Thursday, April 2, 2009

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place(Of which I have read in full)
Terry Tempest Williams
Vintage books

Terry Tempest Williams, a Mormon naturalist, women’s rights activist, and author of An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert; The Open Space of Democracy; Mosaic: Finding Beauty in a broken World; and of course her classic work Refuge.
She received the Robert Marshall Award from the wilderness society, which is considered their highest honor for an American citizen. In addition to this she has received various other awards for her literary prowess.
In this classic work Refuge, Williams chronicles the events surrounding the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, due to the record-level rising of Great Salt Lake, reaching a historic high of 3,300 square miles in 1987. At one time State St. in Salt Lake City was a man made river way, in order to channel or reroute the destructive power of the flood. Fish literally swam where cars once drove, and there are accounts of men catching trout as they sat on the banks of piled sand bags.
As the water levels rose and the lake swelled, flooding America’s first water-fowl sanctuary, Williams simultaneously documents another tragedy, which seemed to grow at the same pace as the water ... her mother’s cancer.
Williams, reasons in her prologue that she was telling this story “in an attempt to heal herself, to confront what she did not know, and to create a path for herself, with the idea that a ‘memory is the only way home.’” And then she states, “I have been in retreat. This is my return.” This is truly an accurate statement, as she seeks not to persuade or attempt to make any convincing argument to the reader, but rather, her voice and incites are more fluid. Her accounts are more like journal entries that have been well thought out, as only a person with the patience and attention to detail as a bird watcher can. Rather, she seems more to be attempting to make sense of how “that which is within, relates to that to which is without”, pulling the reader into a journey of self actualization in a world of uncertainty, tragedy, but also beauty in the mysticism, and the strength of the human will.
It is a pleasure to look through her eyes, as she possesses an artistic eloquence in her perceptions of the natural and supernatural world surrounding her. She shows a great reverence for the environment, and relates many of its natural processes and cycles to that of her own life. She struggles to come to terms with the loss of both places she calls home; the beauty, diversity and peace of the bird refuge, and the assuring arms and wisdom of her mother. She slowly comes to grips with the process that can be most difficult to all of us, which is death; she states, “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 learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.”
Reading this book has left me captivated in its philosophy, and it has also provided me a sense of solace as well because it hit very close to home. My own mother had breast cancer ten years ago and we had hoped its flood of pain and uncertainty had passed us by, but its dark clouds have reappeared and threaten our family once again from losing part our home ... our ‘refuge.’ She stated it accurately when she stated: “an individual doesn’t get cancer, a family does.”
It was an unfortunate, reoccurring theme for the women in her family, an occurrence she later discovered may not have been merely a case of unexplainable bad genes, but rather the effect of nuclear bomb testing that was taking place during the life of her grandmother, her mother, and even the author's own personal youth; recounting memories of seeing flashes of light and mushroom clouds from the rear window of her parents car as they traveled through Nevada, when she was but a child; ashes falling from the sky like gray snowflakes, an eerie sight; one which would come back to haunt her in more ways than one.
She finally came to the conclusion that her refuge was not a place outside herself ... “like the lone heron that walks the shores of Great Salt Lake,” as she puts it, but rather “adapting as the world is adapting”.
Although she learns to adapt to the things she could not change, she also made the decision to begin fighting for the things she could. Williams-fighting cancer herself-and others similarly affected by the US Army's above ground nuclear bomb testing during the Vietnam war; rallied together and marched onto the restrictive bomb facility; in an act that seemed less in protest than of closer, much like a child confronting the murderer of her parent, as if to say, although you have taken so much from me, I will no longer allow you to determine my capacity to love, to have peace, and to enjoy happiness.
This book has helped me to search new avenues of thought, and also taught me that “dying doesn’t cause suffering, resistance to it does”. I would recommend this book to others who are trying to come to terms with the uncertainty of an ever changing world. I end with a poem referenced by Williams; written by Wendell Berry:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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