Beauty Is Not Optional, It Is a Strategy for Survival

From The Literary Hub:

Paul Holdengraber: I truly fell in love with your book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on VoiceThe notion of voice is so precious and so particular to each one of us. Why did you pay so much attention to this notion of voice?

Terry Tempest Williams: It’s who we are. Without voice, we are not human. To me voice represents the senses; sensuality. In one second I know when my husband’s voice is tired or excited or alive—the same as my son, my father, my brothers. The people I love, we are connected through our voice.

PH: This particular book, When Women Were Birds is in a way a way to claim again the lost voice of your mother.

TTW: When my mother was dying, she said to me, “Terry, I’m leaving you all my journals but you will have to promise me that you will not look at them until I’m gone.” I gave her my word. I didn’t know she kept journals. She was an extremely private person. A week later, she died. Months later I thought “Now I will find out what my mother was really thinking. Finally I will know, in her most private moments, her real voice.” They were exactly where she said they were. Three shelves of journals, hand-bound and neat. I opened the first one, it was empty. I opened the second one, it was empty… all my mother’s journals were blank. It was a second death, and I just couldn’t deal with it. I put them in the back of my car, drove back home, put them on the shelf, and for 20 years, I didn’t really think about it, until I really needed to hear my mother’s voice. I think the inspiration for When Women Were Birds was that mystery. Why did my mother leave me her journals and why were they all blank?

PH: You tell this story so beautifully in When Women Were Birds. It’s as if she left those journals blank but not empty.

TTW: I never thought of it that way, Paul, but you’re right. They weren’t empty. In many ways they were screaming to be interrogated. We grew up in Mormon culture, where women were expected to do two things: Keep a record of our lives, and of our children. My mother bore four children. I think her act of resistance was in not writing her life story. She lived it.

I think we’re in a constant process of finding our voice, losing our voice, retrieving our voice. I look at where we are right now and how easy it is to feel silent, but who benefits if we don’t speak up loudly, clearly, and passionately? In Mormon culture, we were taught “Don’t rock the boat”. And I had to speak, and I continue to speak and it continues to cause problems, but I can’t not speak. It’s such a complicated thing that I find myself not being able to find the words. It’s always the attempt, isn’t it?

. . . .

PH: I feel that so deeply. You have this line about beauty where you say that “beauty is not optional but a strategy for survival”. How does beauty speak to you?

TTW: What I love is that, in spite of everything, beauty holds us, in whatever form we seek it. Just last week, I was so depressed. I cannot believe what is happening in this country. I’ve been in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem for the last month and the state of Wyoming is now opening permits so that if grizzly bears get outside Yellowstone National Park or Grand Teton National Park, they can be shot. We tried to organize, buy out the permits, “shoot them with a camera, not a gun”. All this is political, right? And I thought, stop, too much noise. Too much rage. And I went into the park and drove through Willow Flats. On the edge of the Snake River, I saw the willows move. And there in the clearing emerges this immense being—a grizzly bear. And I thought, first and foremost, above all politics, here is beauty on four legs. I just wept. My heart calmed, my eyes opened, and I found a compassion that I had lost. I went out and sat by the river, and all of a sudden there were millions of caddis flies, about the size of your little finger, a constellation dancing on the surface of the Snake River. Grizzly bears eat caddis flies, and I thought, here, now, this is beauty, this is the strategy for survival. The earth, the world, bears, on some level I truly believe they will survive us. I have to believe in those moments of beauty that take us to a place of transcendence where anything is possible. We have to hold on to that.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub


7 thoughts on “Beauty Is Not Optional, It Is a Strategy for Survival”

  1. Clearly she’s never been attacked by a bear. Yes, they are beautiful… They are also incredibly dangerous. Ask Treadwell and his girlfriend.

  2. TTW, a good friend, is one of the decades’ long stalwarts of the conservation movimiento. Standing up to fed govt on oil leases ::::she and her husband bought up thousands . Which were rescinded by US government because ttw amd her family had intenton of preserving the land, not drilling. If people only knew how cheap the govt was selling acres to oil interests and minerals, prob most anyone would have bid and won. risking her job at university. and losing it to the oil powers that be in utah, after decades of teaching. A tiny woman of great heart, now in her sixties .having lived through the atomic explosions in utah, that claimed her mother and other members of the Utahan families. adoptive mother of older children. A sojourner in the desert and wilds. indeed the heart of a grizzly bear to protect the young and the beauties of the world.

    I get what she means and what she loves and why. A lot of westerners who live in the ‘out there’ do.

  3. The headline had me thinking of this:

    “In Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, argues that beauty is neither a cultural construction, an invention of the fashion industry, nor a backlash against feminism—it’s in our biology.

    Beauty, she explains, is an essential and ineradicable part of human nature that is revered and ferociously pursued in nearly every civilization—and for good reason. Those features to which we are most attracted are often signals of fertility and fecundity. When seen in the context of a Darwinian struggle for survival, our sometimes extreme attempts to attain beauty—both to become beautiful ourselves and to acquire an attractive partner—suddenly become much more understandable. Moreover, if we understand how the desire for beauty is innate, then we can begin to work in our own interests, and not just the interests of our genetic tendencies.”

    It’s a pretty good read.
    Useful for world building, too.

    • Sexual attractiveness is not the sum total of beauty, or even the largest part of it. In the quotation above, Terry Tempest Williams was not rhapsodizing about the beauty of the grizzly bear because she wanted to mate with it. (I hope!)

      • I was reflecting on the headline (Beauty + survival) not the content.

        As to the grizzly, well, it takes all kinds.

      • I don’t know, bear shifter romances seem to be pretty popular, if the number I see on Amazon and the number of such covers on premade cover sites is any indication.

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