I love it when a book becomes a place, becomes an alternate reality I can dwell in. That’s what happened as I was reading Terry Tempest Williams’ now classic memoir Refuge – An Unnatural History of Family and Place. I picked it up in a friend’s guest room last November and read the first few chapters during my visit. They stayed with me. Maybe because my friend’s house in Iowa City was blissfully serene and thus a refuge in itself from my otherwise hectic family life, but also because Refuge is very much about place, namely Great Salt Lake and the desert of western Utah.
It took me a while to buy the book for myself and then I kept reading it, on and off. Sometimes all the descriptions of birds were a little too much for my taste but nevertheless I was drawn in by the author’s obvious reverence for these animals. It’s a testament to Williams’ skill as a writer that I stuck with the birds even though I am reportedly not an animal lover. Now I have to wonder about myself because this is the second animal-focused book I’m recommending after My Family and Other Animals
Refuge is also very much a book about a family, and to a smaller degree an exploration of Mormon culture and history, which is seen mainly as a source of strength that sustains the mother but less so the daughter. Observing the birds brought Williams’ greater solace as she watched her mother slowly die from breast cancer.
What struck me, over time, was the book’s immediacy. I asked myself how Williams achieved that until I realized that she hardly ever offers any transitions. Transitions are explanations of where we are and why we are there. Williams never leads the reader anywhere. Instead, she starts wherever she is: “The Refuge is subdued, unusually quiet” begins the chapter titled “White Pelicans.” Sometimes being plopped here and there and having to find my bearings bothered me but it also mimics life, doesn’t it? And it mimics the flight of birds – they know the grand picture from above but they don’t really know what’s on the ground until they dare to land.
The book is elaborate and unique in its organization: Chapters are named for birds, and as time markers we are offered the lake level, as Great Salt Lake is going through a flooding period during the early 1980s, the time Williams is capturing. It begins with:
lake level: 4202.70′
More than once I leafed through the book, again trying to get my bearings, looking for a time marker I could understand: a date. But ultimately we cannot measure nature and life, no matter how hard we try, and I think Williams was trying to show that.
Just as the communities around the lake fought to contain it with all kinds of schemes, from building a new damn to flooding the desert west of the lake, Williams’ family fought to keep the mother alive with all kinds of treatments, while the birds from Williams’ beloved Bird Sanctuary simply up and left as their habitat drowned. And sure enough, as the lake receded, the birds returned.