Terry Tempest Williams lights a candle before she sits down to write. It's her way, she says, of respecting the process. Respect is paying off for Williams, a Mormon woman from Salt Lake City who once thought she had nothing to offer. For she is fast becoming one of the best-known nature writers in the country.
Williams came to UC Davis last week as the second in a writer series ``Places on Earth.'' The first speaker was Pam Houston.
Williams also is a very private woman. It pains her to leave her Utah home, to take to the road, to go public.
She's on the road this spring to promote her new book, a collection of essays, called ``An Unspoken Hunger'' ($20, Pantheon).
``I've been gone from home for three weeks,'' said Williams. ``If I had my choice, I would be home now.'' Tears came to her eyes as she made this confession to the startled graduate students.
``But I feel deeply committed to these ideals,'' Williams continued.
Williams is committed, simply, to protecting the West. To creating a sense of community where places are as important as people.
``From October to April I'm home,'' she continued. She described the bear as her mentor. During the winter, she hibernates.
``I'm above ground in the spring and summer, giving to the community,'' she said.
She wore a silver bear fetish at the end of a long necklace of Indian beads as she talked. Her brown hair is graying slightly. Her blue/green eyes teared briefly, then cleared.
Her book tour has taught her that people agree with her sense that something is wrong in the way humans treat their environment. And not just in the American West but worldwide.
``People really feel that something is wrong,'' she told the students. ``That makes me feel tender, but it's also heartening.
``What if we extend our notion of community to include all life forms?'' she asked later. ``Perhaps that is our unspoken hunger.''
Most of the students and a few women from the larger campus community who came to Williams' discussion clutched paperback copies of her best-known book, ``Refuge.''
Following her talk, Williams took time with each person, to talk, to sign books, to give hugs.
With Williams at this point on her trip was her husband, Brooke, who she introduced both at the informal gathering in Sproul Hall and later that night at her public reading.
``It's Brooke's birthday,'' she told more than 200 people gathered in Kleiber Hall on Tuesday night. The room sang ``Happy Birthday'' to the man she married at age 19. Brooke, a tall blond man with thinning hair and glasses, looked embarrassed, but pleased at the fuss that was being made over his 42nd birthday.
It's easy for strangers to feel that they know Brooke and Terry well. After all, ``Refuge,'' published in 1991, is a very personal book that describes the death from cancer of Williams' mother. But ``Refuge'' is more than a beautiful handbook on how to deal with death.
Williams also wrote about those other things that were taking place in her life in the years from 1983 to 1987. She explored her roles as a daughter, wife, mother, Mormon and Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge naturalist while at the same time recording the 1983-1987 rise of Great Salt Lake and the many bird species that lived and fled from the area.
Her first book, ``Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland'' (1984) received the 1984 Southwest Book Award. She also is the author of ``Coyote's Canyon'' (1989), a book of photographs, and of two children's books.
Williams is naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History.
``I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women,'' she writes. ``My mother, my grandmother and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two who survived have just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
``I cannot prove that my mother or my grandmother, along with my aunts, developed cancer from nuclear fallout in Utah. But I can't prove they didn't,'' she said.
While Williams was on campus, she was given a pink T-shirt publicizing a rally against breast cancer that will take place in Sacramento on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. at the state Capitol. She'd like you to be there.