CASTLE VALLEY, Utah — Scooping a handful of green clay out of the Colorado River, Terry Tempest Williams considers smearing it on her face as a natural mud mask.
The autumn chill and spreading dusk make her reconsider; she returns the clay to the indentation from which it came.
Living in a remote valley in southeastern Utah, the naturalist author's love of the land defines her life: from her writing--most notably "Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place"--to her travels--rarely in winter, because that's her time for hibernation.
Her writings are taut with questions arising from her tangled roots as a fifth-generation Mormon, a feminist and an environmentalist.
Yet Williams does not see conflict in these strands that run through her work. She describes her writing as an integrated, deeply personal exploration of basic life questions. Grappling with death, for instance, losing the self in a natural landscape or finding a comfortable female identity in Mormonism's patriarchal religious structure.
"Land was always a part of my spirituality growing up," she said. "I see . . . and write . . . the patterns and complexities in life. In the Mormon culture, you don't separate your place from your culture from your family. For me, the things that are the most personal are also the most general."
"Refuge," published in 1991, weaves the story of her mother's slow death from breast cancer into a larger narrative about flooding that destroyed migratory bird habitat at wetlands near the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah. The book, which continues to sell more than 10,000 copies a year, includes an epilogue linking her family's cancer with living downwind from an atomic testing site.
It was re-released in a 10th anniversary edition this fall.
The success of "Refuge" threw Williams into the literary spotlight, leading the Utne Reader, an alternative news magazine, to include her in its list of 100 visionaries.
Williams' combination of soul-searching, humility and scholarship inspires a strong following from an array of readers--environmentalists, gender studies professors, Southwestern literature fans and the spiritually curious.
Readers are slightly more female than male, but they span the age range, said Tony Weller, owner of Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City. Williams' readings can draw as many as 2,500 people.
SueEllen Campbell, professor of English at Colorado State University, said: "I've watched her completely mesmerize audiences. She has something charismatic about her, and I've seen a large room of people completely sucked in."
Suggestions of hero-worship trouble Williams, bringing her near tears.
She reacts simply: "All I know is the struggle inside. I think writing is incredibly hard. I don't think writing is about talent; it's about hunger. If my work has touched a chord, it's because I've chosen to reveal the bones of my life."
And that decision has not been easy.
On an autumn walk through a red desert near her home she said that she forces herself to write against her instincts of self-protection and privacy.
She does it because she hopes to make a difference, however small, and to inspire others to lead lives of questioning.
Williams, 46, and her husband Brooke, 49, moved from Salt Lake City to the isolated town of Castle Valley, near Moab, in 1998, almost on a whim. But now they see it as a necessary counterbalance of privacy with Williams' very public outside life.
With salt and pepper hair tied in a ponytail, Williams moves gracefully around her home in a black turtleneck adorned with a bear pin from her father. Cowboy boots stick from beneath tailored khakis.
The Williams' home perfectly mirrors their ideology--the living room practically spills onto the desert floor with tiles inside mirroring tiles outside.
No doors separate the bedroom from the living room or kitchen. The rooms blend seamlessly. Windows dominate three sides of the house. Her bed faces the rising sun.
Brooke Williams, great-great-grandson of Mormon prophet Brigham Young, is also an author, working on a book about Brigham Young's brother and Charles Darwin.
Married for 27 years, Terry Williams said critics harp on some of the couple's most personal decisions, for instance, toasting their wedding anniversary with a glass of champagne, or deciding not to have children.
She describes the decision against children as the couple's choice of another way to define family, a difficult decision for a woman coming from a Mormon background.
"I love language and my books are my children," she said. "I'm sure I'm missing something, but everyone is missing something."
In the winter she plans to teach poetry and creative writing to sixth-graders. She's published eight books. And she and Brooke are working with the surrounding community to raise money to buy 5,000 acres to preserve it from development.
Williams has lived her entire life in Utah, attending the University of Utah for a bachelor's degree in English and a master of science in environmental education. She worked as a naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History for 10 years before becoming a full-time author.
She isn't working on another book at the moment, but she figures she will.
"I'll probably write again when I become obsessed with something," she said. "I'm curious, and something will grab me by the throat."