When Women Were Birds

IMG_0181I bought this lovely book last summer while on a mini-retreat in Port Townsend. Then, as I often do, I mislaid the book and didn’t read it. The other day, a friend asked if I wanted to see Terry Tempest Williams with her at the Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham (tonight!). Despite my usual crazy-busy schedule, I said yes. She will be talking about her new book, but I found my copy of When Women Were Birds and began reading it again.

The subtitle, Fifty-four Variations on Voice, is one of the aspects of this book that first drew me to it. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a a holder of stories: Terry Tempest Williams’ ancestors, especially her mother, are here; writer progenitors; the voices of birds; the voice of myths, both familiar and unfamiliar, domestic and international.

The concept behind the book is the gift of Williams’ mother’s journals to her, journals that turned out to be blank. When Women Were Birds seems to include everything Williams has read, and everything she reads between the lines (as it were) of what she has been denied. It’s a gift of interpretation, and a faithful rendering of a woman’s own complex and multi-vocal life. It is the story of a woman finding her voice.

“Rufous-sided towhees scratched in the understory of last year’s leaves; lazuli buntings were turquoise exclamation marks singing in a canopy of green; and blue-gray gnatcatchers became commas in a ongoing narrative of wild nature.”

Williams’ reverence for landscape is well known. Here, she reminds me that we are, each of us, an interpreter of our experience, of all that comes before us, and all that we co-exist with. What if we were reverent instead of defensive? What if we stopped and felt wonder, instead of looking for something to buy, or denounce, or attack? Reading this book, I’m reminded of the miracle of my own existence.

“I had been reading The Tongue Snatchers, by the French writer Claudine Herrmann. She focuses on the French verb voler, which means ‘to fly’ or ‘to steal,’ the two paths traditionally available to women when we speak. We either flee and disappear or steal, adopt, and adapt to the dominant language of men, often at our own expense. Herrmann offers another route, that of the ‘Mother Tongue,’ the voice with an authentic vernacular akin to our experiences, fierce and compassionate at once; the voice as a knife that can slice, carve, or cut, shape, sculpt, or stab.”

Whenever I feel the impulse to buy several copies of a book and distribute it to all of my friends, I come here instead. You’re welcome.




3 replies
  1. Jennifer Bullis
    Jennifer Bullis says:

    Bethany, I know you’ll love hearing TTW tonight. I got to hear her in Bellingham for her reading of When Women Were Birds. I agree that the book is amazing, and SHE is amazing. If you possibly can, I recommend standing in the (inevitably miles-long) signing line afterwards. She just may give you even more wisdom, writer-to-writer. Have a wonderful time!


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