Finding "Refuge"

#11: Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams (1991)

“[W]ithout a mother,” writes Terry Tempest Williams in her book Refuge, “one no longer has the luxury of being a child.”

I am at my own mother’s, thinking about Williams’ words, thinking about Williams’ book. I was first introduced to Refuge last year during a Creative Nonfiction class I was taking, but I didn’t have the time then to read it. Months later, at the start of my “25 Books in 30 Days” challenge, it is one of the first books I turn to. I’ve not been able to write about it yet, though. I’ve had to wait until I’ve come here to my mother’s house in Ashtabula, Ohio, before I could fully process the nature of Williams’ loss.

Refuge is a quiet, private book about loss and recovery. Williams weaves her experiences at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, under assault from the rising water levels of the Great Salt Lake, together with her attempts to deal with the fact that her mother and grandmother are both losing battles with cancer.

“The losses I encountered at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as Great Salt Lake was rising helped me to face the losses within my family,” Williams says. “Our attachment to the land was our attachment to each other.

Memory is the only way home, Williams says. “I have been in retreat,” she explains. “This story is my return.”

As a naturalist-in-residence for the Utah Museum of Natural History, Williams was “in the business of waking people up to their surroundings,” she says. As in her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World (published almost two decades after Refuge), Williams demonstrates a spiritual connection to the world that very much reminded me of the same connections Linda Hogan was suggesting in Dwellings.

“Wilderness courts our souls,” Williams says.

If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.

“In the severity of a salt desert, I am brought down to my knees by its beauty,” she writes. “My imagination is fired. My heart opens and my skin burns in the passion of these moments.”

Williams recognizes that we are part of, not removed from, the natural world. Refuge, in part, traces her struggle to understand those cycles and rhythms in the context of her mother’s deteriorating condition, although she grasps them intuitively as a naturalist. She talks in the language of data when she explains the rising and falling levels of the Great Salt Lake over time, and how water levels affect the freshwater habitat of the bird sanctuary. She has a knack for explaining natural history—whether it be geology or ornithology—in approachable terms. It becomes personal.

But knowing the rhythms and understanding the rhythms—let alone accepting the rhythms—poses a significant challenge. “I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River,” she says. “My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.”

“Dying doesn’t cause suffering,” she comes to realize. “Resistance to dying does.”

My mother, thankfully, isn’t dying. She’s had some significant health issues in the last year, though, the result of some rather insidious chronic health problems. Doctors have had to crack open her chest and do bypass surgery. She’s been hospitalized for breathing problems. She has near-constant vertigo.

Her incessant good spirit tends to downplay her discomfort, but on bad days, she’ll let slip in confidence just how poorly she feels. On those days, she just hopes tomorrow will be better.

“How can hope be denied,” Williams asks, “when there is always the possibility of an American flamingo or a roseate spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?” She has seen such birds at the refuge, out of their traditional range, alone, there for reasons no one is able to explain.

But she concedes that “hope can be more powerful and deceptive than love,” and therein lies the crux of Williams’ struggle.

Williams’ mother and grandmother both come to accept their illnesses and make the best life they can while they’re dying. “Trust life,” both of her grandmothers tell her. “Understanding is love.”

That’s why Refuge has such deep resonance for me here. My mother, too, has come to an acceptance about her own illness. Her good spirit will not be suppressed; her optimism will not be denied. I worry about her nonetheless, and wonder what it would be like, in my early forties, to be without a mother. We all sort of just take for granted that we’ll still have our mothers at this age, don’t we?

My stepfather doesn’t always understand my mom’s health problems. He’s a good guy, but he comes from a family where, when you don’t feel well, you take two aspirin and call it good. So, with my mother he is, by turns, sympathetic and impatient. Part of my own challenge is to try to understand his and to help him understand hers.

I cling to something else Williams says as she talks about hope and love and understanding, too. She talks of faith. “Faith defies logic and propels us beyond hope because it is not attached to our desires,” she says. “Faith is the centerpiece of a connected life. It allows us to live by the grace of invisible strands. It is a belief in a wisdom superior to our own. Faith becomes a teacher in the absence of fact.”

My mother and I are not connected by place the way Williams and her mother and grandmother are connected by the bird refuge. (I do share such a connection with my father and the Maine woods.) Rather, the refuge I share with my mother lies in the past, in my childhood in Hershey, Pa. She was a young single mother with two little boys. She was healthy and beautiful.

Ohio seems like a tired old joke in comparison: What’s round on the ends and “hi” in the middle? We can look back and laugh and reminisce and find our refuge through nostalgia, and through the grace of her good spirits, I can still revel in the luxury of being a child.



2 replies »

  1. I love this book. And I’m glad your mother didn’t live downwind from a nuclear testing site.

  2. Ironically, we lived in some of the downdraft of Three Mile Island when it had it’s near-meltdown, though. Not nearly as bad as what folks in Utah had to put up with from the bomb tests, though.