedroom as a gratitude.
Beatrice, through your artistry, you have created a sanctuary at Santa Maddalena where people can honor their own creative spirits and work. Work for a writer occurs only through the gift of time. You have given me another gift of time. Time this summer has been spent in the presence of redstarts and robins; hoopoes and jays; nighthawks and owls; and swallowtails and honeybees humming in the gardens. Caffe´ at the stone table became afternoon reverie.
“Beauty,” you say. “It’s all about Beauty.”
Yes, how right you are.
My only regret is that I have to leave today: but I leave with a book in the making.
I look forward to returning to this vibrant, unpredictable, deeply charismatic place.
Issa’s haiku surely must have been written here:
Insects on a bough
Still singing —
With love and my sincere gratitude, Beatrice, for all you give and inspire —