by Terry Tempest Williams

Published by Pantheon

338 pages, 2000

Buy it online




An Audacious Leap

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


As I wander through this nightmare where the smell of sulphur chokes my throat, my compass has gone mad, spinning wildly without relief. There is no True North in Hell.

There are very few writers with the audacity or the power to take their readers by the hand and drag them through hell, but Terry Tempest Williams dares and succeeds. A naturalist and environmental crusader, the Utah writer has spun an inspiring, disturbing, sometimes flawed but always compelling prose-poem in Leap, her personal reflections on a famous painting by 15th-century Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch. Her sharp observations and far-flung poetic digressions are thoroughly infused with the devout Mormonism of her upbringing, a faith with which she has a passionate but uneasy relationship.

These elements -- environmental awareness, the Mormon church and medieval art -- are not things which naturally fit together, at least in a logical sense. The fact that Williams somehow makes them work together is a tribute to her unusual perception and literary skill.

This is not a moderate or cool-headed personality. By her own admission, Williams became completely obsessed with Bosch's The Garden of Delights for a period of seven years, traveling back and forth to the Prado Museum in Spain to "visit" the painting and engage with its hundreds of intricate details. We know this is no dry, scholarly analysis of an artwork by her opening description of the three-panel painting (reproduced in a color pullout illustration):

The doors to the triptych are closed. Now it opens like a great medieval butterfly flapping its wings through the centuries. Open and close. Open and close. Open. Hieronymus Bosch has painted, as wings, Paradise and Hell. The body is a portrait of Earthly Delights. The wings close again. Open, now slowly, with each viewer's breath the butterfly quivers, Heaven and Hell quiver, the wings are wet and fragile, only the body remains stable.

As a child, Williams was familiar with the painting -- to a point. In her grandmother's house, a reproduction of the two outer panels (Paradise and Hell) were thumbtacked to a bulletin board above the bed she slept in. The center panel, The Garden of Earthly Delights, was censored for its eroticism. It depicts hundreds of naked men and women shamelessly partaking of the myriad sensual pleasures of life.

A conventional reading of the painting moves from left to right. Paradise depicts Adam and Eve kneeling before Christ, implying the innocence of a pure and uncorrupted spirit. The center panel is a tribute to indulgence, followed by the inevitable consequences -- eternal punishment in a bizarre and hideous dungeon of the soul, with its centerpiece a hollow-bodied, dismembered human being facing backwards. It is as if Bosch's triptych is a visual warning against earthly pleasure and "sin."

Williams interprets it very differently, probing the images of the outer two panels first, then spending the majority of the text on Earthly Delights and its celebration of the natural world: "The marriage between Heaven and Hell," she believes, "is Earth."

Not content to merely look or analyze, she pulls us inside the painting as if we exist as figures on the canvas. "Can a painting be a prayer?" she wonders. For her, it is a point of departure leading her to reflect on the things that matter to her most. "I came to Spain to get away from my torn heart ripped open every time I see the landscape I love ravaged, lost, and opened for development."

Williams truly bleeds for the landscape in passages so passionate that they sometimes threaten to go over the top:

Must we witness and watch and do nothing as the peeled bodies of elders named Douglas Fir, Cedar and Larch are chained to the flatbeds of trucks and hauled away on our highways, highways littered with roadkills, roadkills paving the way to dams, dammed rivers: the Colorado, the Columbia, the Snake and Mississippi; dammed canyons -- Glen Canyon, Davis Gulch, Cathedral in the Desert -- speak their names -- remember their names... The nuclear waste is simmering, shimmering, Coyote watches with burning eyes, burning eyes Bosch's owl with burning eyes in Paradise.

Williams believes that we are slowly committing suicide through environmental destruction, a belief which she feels is mirrored by Bosch's horrifying depiction of a barren, denuded Hell, stripped of all signs of vegetation: "Could it be that Hieronymus Bosch was painting from the future?"

Though Williams writes of her Mormon roots with great reverence and love, it is an uneasy fit, like a mustang penned in a corral: "A wild mind cannot be married long to an institutional one," she writes. At a Mormon ceremony she suddenly feels grief: "I weep because I do not believe there is only one true church. I weep because within my own homeland I suddenly feel foreign, so very, very foreign."

It is not so much Mormon belief as the institution of the Mormon church that she objects to. The mysticism of their founding prophet Joseph Smith has been replaced by the aggressive pioneering spirit of Brigham Young: "As a people, my people, we have dropped the hand of Joseph and grasped the hand of Brigham who led us to the Promised Land, this land of little water, to organize, colonize, proselytize, and grow."

Connecting all this to medieval art is a "leap" indeed and in this Williams does not always succeed.

Her book is a paean of passion for the disappearing natural world, pouring straight from the depths of her unconscious mind. Sometimes her prose spins off into literal word-spirals, or poems in which lines are repeated (i.e. the line "why why why joy enjoy joy joy" appearing seventeen times). It takes nerve to risk such departures from the conventions of prose, but the result, though sometimes uneven, is a work brimming over with unexpected revelation ("Life is a process of being broken open").

There is a central thesis in Leap which helps to bind together even its most disparate elements: "The greatest sin is the sin of indifference." This author cares so intensely about life, art and nature that the effect is almost overwhelming. Yet, unlike many environmental writers, she does communicate a sense of hope. In the final chapter she writes of the restoration of Bosch's painting as a metaphor for the rejuvenation of the wilderness. "Restoration is a process of respect," the art restorers claim. "We are in the service of the painting."

Williams yearns for a time when the public treats its wild spaces as irreplaceable works of art. Only then can the world be whole and humanity able to partake of the ultimate communion, "the healing grace of wildness." | August 2000

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.