Jenna London on Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge”

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams braids several primary story lines to illustrate the author’s love of and affinity to nature, particularly birds, and the rising water level of the Great Salt Lake, with the narrative thread of her mother’s battle with and eventual death from cancer. Williams also illustrates the intrinsic connection the women in her life—Mormons in Utah—have with the land. Throughout the book, the author uses various elements of nature to gain personal perspective. Williams provides the reader with scientific, anthropological, biological and historical information told through strong language and vivid scenes.

refuge

Like The Shepherd’s Life and The Nine Mile Wolves, animals are an integral part of Refuge. Williams shows her connection to wild animals without anthropomorphizing them. Instead, her scene-driven book presents birds as an essential aspect of the ecosystem as well as a source of solace and education.

Williams uses birds as a metaphor for her own life throughout Refuge, as illustrated in the following quote:

“With each breath, it threw back its head, until the breaths grew fainter and fainter. The tiny chest became still. Its eyes were half closed. The barn swallow was dead.

Suffering shows us what we are attached to—perhaps the umbilical cord between Mother and me has never been cut. Dying doesn’t cause suffering. Resistance to dying does.” (53)

Williams writes the scene in which a barn swallow dies. Next, she analyzes the act of suffering and dying. Rather than applying human tendencies to birds, Williams does the opposite. This technique empowers nature and builds on the idea that humans and birds are intrinsically connected. The above reflection occurs after a scene, making the passage more complex and meaningful. If no musing was included and the chapter had simply ended with the sparrow dying, the bird may not have represented the narrator’s mother. By adding the three sentences of meditation where she did, Williams serves to make a self–discovery and prompts deeper thinking on the part of the reader.

Primarily, nature’s role is to represent a higher power and therefore provides a source of comfort for the narrator. Williams presents the spiritual yet circular relationship she has with the birds: she prays so their presence will give her peace. But she also uses the solace to strengthen her own character by learning to listen to the world around her—human, animal and inanimate. Williams frequently demonstrates her spirituality and commitment to the Mormon faith. She does so in a manner that portrays nature as a primal and spiritual entity that is not idealized. Immediately after a passage in which Williams quotes the Mormon scripture, she writes:

“I pray to the birds.

I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. 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.” [149]

She immortalizes birds without either anthropomorphizing them or including scientific background. Additionally, Williams pays homage to nature without romanticizing it. Isolating the reflection in this manner reveals the spiritual aspect of the author, separating her from the organized religion to which she subscribes.

Williams’ infatuation with and wealth of knowledge regarding birds is the most obvious way nature is empowered throughout Refuge. Williams is a reliable narrator as is clear from her descriptions and concise writing. In one instance, Williams begins a new section in her chapter entitled “California Gulls” with the following:

“The gulls were flying to their nesting colonies on the islands of Great Salt Lake. What they gain in remoteness…they sacrifice in food supply… Round trips are made from Hat and Gunnison Islands to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Daily. White pelicans, double-crested cormorants and great blue herons, also colony nesters, must make these same migrations to the surrounding marshes of Great Salt Lake.” [71]

Her desire to provide scientific information in a manner that the non-informed reader can enjoy and use as a learning resource is also empowering to nature. The inclusion of background intertwined with scene shows that the narrator has a relationship with nature beyond the spiritual. This aspect may make her more believable to some readers, which not only empowers nature, but also shows the realistic aspect of it.

Nature’s oppression is most strongly represented via descriptions, backgrounds and scenes about the rising lake levels and habitat destruction in and around the Great Salt Lake. The author’s father recounts the cloud that resulted from the atomic bomb testing conducted in Utah when Williams was a baby:

“I remember the day…It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explosion went off. We not only heard it, but felt it…We pulled over and suddenly, rising from the desert floor, we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the car.” [283]

Williams could have easily idealized or give human-qualities to the non-human in this passage, but she picks a superb moment to remove herself from the scene. She presents this life-altering moment from the point of view of someone who is not be as attached to the natural world, which emphasizes the severity of the experience. Again, Williams validates the narrator to the reader, which in some aspects empowers the environment. However, igniting chemicals in the middle of the desert to be absorbed by the atmosphere or ground is an extreme example of humans suppressing the environment. Williams subtly provides a contrast through the non-subtle event of the mushroom cloud. This technique certainly distinguishes the writing as a realistic portrayal of nature.

In Refuge, nature is regarded as a source of learning, strength, healing and peace. Williams focuses on birds to illustrate her passion for science, nature and spirituality. She describes her role in a matriarchal family and demonstrates how the women pass their belief in the land on to younger generations of girls. When an author, like Wiliams, is most committed to offering a unique perspective and deeper level of analysis of nature, the intrinsic connection between nature writing and humans become most obvious. When these aspects are either not in balance or are absent altogether, nature writing can become unbalanced and can be perceived as weak or unbelievable writing. Nevertheless, it is the presence of balanced contradictions of the environment that make for the strongest and most complex works of nature writing.

 

Editor’s Note: This completes our three-part series by Jenna London. This analysis of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge pairs particularly well in the classroom with London’s analysis on Rick Bass’s Nine Mile Wolves here. You can read Jenna’s first piece in our nature-writing series on The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks here.

***

j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

 

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