Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Terry Tempest Williams
This book is so powerful and so moving, it brought me to tears in more than one place. This is an amazing story of place, family, love, and the desert. Last winter I had to read one of Williams’ books for a course and have become addicted to her writings. Williams is a Mormon naturalist who pushes the boundaries of both, and her unique insights bring a freshness to both faith and preservation. I have tracked down and read all of her books that are currently in print, and this is the most powerful of them. Terry states in another book, “The great silences of the desert are not void of sound, but void of distractions.” This book is about the silences and the distractions of death, the death of her mother and of the bird refuge that she loved and that was her solace. The chapter headings are unique, written as a journal, but not by date but by lake height. As the Great Salt Lake rose to record heights in the mid-1980’s, Terry’s mother was dying of cancer, and the Salt Lake’s rising was flooding the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge. The refuge was sacred to Terry as a place she and her grandmother would visit together, and as a place to get alone outside of the city to reflect, meditate and believe.
Terry begins the prologue with “Everything about the Great Salt Lake is exaggerated – the heart, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain. … Most of the women in my family are dead. Cancer. At thirty-four, I became the matriarch of my family.” pg.3. This book chronicles one woman’s love of the desert, of the bird refuge and of her family. It tells the story of cancer clusters in the desert where the US Government tested thousands of nuclear devices from the 1940’s to the 60’s.
Journey with one woman, through disease, death, destruction and the desert; journey with her both through the physical landscape and the internal one, to a new place- a place of determination and desire to make change and to grow from all she has been through.
Terry states in the epilogue, “I belong to a clan of One-Breasted Women. My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two who survive have just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.” pg. 281. This is a story of a strong woman who shares her pain, and her strength, to help us all see what could be possible with the triumph of the human spirit.
(First Published in Imprint 2005-11-18 as 'A tale of true inner strenght')