Excerpt: When Women Were Birds

Excerpt: When Women Were Birds

A renowned memoirist and conservationist reflects on Wangari Maathai, a force for  nature and social justice.

By Terry Tempest Williams
Published: 07/27/2012

I was speechless. I thought about the women in Kenya struggling to find their independence. I thought about Wangari Maathai and her unflinching ferocity in the face of institutional power. What would she do?

I sat in the center of a very long silence in the middle of our lunch. It seemed like such a simple proposition.

"I can't make that promise," I said to my father-in-law, whom I love.

My father-in-law unknowingly had forced the issue of integrity. Mine. I realized I couldn't have it both ways--use the Mormon Church's influence for what I wanted with my father-in-law's help, yet be unwilling to help him with what he wanted most, for his son to attend Church. It was a Faustian bargain. Brooke was his own sovereign, and so was I. The restriction I would be under as a Mormon woman asked to remain silent would undermine whatever good I was trying to accomplish for Kenyan women. My compromise would become theirs in principle.

         Why is it that the tips of the bird beaks are burnt?

         -- Myung Mi Kim

I would raise the money myself. No strings attached. We raised ten thousand dollars for the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. It wasn't a lot of money, but it came ten dollars at a time, one woman committing to the prosperity of another woman, freely.


Wangari Muta Maathai passed away from ovarian cancer on September 25, 2011. Through the years, we remained sisters. Her last gift to me was a woman's burden basket that I received in the mail on September 25, wrapped in a beautiful red cloth. When I once asked her what she had learned from planting trees, she said, "Patience."

The Green Belt Movement has planted more than forty-three million trees. Not one tree was sacrificed for her coffin. Kenyan women, with her children, Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta, buried her in a casket made from woven water hyacinths.

When I learned of her death, I was stunned. People like Wangari don't die, that's how intractable and resilient she was to me. We are never ready to lose those we love, especially a world soul like Wangari. I walked outside, knelt on the ground, and sent prayers of gratitude to her spirit. My tears became rain until a ruby-throated humming bird hovered directly in front of me before my words were finished. I looked up and smiled. Of course, it was a hummingbird. This was Wangari's favorite bird, the one who put out a forest fire, one beak full of water at a time.


Excerpted from When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams, published in April 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams. All rights reserved.

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Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is the author of 14 books, including Refuge, Leap, The Open Space of Democracy, and, most recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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