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Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place Paperback – September 1, 1992
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The only constants in nature are change and death. Terry Tempest Williams, a naturalist and writer from northern Utah, has seen her share of both. The pages of Refuge resound with the deaths of her mother and grandmother and other women from cancer, the result of the American government's ongoing nuclear-weapons tests in the nearby Nevada desert. You won't find the episode in the standard history textbooks; the Feds wouldn't admit to conducting the tests until women and men in Utah, Nevada, and northwestern Arizona took the matter to court in the mid-1980s, and by then thousands of Americans had fallen victim to official technology. Parallel to her account of this devastation, Williams describes changes in bird life at the sanctuaries dotting the shores of the Great Salt Lake as water levels rose during the unusually wet early 1980s and threatened the nesting grounds of dozens of species. In this world of shattered eggs and drowned shorebirds, Williams reckons with the meaning of life, alternating despair and joy.
From Publishers Weekly
Utah naturalist Williams ponders the loss of her mother to cancer and the disastrous flooding of a bird refuge in a moving account of the interrelations between personal tragedy and natural history. Author tour.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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It’s a hard book, especially if you’ve watched someone die slowly. But it’s a beautiful book, too.
This is a very special book. I'm no birdwatcher, but it made me want to be. I'm no scientist, but I wished I were. I'm no Mormon, but it gave me respect for a religion I have never been able to fathom. Terry Tempest Williams has profound insights into the natural world. Her observations of the Great Salt Lake and the many migratory birds that visit it are as moving as her account of the death by cancer of her mother and grandmothers. Not surprisingly, they taught Williams awe of birds and sunsets and their own bodies. All of them are brave and spiritual women, and we would be wise to learn from them.
I think what I most admire about Williams as a writer is her emotional courage. Time and time again, she strikes out where more conventional writers would hesitate. She finds redeeming passages from the Book of Mormon. She follows her mother through her long and circuitous spiritual journey with cancer. She follows her grandmother as she moves into Eastern thought and modern physics. She dips respectfully into ancient Indian and Mexican culture. She walks in the desert at some peril to her well-being. She speaks of the intimacy of her marriage and about her decision not to bear children.
Yet his is not a book "about" the desert or cancer or birds or Mormonism, but about life and how it can be richly observed, experienced. shared and redeemed. It's one brave woman's answer to "Desert Solitaire."