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In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mothe In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that has become a classic.


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In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mothe In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that has become a classic.

30 review for Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    I read this book after a quick bout of reading envy. Another reading friend posted about it on her Instagram stories and it reminded me that the essay I read in the Writing Non-Fiction class I took, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women" comes from this book. In that essay, Terry examines the facts of radiation fallout in the Nevada/Utah desert and the high occurrence of cancer in the women of her family. One of my closest friends just had a bilateral mastectomy last Friday, and I've had that essay on I read this book after a quick bout of reading envy. Another reading friend posted about it on her Instagram stories and it reminded me that the essay I read in the Writing Non-Fiction class I took, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women" comes from this book. In that essay, Terry examines the facts of radiation fallout in the Nevada/Utah desert and the high occurrence of cancer in the women of her family. One of my closest friends just had a bilateral mastectomy last Friday, and I've had that essay on my mind. So when it came up again in social media, I knew I had to have it. Last year, I read When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, which is almost exclusively focused on Terry's mother, and the blank journals she left behind when she died from cancer. This much earlier book is also largely about her mother, during her last bout with cancer, but this also coincides with the Great Salt Lake's flooding periods, and the destruction of some of the bird habitats surrounding it. Terry is attuned to these issues because of her work. Each essay has the name of a species of bird found around the lake, the water level, and then may or may not have much to do with the bird. So the essays are about birds and climate change. And about cancer and family. And about the decisions the author makes that aren't exactly what is expected by her family or religion, and how she navigates them. But in being about all of those things, it is about so much more than that, and I just kept coming back to it. And for a book published in 1991, it sure seemed relevant. "We spoke of rage. Of women and landscape. How our bodies and the body of the earth have been mined."Actually when I read the very first essay where the rage quotation i is found, I immediately emailed my colleague at U-Mass Amherst, who is interested in the intersection of climate change and mindfulness, and told her she should read this book. And of course, books on grief have been following me around, or I pursue them. Her mother dies of cancer, but it almost walks the line of a holy, sacred experience. Or maybe that is how she needed to write about it. It's a little unreal, based on my own experience, but nice that her mother was at peace with dying (having battled cancer already once before) and all the things needing to be said were said. (Except we know that this isn't quite true, based on the more recent book, where Terry is desperate for more of her mother, and all she has are the empty notebooks. But sometimes we must grieve in stages.) And sometimes the experiences with the birds and their changing habitat help her process the grief: "When I see ring-billed gulls picking on the flesh of decaying carp, I am less afraid of death... My fears surface in my isolation. My serenity surfaces in my solitude."It is fascinating how Terry finds parallels between nature's loss and her own. In "Redheads," she talks about California losing 95% of its wetlands over the last 100 years (1891-1991) and how 85% of Utah's wetlands had been lost in the last two (1989-1991), and how when wetlands go, species go, and so on. Then over in the "Meadowlarks" essay, she says,"A person with cancer dies in increments, and a part of you slowly dies with them."Definitely a link there. This is a book I need to own.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Abe Brennan

    Williams is an especially confounding writer, and part of it has to do with her voice—it’s very assured, but in that certainty lie the seeds of alienation and annoyance. It’s the assurance born of privilege, of money, and of an intact family. She can speak of democracy all she wants (and she does, especially in later works), but she’s at the higher end of the social spectrum—democracy (or any system) tends to work out for those people. Additionally, she tries too hard to wring some elemental tru Williams is an especially confounding writer, and part of it has to do with her voice—it’s very assured, but in that certainty lie the seeds of alienation and annoyance. It’s the assurance born of privilege, of money, and of an intact family. She can speak of democracy all she wants (and she does, especially in later works), but she’s at the higher end of the social spectrum—democracy (or any system) tends to work out for those people. Additionally, she tries too hard to wring some elemental truth from her prose, which, in many instances, results in a feeling of artifice. Interwoven with this tendency is perhaps the most irritating facet of her work—what can only be described as degeneration into “crystal gazing prose,” or abstract, highly pretentious, spiritual drivel. Much of her dialog rings untrue—as do several moments in the narrative (e.g. when she sticks a middle finger in the face of the hicks). On a mechanics note, her incessant use of passive verb construction acts as a sea anchor on the text. On the other hand, and this is why she is so confounding, there are moments of sublimity, truth, and flat out dynamite writing that almost make the journey worthwhile. She manipulates thematic elements throughout, balancing the concepts of “isolation” and “solitude” in a dialectical dance. “Solitude” seems the goal, synonymous with “refuge,” an acceptance of life’s rhythms (including death). And her use of the lake level is quietly effective: the story begins and ends at the same level—a subtle way of achieving a sort of closure.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    Perhaps it was the clarity and honesty in Williams’ writing that was so extraordinary and won me over. Before reading I didn’t care one iota about the focal points in this book. That is the Great Salt Lake or Mormonism or the overarching theme of a mother fighting in the latter stages with metastasized breast cancer. I lost my own mother to cancer and I didn’t want to relive that experience. I decided to read it because I like books on the environment and it had many positive reviews. So my initi Perhaps it was the clarity and honesty in Williams’ writing that was so extraordinary and won me over. Before reading I didn’t care one iota about the focal points in this book. That is the Great Salt Lake or Mormonism or the overarching theme of a mother fighting in the latter stages with metastasized breast cancer. I lost my own mother to cancer and I didn’t want to relive that experience. I decided to read it because I like books on the environment and it had many positive reviews. So my initial reservations were all wrong. I loved this book and I became especially interested in the ecology of the Great Salt Lake. 5 stars. This book is now considered a conservation classic. A very moving book and there were several moments where I got choked up while reading. Highly recommended.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    I hold tight hoping Terry Tempest Williams will devote an entire book to her grandmother. "Refuge" was a beautiful book of love, loss of loved ones, loss of self – and doing what you can to get it all back. I love the opening of each chapter with the tracking of the elevation of Great Salt Lake during the flood of the 1980s -- how the lake began to embody everything for the author and to all of the people of Salt Lake City. This is a personal story about being part of a bad and a good world comm I hold tight hoping Terry Tempest Williams will devote an entire book to her grandmother. "Refuge" was a beautiful book of love, loss of loved ones, loss of self – and doing what you can to get it all back. I love the opening of each chapter with the tracking of the elevation of Great Salt Lake during the flood of the 1980s -- how the lake began to embody everything for the author and to all of the people of Salt Lake City. This is a personal story about being part of a bad and a good world community, living in a world ultimately controlled by natural forces, and human realization or denial of these forces. It is also a very personal story of the author's love of nature especially the lake and the birds of Utah, her Mormon religion, and, her grandmother's world religion. I'll be reading more by Terry Tempest Williams.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Crystal

    Yes, this is one of those books that I will list as "amazing" for me. I had a difficult time getting started into this one but I pushed through for several reasons. It was recommended to me by my grad school professor. So, of course, I wanted to read to understand more closely the mind of this mentor and I like the idea of the subtitle "An Unnatural history of Family and Place." I had not heard of Williams previously. Initially it had too much naturalist talk for me and then its other subject ma Yes, this is one of those books that I will list as "amazing" for me. I had a difficult time getting started into this one but I pushed through for several reasons. It was recommended to me by my grad school professor. So, of course, I wanted to read to understand more closely the mind of this mentor and I like the idea of the subtitle "An Unnatural history of Family and Place." I had not heard of Williams previously. Initially it had too much naturalist talk for me and then its other subject matter is the author's mother's struggle with cancer. So sad. I put it down at one point because it made losing my own brother to cancer so fresh. And my own fear of getting cancer emphasized. But this is a bittersweet and sacred story of one family's journey through losing those they(a mother, two grandmothers, and aunts to cancer) love. Williams speaks for herself, her deep personal intimate feelings (which were some of the most moving parts of the book) and speaks for the others remaining. She is known for the essay at the end of the book that serves as the epilogue. It is entitled "The Clan of One Breasted Women." The irony of this book is that these people all live in the western part of the country - Utah - where there was much nuclear testing during the 1950s and beyond. Williams, a Mormon with clear lineage to the beginnings of the movement, presents the evidence that these research projects are the cause of the cancers in her family. She also chronicles her concerns over the lack of environmental respect that is given to the Great Salt Lake and the surrounding region. Part of her refuge is spending time in the bird refuge that edges part of the Great Salt lake. While at first, I wasn't sure I would like this, I gave it a chance. And I'm so thrilled with the outcome. How can one be thrilled with such a bittersweet book with death as an outcome? Williams says that "Grief dares us to love once more." That parallels a recent song I've heard by artist Amy Grant - "Love has made me unafraid." It's no mistake that two different people in the midst of the human experience have discovered this deep truth for themselves in entirely separate ways. I'm glad they brought to my attention something I knew but had not yet articulated.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Becca

    Reading this book is like... watching the wetland landscape of your childhood home transform and disappear, and watching your mother and beloved grandmother succumb to cancer and die. Just like. This book was -- stunning. Like a cattle prod between the eyes. And painful. Like crying sand instead of tears. And so familiar (yes I lived in Utah, yes with all my ancestors' pioneer histories, yes with the pervasive blessing and burden of Mormonism, yes with the inspiring and healing landscapes of moun Reading this book is like... watching the wetland landscape of your childhood home transform and disappear, and watching your mother and beloved grandmother succumb to cancer and die. Just like. This book was -- stunning. Like a cattle prod between the eyes. And painful. Like crying sand instead of tears. And so familiar (yes I lived in Utah, yes with all my ancestors' pioneer histories, yes with the pervasive blessing and burden of Mormonism, yes with the inspiring and healing landscapes of mountain and desert, yes my mother died young of breast cancer) it was too painful to even cry through it. Williams' poetic style reminds me of the old time naturalists-- she is a keen observing soul out there in nature-- deeply woven into the natural world, intimate with the birds. Refuge is unique-- it came out of nowhere and knocked the wind out of me. More of a talisman than a book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    I have lived in Salt Lake City for almost a year. Its a place where family, faith and nature are interwoven into everyday life. Nature and family are important to me, organized religion not so much. I am not a Mormon. However, there is something about living on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountain Range that makes you want to reflect on your life and what it means to be close to nature on a spiritual level. Terry Tempest Williams's book, Refuge, is the perfect book for women I have lived in Salt Lake City for almost a year. Its a place where family, faith and nature are interwoven into everyday life. Nature and family are important to me, organized religion not so much. I am not a Mormon. However, there is something about living on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountain Range that makes you want to reflect on your life and what it means to be close to nature on a spiritual level. Terry Tempest Williams's book, Refuge, is the perfect book for women who want to turn their thoughts inward, especially when it comes to our relationships with our mothers and daughters. It is a book about women, about birds, and how strong and resilient they both are. The most poignant part of the book for me is how Williams and her family dealt with her mother's cancer, her dying and the grief that comes after. My mother died from breast cancer over 20 years ago and I still feel that loss. Its a beautiful book, one to keep and reread as life changes and there is need for a "refuge".

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    There is something very different going on in Terry Tempest William's head than my own. Her mother is dying of cancer and she is a scientist who studies birds near Great Salt Lake. "The pulse of Great Salt Lake, surging along Antelope Island's shores, becomes the force wearing against my mother's body. And when I watch flocks of phalaropes wing their way toward quiet bays on the island, I recall watching Mother sleep, imagining the dreams that were encircling her, wondering what she knows that I There is something very different going on in Terry Tempest William's head than my own. Her mother is dying of cancer and she is a scientist who studies birds near Great Salt Lake. "The pulse of Great Salt Lake, surging along Antelope Island's shores, becomes the force wearing against my mother's body. And when I watch flocks of phalaropes wing their way toward quiet bays on the island, I recall watching Mother sleep, imagining the dreams that were encircling her, wondering what she knows that I must learn for myself. The light changes, Antelope Island is blue. Mother awakened and I looked away." I would never, ever write something like that. Ever. The entire book is like this, all 314 pages, and it gave me a headache. But hey, maybe this is your kind of thing.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    Terry Tempest Williams is a writer with a deep and active interest in environmental education and conservation, Refuge is both a memoir of a period in her life when she accompanied her mother through the illness that would claim her life, and shortly after her grandmother, leaving her the matriarch of the family at the age of thirty-four. Although this is the book she is most well-known for, I first read and reviewed her writing and encountered her mother in a more recent, and equally extraordina Terry Tempest Williams is a writer with a deep and active interest in environmental education and conservation, Refuge is both a memoir of a period in her life when she accompanied her mother through the illness that would claim her life, and shortly after her grandmother, leaving her the matriarch of the family at the age of thirty-four. Although this is the book she is most well-known for, I first read and reviewed her writing and encountered her mother in a more recent, and equally extraordinary book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice which was written twenty years later (when the author was 54) in 2012. It was also the age her mother was, when she succumbed to the illness written about in Refuge.  I recommend it equally, they are a unique pair, in their insights, their confusion, their ultimate compassion and understanding. Throughout the memoir, she spends time with her mother, and equally has concerns for the Great Salt Lake, which sits on their doorstep, it is the place she grew up in, a landscape and wildlife she is obsessed with, one I knew nothing about, but became increasingly intrigued by, this enormous, terminal lake with no outlet to the sea. Great Salt Lake: wilderness adjacent to a city; a shifting shoreline that plays havoc with highways; islands too stark, too remote to inhabit; water in the desert that no one can drink. It is the liquid lie of the West. Natives of the area speak of the lake in the shorthand of lake levels, it's not deep, but it is vast, so it doesn't take much precipitation for significant rises to occur. In the mid 80's when she was writing this book (it was first published in 1991) talk on the streets of Salt Lake City was of the lake's rapid rising, everyone had concerns, the airport, the farms, the railroad, survival. My interest lay at 4206', the level which, according to my topographical map, meant the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. She writes about her family history, her genealogy with its deep roots in the American West her Mormon culture has preserved and their connection to the natural world, infused with spiritual values. The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse. As the author shares the drama unfolding within her family of which she is the eldest child and only daughter, there is always the metaphor of the lake, the simultaneous restlessness of its birds, as if they too sense change coming; she wonders if they are better adapted to it than humans. The thirty-six short chapters each carry the name of one of the bird species that inhabits the lake environment, they may only be mentioned in one sentence, but they are all listed, noted, observed over time, throughout the pages, they represent the life cycle of species, moving on, migrating, adapting to change, dying, making way for the young. William's both observes beauty and dissects suffering as she observes her mother's and her own and tries to make sense of it, through nature and her current philosophical understanding. Tonight I watched the sun sink behind the lake; The clouds looked like rainbow trout swimming in a lapis sky. I can honour its beauty or resent the smog in this valley which makes it possible. Either way, I am deceiving myself. Birds are entwined with local folklore, the Californian gull rescuing the Mormons in 1848 from losing their crops to crickets. They still gather to tell this story. How the white angels ate as many crickets as their bellies would hold, flew to the shore of Great Salt Lake and regurgitated them, then returned to the field for more. We honour them as Utah's state bird. It's a book where you could highlight a passage on each page, one you can open on a random page and find some meaningful, reflective passage on life, an interesting bird fact or a brief history lesson. The writing is at times poetic, sometimes scientific, passionate and honest. There's a perfect balance between the personal and the environment that makes it a compelling read, but also one that you'll want to savour. The mother and daughter get their astrology charts done and read each other's. "I liked the part about Terry being neat and meticulous," teased Mother. "I remember standing in the middle of your bedroom when you were about thirteen years old. Everything in your closet was on the floor, art and school papers were piled high on your desk. I remember thinking, I have two choices here - I can harp on her every day of her life, making certain her room is straight - or I can close the door and preserve our relationship." As the Great Salt Lake continues to rise, a deep sadness washes over her that all has been lost. I am not adjusting. I keep dreaming the Refuge back to what I have known: rich, green bulrushes that border the wetlands, herons hiding behind cattails, concentric circles of ducks on ponds. I blow on these images like the last burning embers on a winter's night. There is no one to blame, nothing to fight...Only a simple natural phenomenon: the rise of the great Salt Lake. There is also refuge in poetry, in other writers and the book is interspersed with memorable quotes from those whose words soothe her during this period of grief, as her mother goes into decline.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Anima

    ‘It’s strange to feel change coming. It’s easy to ignore. An underlying restlessness seems to accompany it like birds flocking before a storm. We go about our business with the usual alacrity, while in the pit of our stomach there is a sense of something tenuous. These moments of peripheral perceptions are short, sharp flashes of insight we tend to discount like seeing the movement of an animal from the corner of our eye. We turn and there is nothing there. They are the strong and subtle impres ‘It’s strange to feel change coming. It’s easy to ignore. An underlying restlessness seems to accompany it like birds flocking before a storm. We go about our business with the usual alacrity, while in the pit of our stomach there is a sense of something tenuous. These moments of peripheral perceptions are short, sharp flashes of insight we tend to discount like seeing the movement of an animal from the corner of our eye. We turn and there is nothing there. They are the strong and subtle impressions we allow to slip away.’ ...’I know the solitude my mother speaks of. It is what sustains me and protects me from my mind. It renders me fully present. I am desert. I am mountains. I am Great Salt Lake. There are other languages being spoken by wind, water, and wings. There are other lives to consider: avocets, stilts, and stones. Peace is the perspective found in patterns. When I see ring-billed gulls picking on the flesh of decaying carp, I am less afraid of death. We are no more and no less than the life that surrounds us. My fears surface in my isolation. My serenity surfaces in my solitude.’

  11. 4 out of 5

    Virginia

    Oh, a difficult book. Heart-rending and heart-lifting. Refuge weaves together two tragedies: a catastrophic flood of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah and the death of Williams's mother from cancer. Terry Tempest Williams is one of my hero-writers. The solid science of her naturalism is balanced by her mysticism. She writes desert prose from the desert: it can be harsh and unsparing, but there is so much beauty to be had. Recommended for grievers and bird-watchers.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ms. Dumonet

    this is no conventional book by a conventional author- it is written by a fierce nature lover and serious nature writer. though nature writing is not my favorite genre, tempest williams reached me in a way no author ever has. i've turned to this book like i would turn to a best friend over the past few years- it's always as good as i remember it.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

    Terry Tempest Williams is a local author with a transcendent story. Part memoir, Utah history, Audubon guide, and observer, Williams tells the story of the rise of the Great Salt Lake in the 1980's and its destruction of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Alongside this historical and ornithological account, Williams relates her own search for refuge as her mother and grandmother die of cancer, Both "down winder" victims of the nuclear testing in Nevada during the 1950s and early 60s. It is a Terry Tempest Williams is a local author with a transcendent story. Part memoir, Utah history, Audubon guide, and observer, Williams tells the story of the rise of the Great Salt Lake in the 1980's and its destruction of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Alongside this historical and ornithological account, Williams relates her own search for refuge as her mother and grandmother die of cancer, Both "down winder" victims of the nuclear testing in Nevada during the 1950s and early 60s. It is a very moving narrative with profound and fluid orchestration linking these narratives. Williams prose is other worldy. A definite must read for local 'birders', and those seeking to find their own refuge amidst loss in this fragile existence.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    This book was listed as "suggested reading" for a nature-writing class that I took in college. The book is about the long, slow death of the author's mother from cancer. In Utah in the 50's, parts of the state were used for nuclear testing. Many people got cancer as a result. It's a sad book, but starkly realistic. Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist, and I actually met her when I lived in Utah. She's lovely. This is a realistic American story of a family tragedy, how our environment can hurt This book was listed as "suggested reading" for a nature-writing class that I took in college. The book is about the long, slow death of the author's mother from cancer. In Utah in the 50's, parts of the state were used for nuclear testing. Many people got cancer as a result. It's a sad book, but starkly realistic. Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist, and I actually met her when I lived in Utah. She's lovely. This is a realistic American story of a family tragedy, how our environment can hurt us, and what we have to do in response.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    "Everything about Great Salt Lake is, exaggerated--the heat, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain." "When most people had given up on the Refuge, saying the birds were gone, I was drawn further into it's essence. In the same way that when someone is dying many retreat, I chose to stay." I finished The Hour of Land, late last summer and fell hard for Terry Tempest Williams and wanted to read everything she has written. Well, nearl "Everything about Great Salt Lake is, exaggerated--the heat, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain." "When most people had given up on the Refuge, saying the birds were gone, I was drawn further into it's essence. In the same way that when someone is dying many retreat, I chose to stay." I finished The Hour of Land, late last summer and fell hard for Terry Tempest Williams and wanted to read everything she has written. Well, nearly a year later, I am finally getting around to Refuge. It grabbed me immediately. This was written nearly 25 years ago, but her prose just sings with strength and passion. This one deals with her dying mother and the threatened survival of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, at the Great Salt Lake. Excellent.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sandy

    The writing is so beautiful and descriptive that I felt like I could see everything she wrote about. Why have I not been to the Bird Refuge? Maybe I need to venture out to the Sun Tunnels. This is a book with two stories that the author weaves together: the rise of Great Salt Lake and the impact on the wildlife, particularly the birds, is one story. The other is the rise of her mother’s illness. The way Williams puts it together is heartbreaking and moving.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    I finished Refuge at least two weeks ago and have spent a lot of time wondering why I didn't like it as much as I expected to. That's not to say there was nothing I liked about it. I learned more about the Great Salt Lake--its structure and the birds that make their home there--than I have in years living near by. I loved that and the way she made me think about these valleys and mountains as shared places: native species with an ever burgeoning population. Maybe my familiarity with the area was I finished Refuge at least two weeks ago and have spent a lot of time wondering why I didn't like it as much as I expected to. That's not to say there was nothing I liked about it. I learned more about the Great Salt Lake--its structure and the birds that make their home there--than I have in years living near by. I loved that and the way she made me think about these valleys and mountains as shared places: native species with an ever burgeoning population. Maybe my familiarity with the area was the downfall of my enjoyment. It started with a small thing, okay, a really petty thing that nearly drove me crazy. Evidently the author and others who spend lots of time communing with the lake and its inhabitants don't use the article "the" when they refer to it. She'd say something like, "I drove to Great Salt Lake." Most locals would say, "I drove to the Great Salt Lake." It pulled me out of the flow of the reading every time. It seemed artificial and after a while even reverential. I swear I could hear James Earl Jones saying, "Great Salt Lake" every time I read a sentence like that. I started to feel like I needed to genuflect or light incense. There was a mystical, mythological sense she was bringing to her description of the lake that I just couldn't buy. At the center of the book is the weaving of her mother's cancer and the floods in 1983. My family has been no stranger to cancer in the last few years, and I did connect more to that part of the story. I respected the author's willingness to talk about the profound experiences possible while dealing with the suffering that cancer can entail. Here the spiritual quality felt genuine and I could understand that she would carry that sense with her as she spent time with nature. I must speak to one thing; a very different perception of the women in a shared religion and culture. She said of women who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), "In Mormon culture, authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to 'make waves' or 'rock the boat'." Like Williams, I come from a family of Mormon pioneers, and my perception of our women is one of profound wisdom and strength. I was raised by a mother who believed wholeheartedly in our beliefs which she passed on to me, and she never taught me I couldn't ask questions or rock the boat.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jesse

    To say this is very much out of my wheelhouse is an understatement; I only took it up because a colleague in my thesis-writing group is focusing her project on Williams. Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised how immediately familiar the physical and mental landscapes felt—I too experienced a rural upbringing, snugly sheltered by religious belief and close familial/ community bonds—while at the same time I was constantly struck by how differently my own response to such environmental factors ha To say this is very much out of my wheelhouse is an understatement; I only took it up because a colleague in my thesis-writing group is focusing her project on Williams. Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised how immediately familiar the physical and mental landscapes felt—I too experienced a rural upbringing, snugly sheltered by religious belief and close familial/ community bonds—while at the same time I was constantly struck by how differently my own response to such environmental factors have subsequently been. From the beginning I was plotting escape, desperate to disappear into the urban jungle, as the natural world is not something I have ever felt much affinity for, or deep connection to. Which is all to say that reading Refuge turned out to be a curious experience of double consciousness, constantly shifting between a sense of recognition and sense of deep disconnect—and perhaps more often than not experiencing both of those sensations at once. What I did unfailingly connect with, however, was its sense of disorientation and deep loss. Williams’s book famously details how cancer strikes relentlessly against the women of her family; in the first page of the prologue Williams matter-of-factly testifies: “Most of the women in my family are dead. Cancer. At thirty-four, I became the matriarch of my family.” It’s a devastatingly bleak sentiment to base an entire narrative on, and the implications inevitably reverberate through every word that follows. And as over the last three months I’ve had two people very close to me—one just several years older than I, one several years younger—diagnosed with cancer, it inevitably echoed loudly through my own current emotional state as well. Not that I specifically recognize the manner in which Williams goes about wrestling with the pain and apprehension threaded through her everyday—she acts, thinks, speaks, nor processes pain in a manner at all familiar to me—I nonetheless appreciate, and empathize with, the manner in which she spirals around the ineffable, attempting to synthesize and understand grief from any variety of directions, and ultimately to locate, as she writes in the epilogue added to the 10 year anniversary edition, “the new configuration[s] born out of change.”

  19. 4 out of 5

    Karen deVries

    With Mitt Romney running for President, Mormons are in the media spotlight, and this is how I encountered Terry Tempest Williams. I heard an interview with her on one of my favorite radio shows (OnBeing). The interview was so compelling that I looked for her books at a used bookstore, and this is the one they had. Now that I'm well into a few other books by her, this one seems like as good a place as any to start. Terry Tempest Williams is a conservationist,a writer, a daughter, and a Mormon liv With Mitt Romney running for President, Mormons are in the media spotlight, and this is how I encountered Terry Tempest Williams. I heard an interview with her on one of my favorite radio shows (OnBeing). The interview was so compelling that I looked for her books at a used bookstore, and this is the one they had. Now that I'm well into a few other books by her, this one seems like as good a place as any to start. Terry Tempest Williams is a conservationist,a writer, a daughter, and a Mormon living in Utah. No doubt she is more than the sum of these three roles, but these are the ones that interest me. In this book, her Mormonism is more of a backdrop than an explicit topic of conversation. In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes about the year her mother died (1983) which also happened to be the year the Great Salt Lake rose to record heights and threatened the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. The book weaves stories between the changes her family must confront and the changes in the lake and the bird habitat. Although they are sparse, my favorite parts of the book were TTW's brief summations of lessons learned in the face of death. She writes, "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." The book is as much about her family as it is about the Great Salt Lake area. I learned a lot, and I began to acquire a smidgen of literacy about birds. I appreciate the book for focusing my awareness on these songsters. The Epilogue - "The Clan of One Breasted Women" - is about the high incidence of breast cancer in her family and bears witness to the toxic effects of decades of atomic testing in Utah and Nevada.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kerri Anne

    This book is the sort of beautiful that makes your soul ache. I've seen reviews criticize the dialogue as not sounding at all natural enough, and while I think those criticisms are indeed fair, I'll admit I hardly noticed, so swept up was I in the maternal relationships of the book, and of an ever-changing bird refuge as a metaphor for a family's wholeness. This book is about so many stark and important and timeless truths, but for me, this book is about saying goodbye to people who make up the This book is the sort of beautiful that makes your soul ache. I've seen reviews criticize the dialogue as not sounding at all natural enough, and while I think those criticisms are indeed fair, I'll admit I hardly noticed, so swept up was I in the maternal relationships of the book, and of an ever-changing bird refuge as a metaphor for a family's wholeness. This book is about so many stark and important and timeless truths, but for me, this book is about saying goodbye to people who make up the very fabric of your being, and how so often that leaves you reeling. I really haven't read a book that better encapsulates what it's like to watch a loved one pass from this world. The sheer sacredness of that time is something so difficult to comprehend if you haven't been there, but something so tangible if you have. It's like belonging to a secret club no one really wants to join. If you're struggling with the loss of a loved one, I highly recommend reading this book. Even if you're not, haven't ever, I still highly recommend reading this book. Empathy is such a gift. This book is also a good fit for birders, for conservationists, for anyone living in Utah or just traveling through, and definitely for anyone who has ever been fascinated by the Great Salt Lake. [Four-point-five feather-laden stars for so many beautiful birds, and for the women who teach us how to fly.]

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kristy

    My copy of this book is covered with notes and underlined passages. Williams uses her intimacy with nature to adeptly describe her intimacy with people, relationships, core beliefs, and life's meaderings. I identified with many of her images and experiences--not because I share her love of birds, but because I share her poet's heart. I am always thinking in parallels and comparisons. It was validating and liberating for me to read of someone else doing the same. I also have seen cancer death up- My copy of this book is covered with notes and underlined passages. Williams uses her intimacy with nature to adeptly describe her intimacy with people, relationships, core beliefs, and life's meaderings. I identified with many of her images and experiences--not because I share her love of birds, but because I share her poet's heart. I am always thinking in parallels and comparisons. It was validating and liberating for me to read of someone else doing the same. I also have seen cancer death up-close with Jon's mom, and those chapters rang very true. And I agree wholeheartedly with the belief that death can be a very sacred time. I would have given 5 stars, but the ending was so disappointing. The strength of the book is its objectivity. In its simple, moving core, it avoids casting overt moral judgement. That is not the case in the final chapters. Whether I agree with Williams' political stance or not, I was offended at her dogmatic approach. She serves her case much better when she is more subtle.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Alissa

    I first read this book in 2000, and I knew it was "good," but it didn't draw me in. I've taught her epilogue, "Clan of the One-Breasted Women," several times, and I'm rereading *Refuge* because I assigned it. It is brilliant. Tempest Williams writes, about her mother's ovarian cancer--and that of her grandmothers and aunts--which Tempest Williams believes was caused by nuclear testing. But it's about more than that: it's about how the land and water are tied so closely to our bodies and the dest I first read this book in 2000, and I knew it was "good," but it didn't draw me in. I've taught her epilogue, "Clan of the One-Breasted Women," several times, and I'm rereading *Refuge* because I assigned it. It is brilliant. Tempest Williams writes, about her mother's ovarian cancer--and that of her grandmothers and aunts--which Tempest Williams believes was caused by nuclear testing. But it's about more than that: it's about how the land and water are tied so closely to our bodies and the destruction that has affected the entire system. She also shows how her love for nature was ingrained in her by the Mormon culture, the very system that encourages obedience--an obedience that is contributing to the destruction. It's pretty deep, man.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    This series of essays is written by a woman who happens to be Mormon. The fact she is Mormon seems to do more with geography in this book, than by choice. It is a wonderful series of essays because she is a naturalist in writing. The Salt Lake and the environment around there take on almost a divine beauty in the way she describes it. There are some poignant, wonderful tender essays about the land, and her mother and her writing style is just that - tender.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Riah

    This is a beautiful and powerful memoir of observations about birds, the Great Salt Lake, Mormons and cancer. It sounds like a random combination, but it isn't. She ties everything together and it makes a very coherent story about what it means for her to live in that part of the world as someone who cares about nature.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jade Warwick

    Wow, wow, wow. I finished this book a moment ago, and I pressed it to my chest and closed my eyes and listened to my heart beat against it. This is a book about grief, love, birds, acceptance, and the willingness to live life, even when you know pain. "Pain prepares us for peace."

  26. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    One of those books where you aren’t the same person once you’ve finished it. My boss said to me the other day that “she doesn’t waste your time”, and I couldn’t agree more. Every moment felt purposeful & poignant. Just a wonderful, honest book about grief & survival. I loved every second. One of those books where you aren’t the same person once you’ve finished it. My boss said to me the other day that “she doesn’t waste your time”, and I couldn’t agree more. Every moment felt purposeful & poignant. Just a wonderful, honest book about grief & survival. I loved every second.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bren

    Poetical and peaceful writing. Follows the rise of the Great Salt Lake, in its cyclic natural phenomenon; the disappearance of the birds as their marshes flood; and the author's mother's struggle with breast cancer. "You learn to relinquish," Mother said..."It's not that I am giving up. I am just going with it. It's as if I am moving into another channel of life that lets everything in . Suddenly there is nothing more to fight." How can I advocate fighting for life when I am in the tutelage of a Poetical and peaceful writing. Follows the rise of the Great Salt Lake, in its cyclic natural phenomenon; the disappearance of the birds as their marshes flood; and the author's mother's struggle with breast cancer. "You learn to relinquish," Mother said..."It's not that I am giving up. I am just going with it. It's as if I am moving into another channel of life that lets everything in . Suddenly there is nothing more to fight." How can I advocate fighting for life when I am in the tutelage of a woman who is teaching me how to let go? (p 165) "Today, I feel stronger, learning to live within the natural cycles of a day and not to expect so much from myself. As women, we hold the moon in our bellies. It is too much to ask to operate on full-moon energy 365 days a year. I am in a crescent phase. And the energy we expend emotionally belongs to the hidden side of the moon." (p 136) "My people believe if you are close to the Earth, you are close to people...What an African woman nurtures in the soil will eventually feed her family. Likewise, what she nurtures in her relations will ultimately nurture her community...We choose to be occupied, which is quite different from being engaged. In America, time is money. In Kenya, time is relationship." (p 137) "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" (p 178) "Fremont life flourished on the edges of Great Salt Lake. The Fremont oscillated with the lake levels. As Great Salt Lake rose, they retreated. As the lake retreated, they were drawn back. Theirs was not a fixed society like ours. They followed the expanding and receding shorelines. It was the ebb and flow of their lives. In many ways, the Fremont had more options than we have. What do we do when faced with a rising Great Salt Lake? Pump it west. What did the Fremont do? Move. They accommodated change where, so often, we are immobilized by it." (p 183) "An individual doesn't get cancer, a family does." (p 214) "Death is no longer what I imagined it to be. Death is earthy like birth, like sex, full of smells and sounds and bodily fluids. It is a confluence of evanescence and flesh." (p 219) "The landscapes we know and return to become places of solace. We are drawn to them because of the stories they tell, because of the memories they hold, or simply because of the sheer beauty that calls us back again and again." (p 244) "It is only logical that a Mother-in-Heaven balances the sacred triangle. I believe the Holy Ghost is female, although she has remained hidden, invisible, deprived of a body, she is the spirit that seeps into our hearts and directs us to the well. The 'still, small voice' I was taught to listen to as a child was 'the gift of the Holy Ghost.' Today I choose to recognize this presence as holy intuition, the gift of the Mother." (p 241) Zimbabwean friend: "You Americans, why is death always such a surprise to you? Don't you understand the dance and the struggle are the same?" (p 245)

  28. 4 out of 5

    Gideon Burton

    "I go to the lake for a compass reading, to orient myself once again in the midst of change." So reflects Terry Tempest Williams, the powerfully sensitive narrator of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. She sounds like Thoreau in his statement about going to the woods to live deliberately, and like Thoreau, Williams finds a pace and perspective needed to manage the changes in the landscape of her life. She does find refuge, and invites us into that sacred space. I keep coming back "I go to the lake for a compass reading, to orient myself once again in the midst of change." So reflects Terry Tempest Williams, the powerfully sensitive narrator of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. She sounds like Thoreau in his statement about going to the woods to live deliberately, and like Thoreau, Williams finds a pace and perspective needed to manage the changes in the landscape of her life. She does find refuge, and invites us into that sacred space. I keep coming back to this book. Williams (a naturalist) alternates between an observation of place (the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, threatened by rising levels of the Great Salt Lake during the wet year of 1983); and a more personal observation (her mother's fight with cancer). Her scientist eye brings alive the birds in entrancing specificity: "We saw ruddy ducks..., shovelers, teals, and wigeons. We watched herons and egrets and rails. Red-wing blackbirds poised on cattails sang with long-billed marsh wrens as muskrats swam inside shadows created by clouds. Large families of Canada geese occupied the open water, while ravens flushed the edges for unprotected nests with eggs." Yet the birds are not so much objects of the environment as they are waymarks in her personal journey of loss: "How can hope be denied when there is always the possibility of an American flamingo or a roseate spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?" I don't know half the birds she refers to, yet I am ready to believe statements such as this, spoken with such candid authority and calm conviction. Birds become mediators in Refuge, like angels halfway between heaven and earth, and they give to non-birders like me tangible, inviting ways to understand Tempest's relationships with her mother, with the land, and with her belief traditions. This is a lyrical memoir, not a detached, scientific appreciation of the land or its birds. And infusing the entire book is a kind of narrative presence. Tempest is present to the pain of losing her mother, present to the details of life in the bird refuge, and in a kind of transcendental way, present to the divine within nature, as well as within her faith tradition. That faith tradition is Mormonism, but for me (also of this faith) this Mormonism appears in a strikingly different idiom, challenging me in healthy ways. Williams quotes LDS scripture, pointing out the lyricism of a passage like that from D&C 88:44-47: "The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God. Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms that ye may understand? Behold all these are kingdoms and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power." Infused with such scriptural personifications, Williams carries the scriptural poetry into her own views of the landscape, almost to the point of a startling animism or a potently divine feminine: "I want to see the lake as Woman, as myself, in her refusal to be tamed. ... I recognize her as a wilderness, raw and self-defined." “I want…”; “I recognize” -- We feel in such repetitions a kind of yearning to connect with the land and with her mother’s illness, and it shows up in Williams’ exploratory prose, filled with comparisons that reach, even overreach, and circle back for refining. Take, for example, how she personifies the sand dunes first as masculine, then as feminine: "Wind swirls around the sand and ribs appear. There is musculature in dunes.” The ribs and muscles here almost feel like a creation story with Adam arising from the dust. She lets this image linger, then breaks into a new paragraph that begins with her revised attempt at exploratory personification, the dunes now seen as the opposite sex: “And they are female. Sensuous curves--the small of a woman's back. Breasts. Buttocks. Hips and pelvis. They are the natural shapes of Earth." The broken sentences and single words show her both observing and testing, perhaps savoring the images she’s found. These might be over the top comparisons, seeing sand dunes as primal human forms, yet it does not feel this way -- not when Williams has been describing, in far less romantic language, her mother’s failing body. It is as though she uses language to superimpose, in mythic terms, her mother’s dying body into the living body of the land. In the process, it seems to honor both. Williams’ sensuous depictions of the land do not come off as a kind of earthy feminism. The spiritually enriched landscape we see through Tempest's eyes and feel through her skin is not feminist theology masked as natural history. The book is first and last a meditation on grief, a solemn reflection, a patient effort to connect, to re-see, and to redeem. Her mother is dying of cancer. But for Williams, there is a kind of dogged, calm optimism, an openness to life that comes through openness to death. Look at her redemptive description of cancer: "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 idea surfaces and demands total attention. I take it from my body and give it away." Is cancer really a gift? Is creativity a cancer? Williams refuses to take refuge in old metaphors (like the military terminology used in "fighting" cancer). She makes us see the landscape, the birds, the divine, and the losses we tally in our bodies and our relationships all wrapped together, jumbled into a new and fresh appreciation, and all somehow suffused in an amber light, a peaceful light, a twilight that is not empty consolation but something more like the distant cawing of birds along the horizon.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kat

    Disclaimer: I didn’t choose this book, it came to me through a book club. This is a beautifully written story, and I should probably give it 4 stars. Or more. The author shares an incredibly personal and important piece of her life/soul here, and I really appreciate that, but I just found it all so depressing. I read the first quarter, then began setting it down for weeks at a time. Once I finally made it to the half way point I began skimming until the end was in sight, then breathed a huge sig Disclaimer: I didn’t choose this book, it came to me through a book club. This is a beautifully written story, and I should probably give it 4 stars. Or more. The author shares an incredibly personal and important piece of her life/soul here, and I really appreciate that, but I just found it all so depressing. I read the first quarter, then began setting it down for weeks at a time. Once I finally made it to the half way point I began skimming until the end was in sight, then breathed a huge sigh of relief to turn the last page and hand it back to its owner. I guess by now (2020) everyone has their own experience with cancer, and reading someone else’s journey through it is either going to be deeply healing or completely overwhelming. I’ll chalk this one up to crossing my path at the wrong time, but I do still encourage anyone looking for a shared journey through loss to go ahead and pick it up.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Houck

    Twenty-five years after publication, she wrote, "There is a sentence from Refuge that haunts me still: 'If I can learn to love death, then I can begin to find refugee in change.' I have not learned to love my mother's death or my grandmother's . . . I can lean to love change" (302). Williams meditates on the language of recovery, on grief, and on birds. She transitions from cancer caused starvation, to whispers of wings, to an owl's eye, to 40 years of government nuclear bomb testing (which incre Twenty-five years after publication, she wrote, "There is a sentence from Refuge that haunts me still: 'If I can learn to love death, then I can begin to find refugee in change.' I have not learned to love my mother's death or my grandmother's . . . I can lean to love change" (302). Williams meditates on the language of recovery, on grief, and on birds. She transitions from cancer caused starvation, to whispers of wings, to an owl's eye, to 40 years of government nuclear bomb testing (which increased cancer rates for thousands), to a poem, to hand holding, and to love. The book feels like an earthquake. I like how she questions everything, even her own words. How we struggle with change. Would that our law makers would read and listen to stories like these.

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