Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Twenty years ago, a woman in her mid-thirties wrote a book that would become an environmental classic. I finally read it last week.

Still in print and still selling briskly, Refuge defies classification. Check out the reviews posted on Terry Tempest Williams's website: Wallace Stegner evokes her poetic style; Barry Lopez mentions the story's emotional depth; the Kansas City Star calls the book an environmental essay, and Kirkus highlights its political implications.

Williams interweaves two stories: the rise of Utah's Great Salt Lake, and her mother's slow dying from cancer. "Most of the women in my family are dead," she writes in the Prologue. "Cancer. At thirty-four, I became the matriarch of my family. The losses I encountered at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as Great Salt Lake was rising helped me to face the losses within my family."

I read more memoir than nature writing, and I found Williams's account both moving and satisfying. It is good to read about a strong family with supportive grandparents, aunts, cousins, siblings, and friends. The Tempest tribe has been Mormon for many generations, and their faith, shared history, and rituals clearly strengthen them. At the same time, Williams does not skirt difficult issues. Her father's grief sometimes turns into rage. Her grandmother and mother push well beyond Mormon boundaries to find beliefs that will sustain their difficult journeys. Williams grows weary of caregiving, even briefly considering giving her mother enough morphine to send her on her way.

I have cared for dying loved ones, and I have faced serious illness. I recognize the emotions she describes, both her own and her mother's.

I suspect that readers of nature writing find the book equally satisfying. Williams does not just use the natural world to illustrate her own emotions. "Currently the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah" (see her bio here), she writes as a scientist and a keen observer of nature. Her descriptions of birds, their habitat, and their interactions with their human neighbors stand on their own (she even includes a six-page appendix listing all the birds associated with the Great Salt Lake).

And although the book is by no means a political essay, she ends it with a stunning chapter, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," that is simultaneously political, environmental, poetic, feminist, and urgent.

Thanks to my friend Molly H. for giving me this book. Twenty years ago I might not have understood it as well as I do today. Now I pass it on to you.

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