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Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.

refugeWhen I read this book, I was continually reminded of the first Terry Tempest Williams book that I loved, as a child: Pieces of White Shell. I knew immediately that I would need to follow this book with a reread of that one. For me, Refuge is the more personal, more intimate, more grown-up and more exacting version of the kinds of things I found in Pieces of White Shell. I think I found this one more difficult, more thought-provoking and challenging; the other was both sparer, and offered clearer, more accessible comforts. Refuge is stripped, exposed pain. If there are balms for its wounds, they are more complex. Pieces of White Shell is metaphorical, symbolic, spiritual, seeking wisdom and humbly finding some of it; Refuge is bared emotions and loss. It is many birds. Each chapter is headed by the name of a bird – burrowing owls, killdeer, sanderlings, avocets and stilts, on and on – and by a level of Great Salt Lake.

Over the years in which the story of Refuge takes place, Great Salt Lake rises beyond its usual depths and boundaries. I learned in this reading that this Lake is shallow and covers a great area; therefore a few feet of rise can cover miles, and cause great destruction. Terry Tempest Williams saw her mother die of cancer as she saw her beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge overtaken by saltwater, the birds displaced and many of them lost. In Refuge, she meditates on both losses and the relationship between them, how the Refuge offers refuge to her and to her mother, how they are linked – birds and women (clearly presaging her later When Women Were Birds), people and place (Terry’s Mormon family with the Great Basin and Utah), the cancer that runs in her family (“the clan of one-breasted women”) and their home (neighboring nuclear test sites).

Refuge involves nature, of course, and Terry educates us with precision about the birds she loves. It involves people, and society, and our interactions. It is beautifully written, with poetry, and with liberal gaps in which the reader may draw her own connections. Terry has an imaginative and generously interpretive mind, more so than mine.

The cancer process is not unlike the creative process. Ideas emerge slowly, quietly, invisibly at first. They are most often abnormal thoughts, thoughts that disrupt the quotidian, the accustomed. They divide and multiply, become invasive. With time, they congeal, consolidate, and make themselves conscious. An ideas surfaces and demands total attention. I take it from my body and give it away.

She finds wisdom in the world, as her mother and grandmother did; and of course, centrally, she finds refuge, which is not quite to say recovery or redemption, although those arguments can be made.

Terry Tempest Williams is a lovely writer. The story of her mother’s life and death, their relationship, and the difficulties and beauty of letting go, are all well accompanied by the pain and beauty of the migratory birds of the Great Basin that Terry knows well.


Rating: 7 phalaropes.

One Response

  1. […] was published in 1984, and Refuge in 1991, and I can see some of the evolution. In Pieces of White Shell, Williams is still getting […]

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