Williams, Terry Tempest. REFUGE: An Unnatural History of Family & Place. 2002. Vintage Books.

In this beautifully written memoir of a naturalist and her love of place about the Great Salt Lake of Utah and the nearby sanctuary, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, both essential parts of her professional life, the author describes and illuminates her experiences, insights, and reflections in stories of lyric prose. Her life is relevant to many of us who both reflect and agonize about ethics and political activism as we seek meaning and hope in our brief lives.

“It is a fertile community where the hope of each day rides on the back of migrating birds…It is here in the marshes that I seal my relationship to Great Salt Lake.”

She has also created a memoir that connects the loss of bird habit as a result of rising lake levels with the loss of her mother and the grandmother who taught her to love birds and with the loss of the wholeness and the fragility and fragmentation of life.

Williams is a Mormon and this authoritarian religion with its family–centred organization gives her strength even as she doubts and questions its validity. She prays to a God and she also prays to birds.

“I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward…I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.”

Her mother and grandmother both die of cancer. As these much loved women die, she listens to them as they encourage her to continue to love and to keep her faith with the earth. This is sorely tested when she comes to realize she belongs to “The Clan of One–Breasted Women.” The women of her family, not all related by blood, have an incredible rate of cancer. Williams herself when still young has “borderline malignancy”. Mormons are supposed to be healthy people as many studies have shown. But living in Utah is a major health hazard.

She learns from her father that a recurring dream of a flash of light in the desert was not a dream. She discovers that as child on her pregnant mother’s lap in the car just before dawn, she and her family had witnessed a nuclear explosion.

“It was at this moment I realized the deceit I had been living under. Children growing up in the American Southwest, drinking milk from contaminated cows, even from the breasts of their mothers, my mother– members, years later of the Clan of One-Breasted Women.”

Utah was considered “virtually uninhabited desert terrain” so it did not really matter to Cold War crazed USA government that the fallout from atmospheric tests from 1951 to 1962 spread and settled across Utah. Later, in suits filed by cancer survivors, lower courts ruled that the government was responsible for causing cancer; higher courts over ruled on the basis of “sovereign immunity”.

Even so, the testing ended – there– I can remember demonstrating against atmospheric testing in the USA and Canada– which got its own share of north westerly moving fallout. Soon many of us opposed and still oppose all nuclear weapons. It was a hard connection for Williams.

She says that Mormons respect authority and obedience. Independent thinking is discouraged. But she could not stop thinking.

“For many years, I have done just that – listened, observed, and quietly formed my own opinions, in a culture that rarely asks questions because it has all the answers.” She watched too many people die and writes, “The price of obedience has become too high.”

She turns to action with her new awareness.

“Tolerating blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion ultimately takes our lives.”

She finds strength and hope with others – she joins women who will no longer accept the poisoning of land and life; they trespass and gather on nuclear test sites and are arrested. They are bussed into the desert, a desert of blooming life with memories of her Mother and doves and owls. Then they are dumped out.

“The officials thought it was a cruel joke to leave us stranded in the desert with no way to get home. What they didn’t realize was that we were home, soul–centred and strong women who recognized the sweet smell of sage as fuel for our spirits.”

Filed under Book Reviews, Terry Tempest Williams