Thursday, October 27, 2011

Finding Refuge in birds

There are those birds you gauge your life by.

This sentence occurs in the first chapter of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams, and it convinced me that the book I held between my hands was indeed worth reading. Because there absolutely are birds that I gauge my life by. I wondered if we were kindred spirits.

As the chapter continues, the themes of the book are starkly laid out. The author describes taking a friend to see a family of burrowing owls that live by one of the bends of the Bear River on the way to the Great Salt Lake. She and her grandmother had discovered them twenty-three years before, the same year she'd received her first copy of Peterson's field guide, and watching the young owls by their burrow had become one of the things she had gauged her life by. Until that day:

About a half a mile away, I could not see the mound. I took my foot off the gas pedal and coasted. It was as though I was in unfamiliar country.
The mound was gone. Erased. In its place, fifty feet back, stood a cinderblock building with a sign, CANADIAN GOOSE GUN CLUB. A new fence crushed the grasses with a handwritten note posted: KEEP OUT.

In the wake of this discovery, the author feels rage, an emotion that she had just disavowed. Behind the anger, echoing clearly behind the words, is a deeper and more tragic emotion: a profound sense of loss. This is the introduction to the extended meditation that follows, the twin crises of the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake, and her mother's diagnosis with ovarian cancer.

The book wrestles with how to balance grieving for a natural loss (the changing bird populations as the lake rises, our inevitable mortality) with anger against what should have been avoided (habitat loss because of the surrounding city, a cancer diagnosis that might have come from environmental pollution). Through it all, the author also discusses other themes as well: how her experience of being female and being in nature dovetail, her interpretation of her Mormon faith in accordance with her feminine and nature-centered experience, the relationship with her mother as the illness progresses. The result is an essay that is frequently melancholy, often quite beautiful, occasionally controversial, and at times even profound.

Each chapter is named for a species of bird, which Williams weaves into the story as either an extended metaphor for what she sees occurring around her, or as a brief glimpse as she struggles with her mother's cancer. An example I particularly liked concerns starlings.

Perhaps we project on to starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world....
What makes our relationship to starlings even more curious is that we loathe them, calling in exterminators because we fear disease, yet we do everything within our power to encourage them as we systematically erase the specialized habitats of specialized birds. I have yet to see a snowy egret spearing a bagel.

Despite the book's many strengths, I think the combination of themes probably limits the number of people it would appeal to. Some reader reviews I've seen criticize the amount of time spent discussing birds, but that was my favorite part. For myself, during the first half of the book, I found myself compelled to keep reading, often highlighting passages or flagging pages that especially spoke to me. That was the part that had the most about the Great Salt Lake and its natural inhabitants. But as the second part of the book dragged on... I don't want to say that the topic of her mother's illness isn't important, or worthy of reflection. Of course it is, and certainly many of the themes are relevant to the human condition, for we are all mortal. But to be honest, I personally wanted to hear more about the lake and the birds.

Overall, I would recommend this book with the understanding that it is, at heart, an essay on grief and loss, written from a decidedly feminine perspective. Parts of it are very good, and I consider reading it time well spent for the beauty of the writing alone. Williams is a poet writing prose in this work. If one is looking for something less subjective or more focused on natural history or biology, however, then this is not the book.

I will end this brief discussion with another quote that I liked so much I had to highlight it, from the chapter called "Canada Geese." (And I consider it high praise for a book if, when writing about it, I feel compelled to keep quoting the author.)

We usually recognize a beginning. Endings are more difficult to detect. Most often, they are realized only after reflection. Silence. We are seldom conscious when silence begins--it is only afterward that we realize what we have been a part of. In the night journeys of Canada geese, it is the silence that propels them.
Thomas Merton writes, "Silence is the strength of our interior life.... If we fill our lives with silence, then we will live in hope.


  1. Terry Tempest Williams writes beautifully, but I find her writings painful to read, and think I will save this one for another season, perhaps Summer! Mom

  2. I have to be careful looking for a book about nature to read, because so many of them are real downers! Case in point: Derrick Jensen. I wouldn't want anyone to candy-coat the serious issues we are all facing, but a book shouldn't make one want to drape oneself across the railroad tracks, either. I think that Terry Tempest Williams, at least in this book, provides a good balance of sadness and hope.