What Wildness is This:
Women Write About the Southwest

edited by Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Hanson,
Jan Epton Seale, Paula Stallings Yost

University of Texas Press, 2007. ISBN 0292716303.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 04/02/2007

Anthologies/Collections; Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Although I am a New Yorker by birth and now live in Pennsylvania, I am drawn to the Southwest by the stories in What Wildness is This. Years before, I was attracted to that part of the country by the conferences and retreats held by Story Circle Network. When I opened the book, I turned first to the stories by women I've met through this organization. Then I searched the index for stories about places I've been: the Texas Hill Country, Austin, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon. Then I read about Utah, where my husband lived for twelve years before we met, and a place that remains a part of him.

Almost three hundred women submitted personal stories or poems for this anthology, and fifty pieces were chosen. The editors then added another fifty pieces of previously published work by writers such as Diane Ackerman, Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams and Naomi Shihab Nye. The result is a hundred pieces exploring the relationship of a woman's life experiences to a place—the American Southwest.

The works are arranged in eight sections: the way we live on the land (A Land Full of Stories); our journeys through the land (Geographies: Journey Notes); nature in cities (Home Address: The Nature of Urban Life); nature at risk (Earth Is an Island: Nature at Risk); nature that sustains us (The Sustaining Land;) our memories of the land (The Key Is In Remembering: Growing Up On the Land); our kinship with the animal world (Eagle Inside Us); and what we leave on the land when we are gone (What We Leave Behind).

The poems, essays and memoirs I read drew pictures for me, taking me back where I've been and showing me new, yet unseen landscapes through the writers' eyes. These word artists showed me what the Southwest looks and feels like—big, dangerous snakes; hot, humid summers; endless wind; parched desert; small deer and short trees; distant horizons. We only have one of those in Pennsylvania—the humid summers.

This is a rough, un-softened land, unlike the Northeast where I've lived all my life. The writers' words made me want to see the river that flows through a canyon, to watch the blackbirds, to feel the "muscular wind" of Linda Joy Myers' Oklahoma (Song of the Plains). I want to eat tortillas in Santa Fe like Sandra Ramos O'Briant (Chile Tales: The Green Addiction).

My ethnic and immigrant roots pulled on me when I read about the hope of a young Jewish couple in Davi Walders' poem, "Big Spring, Fifty Years After." A line from her poem, "Jewish Oil Brat," could serve to summarize the whole book. "...courage rooted deep here, gushed high and fierce here..."

Reading, I pictured oil wells and gas wells and dogs in the yard. I felt what it was like to be the part-white child in an Indian school like Leslie Marmon Silko in "Not You, He Said." I laughed at the cunning of Trilla Pando's grandmother in "Dumplings Come to Town."

So many other images remain with me: Ironwoods and cactus and dust and "the occasional elm." The lives in these stories and poems are lived outdoors, no matter the number of hours spent within four walls. The land colors everything, determines everything, and decides everything.

What makes this different from other anthologies of nature writing? Written entirely by women, the authors are an integral part of each story or poem. Kathleen Dean Moore says in the foreword that they "break down the cultural constraints of...European ideals of 'man and nature'...and "Man as individual,...distinguished by the presence of mind from all of nature, which is as lifeless as a millstone."

Co-editor Susan Wittig Albert says that the editors were looking for writers who had experienced the natural world "not as Nature, objectively...'out there,' but in a deeply personal, intimate and self-revealing way 'in here.'"

This is a collection to celebrate not only because it adds so many beautiful female voices to the canon of nature writing but especially because our own Story Circle Network sponsored it. To paraphrase Barbara Kingsolver in "Not Long Ago," "I can't think of (a book I've read that gave me) such a clear fix on what it means to be human."

To read more about this book, see What Wildness is This.

(See another review of this book, here)

Check out our interview with Paula Yost.

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