By Susan Reed
Updated July 15, 1996 12:00 PM

IN A SENSE, TERRY TEMPEST Williams’s activism was born in a flash when she was a toddler. Her family was driving back to Utah from California before dawn on a day in 1957 when a brilliant burst of light illuminated the landscape. “My father told me I was sitting on my pregnant mother’s lap and he thought a tanker had exploded,” says Williams, now 40. “We all got out of the car and watched this golden-stemmed mushroom cloud rising from the desert floor.”

It was 30 years later, during this conversation with her father shortly after her mother died of cancer, that Williams learned the source of that flash: an above-ground test of an atom bomb in southwest Nevada. The news left her outraged. “I realized the deceit we’d been living under as children in the American West. In my mind there is no doubt how my mother died. She died because she was a ‘down-winder,’ ” Williams says, referring to people who maintain they were poisoned by radiation from atom-bomb tests from 1951 to 1962. (John Wayne’s children have linked the actor’s death from cancer to radiation exposure while filming in Utah.)

Shortly thereafter, Williams began to channel her anger into poetic evocations of the beauty and misuse of the vast western landscape—essays and books that have brought her to the forefront of the environmental movement. Now she is using her voice to defend that landscape from another threat. Rep. James V Hansen (R-Utah) has proposed a bill that would open 20 million acres of southern Utah’s buttes and canyons to commercial development, including mining, logging, oil drilling and dam building—a proposal that has touched off bitter congressional debate. Though a filibuster by retiring Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) resulted in the tabling of the initiative this spring, Hansen hopes to reintroduce the measure next year.

“The land down there is rich in minerals,” says Jim Peacock, executive director of the Utah Petroleum Association. “There is the potential for a lot of usage, a good economy and jobs.”

“They completely underestimate what these lands mean to the American people,” counters Williams. “If we only look at our wild lands in terms of economics, then we are showing an impoverishment of the soul.”

Last summer Williams and Utah writer Stephen Trimble persuaded 18 prominent authors—among them Barry Lopez, Rick Bass and John McPhee—to contribute to a book of essays in defense of Utah’s wilderness that was distributed to every member of Congress. “For me,” says Williams, “there is no separation between a writing life and a life engaged.”

A fifth-generation Utah Mormon, Williams has carved out a unique literary niche. Refuge, her 1991 memoir juxtaposing her mother’s slow death with a natural disaster—the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge by the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake—prompted Newsweek to hail her as one of the region’s “striking new writers…one of 20 movers and shakers who will shape the future of the West.” Last year, Williams further enhanced her reputation with Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape, a volume of meditations about Utah’s red-rock wilderness.

It is too late, of course, to reverse history: Seven of Williams’s female relatives, most of whom lived in the Salt Lake City area but frequently traveled in the southern part of the state, have died of cancer. (While the U.S. government has never accepted responsibility for such cancer deaths, a 1990 bill acknowledged the test hazard and offered compensation to 900 to 1,100 downwinders and their families in Nevada, Utah and Arizona.) Williams, who had surgery for a tumor between her ribs diagnosed as borderline malignant, believes that she, too, may have been poisoned by radiation.

Growing up in Salt Lake City, the oldest of four children of John Henry Tempest, a pipeline contractor, and Diane, a homemaker, Williams was 8 when her grandmother introduced her to birdwatching on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. “Something happened,” says Williams, recalling the sighting of ibis and western grebes. “It was magical for a desert child to see that kind of exotic life.”

In 1974, as a student at the University of Utah, she was working part-time in a Salt Lake City bookstore when a customer stepped up to the counter, his arms laden with all her favorite nature books. The customer, Brooke Williams, now a 44-year-old environmental consultant, asked her for a date, and six months later they married. Williams earned a master’s degree in environmental education and is now a naturalist in residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History as well as an author. So far she has penned eight books on nature, two of them for children. Since her mother’s death, though, she has focused her energies on preservation.

Returning home recently from a hike, Williams sits in the sun-filled living room of her two-bedroom pine house in Emigration Canyon near Salt Lake City. “What I love about the red-rock wilderness is that it tells time differently,” she “says. “There’s a sense of erosion and humility. This isn’t real estate we’re talking about. This is the body of the beloved. How can we not take a stand?”


CATHY FREE in southern Utah