Terry Tempest Williams: Biography & Books

Terry Tempest Williams is a well-known author who is also known as a conservationist and activist for various movements. This lesson will provide information about her life and the books she authored.


If you like books written about nature and/or social issues, then perhaps you should explore the work of Terry Tempest Williams.

Terry Tempest Williams was born September 8, 1955 in Corona, California. Williams grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. She loved the Salt Lake area, which is described as beautiful and rooted in the Mormon faith. She graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in English in 1978 and a Master of Science degree in Environmental Education in 1984. In her career, she has been a teacher, curator, author and naturalist.

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As a child she and her family were exposed to harmful radiation which resulted in several family members getting cancer. Some family members, including her mother, died from the disease. This unfortunate experience was a motivation to write one of her most famous works, which we will take a look at in a moment.

The natural beauty and Mormon culture of Utah have been a great influence on Williams’ beliefs and writing career. She is very involved with political issues and especially taking care of our environment.


Williams has authored several books in her life with a majority of her works influenced by her surroundings, experiences and culture in Utah. To say her writing is unique would be an understatement; it is truly an experience that only her readers can truly understand.

Williams’ first book was published in 1984. The Secret Language of Snow was a children’s book that won the New York Academy of Sciences, Children’s Science Book Award in 1984. She also authored the children’s book, Between Cattails, in 1985.

Williams’ most famous book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, (1991) won her the Mormon Arts & Letters Association, Personal Essay Award in 1991. This book described manmade mistakes that caused negative effects on the wildlife of Utah and Williams’ mother, who had cancer. The Great Salt Lake floods, and the wildlife in the area were basically left homeless because of commercial/residential development around the lake. Williams herself was faced with the fact that her mother, some relatives, and people in the community had cancer that they linked to nuclear testing in the region.

Some other books Williams authored include:

An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (1994) – Williams writes about our need to be close with nature.

Coyote’s Canyon (1989) – In this book, Williams describes in great detail southern Utah’s desert canyons.

Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape (1995) – Mormon Arts ; Letters Association, Personal Essay Award Recipient in 1995. Williams details the natural landscape of the desert and a woman’s spiritual meditation in this place.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World (2008) – This book gives a glimpse at different regions in the world and illustrates the good that can come even from dire life situations.

Leap (2000) – Utah Book Award, Nonfiction in 2000. Leap visits the tough aspect of life where one experiences happiness and misery in a very confusing world.

Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland (1984) – This book received the Southwest Book Award in 1985 and gives background to the Navajo culture. The importance of knowing where one came from, their heritage, is encouraged in this writing.

The Open Space of Democracy (2004) – Williams encourages our society to come together to help solve the issues and problems that face our country.

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. (2012) – This story revolves around Williams’ mother and the journals she left. The true meaning of these journals, the wisdom that comes from them and the importance of having a voice in society.

Lesson Summary

Terry Tempest Williams is well known for her love of nature and the preservation of it. She has successfully written books to illustrate her passion about various social and nature issues. Williams is seen as someone who wants to preserve the beauty of our country and wildlife for generations to come. Reading her writing is truly an indescribable experience.


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