When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

By Terry Tempest Williams

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $23


The dream I had was this: A necklace of bird beaks was placed around my neck, by whom I could not see. “You will be going to Africa,” a voice said. And then I was handed some seeds.

Nairobi,1985: I stood inside a large terra-cotta pot, holding on to the trunk of a ficus tree to gain some elevation and a reprieve from  the crush of crowds. In the cacophony of voices at the UN Decade for Women Forum, one voice stood out. Her name was Professor Wangari Maathai.

“The problems of Africa are shadowed for the rest of the world. There is a problem here and it is deforestation,” she said. “If you do not address the environmental situation you address nothing . . . And until the village people understand the problem, the problem will not be solved.”

It was a voice unlike any I had heard before. She was passionate. She was commanding and she was smart. When Wangari Maathai spoke it was about doing something, something simple, something positive, something real, like planting a tree.

I listened.

“To plant a tree, you must get your hands dirty. When women go to college, so often they go back to cities for white-collar jobs and forget where they come from. It is the country people, the village people, who hold the Earth’s health in their hands.”

I learned how African women were carrying the environmental crisis on their backs, spending eight to ten hours a day in search of firewood for fuel so they could cook food for their families. I learned how forests were being burned for charcoal because it is more efficient than wood. As a result, the hillsides are denuded, creating chronic erosion. For the first time, I saw how environmental issues are economic issues are, ultimately, issues of social justice.

If women are suffering, children are suffering. Empower women, and you empower the community. A revolution was lit inside me. This is what I came to Africa for, unknowingly:

to learn the hope of trees. I left the conference and followed Wangari into the villages of Kenya, where I witnessed for myself the work of women and what it means to grow a forest.

“We need to work a little more and talk a little less,” she said to me wryly as we left Nairobi and visited a village very close to her own Kikuyu roots.

I watched women gathering seeds in the folds of their skirts, planting seeds, and tending trees on their knees, as if in prayer, their hands patting the soil to secure young saplings. Not only were they planting trees, they were nurturing possibilities. With time, the women could sell their seedlings and earn an income for their families. Hands on the Earth, restoration was being tilled.

Wangari Maathai’s leadership was the pragmatism of joy. We are all uplifted by the growth of a seed. The women in the villages were finding their voice. Planting trees became more than a vocation. It was an action against oppression and a metaphor of renewal. Land health. Human health. When women work together, everyone benefits. This was my introduction to the Green Belt Movement.

Wangari Maathai became my mentor. She invited me to plant a tree for my mother in the special “Women’s Forest.” I returned day after day, planting more trees alongside the women who lived there, our hands stained with African seeds.

The power of Wangari Maathai’s optimism fueled mine. She showed me the importance of mobilizing the public through love, while at the same time telling the hard truths of our press on the planet. Her voice not only inspired me but called me to action once I returned home.

We started the Green Belt Movement of Utah. It was a way to draw similarities between deforestation in Kenya and desertification within the Great Basin. Both landscapes were degraded by the removal of vegetation: in Africa, the cutting of trees; in the American Southwest, overgrazing by cattle. And in both situations valuable topsoil was disappearing through erosion. I engaged Mormon women in the Relief Society, an organization within the LDS Church that exists for service and sisterhood. We could collaborate between continents. I gave hundreds of talks in Relief Societies and book groups across the state, retelling the story of deforestation and Wangari Maathai’s efforts to plant trees village by village, to ease the burden and oppression of women while also taking care of the Earth.

“The issue is fragmentation,” Professor Maathai said. “We must look at the whole. The minute we fall for fragmentation we subvert the work of women.”

I was simply passing on what I had witnessed in Kenya to the women in Utah, my own home ground, and inviting them to help. For ten dollars, a woman could purchase a tree in the name of a woman she loves. We had certificates designed and printed. It was a campaign to educate and engage. Mother and Mimi and Lettie were among the first to enroll.

Brooke’s father was moved by the effort. He took me to lunch. I asked him, as a man of respect and rank within the hierarchy of the Church, if he would help by introducing me to one of the Apostles, a friend of his who could make this fund-raising venture among local women expand worldwide. I knew what this could mean to the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Nobody can organize like the Mormons. He said he would make the call for me to make my case before one of the elders in power. But there was a catch.

“You know what I have promised to do for you. Now here is what you can do for me. Promise me you will bring Brooke back into the Church, and never say we had this conversation.”

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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