Author: Terry Tempest Williams
Vintage Books, 1991, 336 pps
Ecological disasters, not unlike death, can be awkward to talk about. Do you focus on the details (the science), or do you move towards the sentiment? Refuge succeeds by embracing both. Grieving for a lost parent, and grieving for a lost place, Terry Tempest Williams tells both an intimate personal story, and a larger story of the land. What Refuge shows us is that the two are intricately connected.
Although her memoir takes place in 1983, the story of the Great Salt Lake and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is the same today. With a physical shape that Williams learned at an early age to equate to a “large, shallow dinner plate,” the Great Salt Lake’s water level and size fluctuates from year to year depending on weather, river flow, and evaporation conditions. In the last two years the lake has approached an all time record low. In 2008, the lake was only forty percent the size of what it reached just 25 years ago at its highest recorded level of 4,212 feet above sea-level. In 1986, the Great Salt Lake was 10 feet higher than when Brigham Young first climbed over the Wasatch Mountains in 1847, looked down upon the briny land, and said to his followers, “This is the right place.” Lows and Highs are a part of Utah existence.
But in Refuge, Williams goes beyond documenting a new record high and the ensuing havoc on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge—she documents the cultural ecology of the Refuge. By interweaving personal history, family history, and natural history, Williams paints a picture sentence by sentence of her relationship with the land. Just as most humans seek or have a place of renewal and peace, The Bear River Refuge is Willams’, and we travel along with her as she watches it drown. The ensuing story is a lesson in life, preservation, and perseverance.
What is the best way to write about emotional connections to nature? And how do you sustain a book about such depressing subjects as cancer and habitat loss? The answer is well-written, beautiful prose. Williams, a published poet, knows how to write a sentence. She also knows how to engage the reader. And when it comes to environmental journalism and environmental advocacy in general, an ability to evoke empathy is not only helpful, but also crucial. This is not the empathy that’s evoked by those commercials where that Sarah MacLachlan song plays over pictures of the world’s most pitiful pitbulls, it’s the empathy that makes you fear for loss, and makes you want to experience something while you can, to savor and preserve. While the book itself revolves around death and destruction, the overall sensation is that of restoration. Striking, lyrical, swoonable, and devastating, Refuge is a classic in environmental literature worth another look.