Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book after a quick bout of reading envy. Another reading friend posted about it on her Instagram stories and it reminded me that the essay I read in the Writing Non-Fiction class I took, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women" comes from this book. In that essay, Terry examines the facts of radiation fallout in the Nevada/Utah desert and the high occurrence of cancer in the women of her family. One of my closest friends just had a bilateral mastectomy last Friday, and I've had that essay on my mind. So when it came up again in social media, I knew I had to have it.

Last year, I read When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, which is almost exclusively focused on Terry's mother, and the blank journals she left behind when she died from cancer. This much earlier book is also largely about her mother, during her last bout with cancer, but this also coincides with the Great Salt Lake's flooding periods, and the destruction of some of the bird habitats surrounding it. Terry is attuned to these issues because of her work. Each essay has the name of a species of bird found around the lake, the water level, and then may or may not have much to do with the bird.

So the essays are about birds and climate change. And about cancer and family. And about the decisions the author makes that aren't exactly what is expected by her family or religion, and how she navigates them. But in being about all of those things, it is about so much more than that, and I just kept coming back to it. And for a book published in 1991, it sure seemed relevant.
"We spoke of rage. Of women and landscape. How our bodies and the body of the earth have been mined."
Actually when I read the very first essay where the rage quotation i is found, I immediately emailed my colleague at U-Mass Amherst, who is interested in the intersection of climate change and mindfulness, and told her she should read this book.

And of course, books on grief have been following me around, or I pursue them. Her mother dies of cancer, but it almost walks the line of a holy, sacred experience. Or maybe that is how she needed to write about it. It's a little unreal, based on my own experience, but nice that her mother was at peace with dying (having battled cancer already once before) and all the things needing to be said were said. (Except we know that this isn't quite true, based on the more recent book, where Terry is desperate for more of her mother, and all she has are the empty notebooks. But sometimes we must grieve in stages.)

And sometimes the experiences with the birds and their changing habitat help her process the grief:
"When I see ring-billed gulls picking on the flesh of decaying carp, I am less afraid of death... My fears surface in my isolation. My serenity surfaces in my solitude."
It is fascinating how Terry finds parallels between nature's loss and her own. In "Redheads," she talks about California losing 95% of its wetlands over the last 100 years (1891-1991) and how 85% of Utah's wetlands had been lost in the last two (1989-1991), and how when wetlands go, species go, and so on. Then over in the "Meadowlarks" essay, she says,
"A person with cancer dies in increments, and a part of you slowly dies with them."
Definitely a link there.

This is a book I need to own.

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