Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

by Terry Tempest
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Refuge Summary

Refuge is a 1991 nonfiction book about the flooding of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the deaths of author Terry Tempest Williams’s mother and grandmother.

  • In the 1980s, Great Salt Lake began to flood, and Williams, a writer and naturalist, learned that her mother, Diane, and grandmother Mimi had cancer.
  • As Diane’s and Mimi’s health worsened, Williams coped with the loss not only of her relatives, but also of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.
  • After Diane’s and Mimi’s deaths, Williams learned she had witnessed a nuclear test as a child and began to connect her family’s illnesses to fallout.

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Last Updated on January 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967

Williams’s prologue establishes the main idea of her work: as Great Salt Lake flooded in the early 1980s, Williams had to adjust and adapt to the changes in the landscape, namely the loss of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and to the news of her mother’s ovarian cancer and subsequent declining health. As the memoir begins, Williams describes the relationship of the Great Salt Lake to the surrounding communities. She details the cyclical and seasonal changes that result in fluctuations in the lake’s level and highlights the point at which the Refuge will flood. The first sign of the many changes that will follow is the disappearance of the burrowing owls, whose habitat has been paved over. Williams first visits the Refuge when she is a child; her grandmother Mimi initiates the young Williams into the world of birding, which will become her lifelong passion.

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Returning to the present, Williams notes the parallel of the lake’s rising levels and the appearance of a tumor in her mother’s abdomen. Diane is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and begins chemotherapy, and Williams contrasts this new prognosis with her mother’s first cancer battle in 1971. Meanwhile, the flooding is escalating, requiring the community’s Mormons to leave a church service in order to sandbag the area and divert the lake water. From September 1982 to July 1983, the city records unprecedented increases in the lake’s levels. Williams lists the potential solutions to the flooding and their costs and benefits. Eventually, the State of Utah decides to adopt the cheapest solution: broaching the causeway. Diane’s attitude toward her cancer becomes almost nonchalant; she knows she has little control over her disease but that she can determine her attitude and how she handles her remaining days. On the other hand, Williams suffers because she feels powerless in terms of both the flooding and her mother’s health. She recognizes that she must move past denial in order to honor her mother’s wishes and last days.

Williams increasingly immerses herself in the natural landscape, describing trips to the Refuge, the lake, the desert, and the mountains. Each trip refreshes her, leading to subtle changes in her perspective and allowing her to make connections between the birds and their environment, and the social world of her family and faith community. For example, Williams considers the social structures and practices of the white pelicans more successful than Brigham Young’s United Order, a plan for a self-sufficient and sustaining community.

In 1986, Diane discovers that she needs more chemotherapy and that she will probably develop a blockage that will require surgery, since it will prevent her from eating. Diane does not want to undergo chemo again, but she is afraid that she will be in pain as the blockage progresses. Around the same time, lake levels increase so much that the refuge must close its offices. Williams again must hike and commune with nature to cope with her mother’s declining health. Diane experiences intense pain, though the doctor has said she should not be suffering. Williams leaves to take part in an archaeological excavation but must soon return home because Diane needs surgery. Not long after, Williams learns that Mimi has breast cancer, and facing the health struggles of the two women who have most deeply influenced her leads Williams to transition from depending on the women to seeking comfort in change and love. She then joins an archaeological expedition in the West Desert, where she learns about the Fremont people and their resourcefulness despite the relatively harsh landscape. The experience deepens Williams’s already strong connection with the land and forces her to consider the impacts of nuclear testing and human intervention on the natural world.

As 1986 draws to a close, the family celebrates one last Christmas with Diane; after the new year, her disease advances significantly so that she has only weeks to live. Williams and her siblings devote themselves to Diane’s care, with Williams considering it a sacred experience to wait on her mother and help her transition to her death. Though the family is tense and sometimes argues over funeral arrangements and how each member of the family is handling Diane’s imminent death, they ultimately bond and come to terms with their loss. Diane passes away peacefully at home, and Williams and her family find ways to grieve. Williams and her husband go to Mexico and experience Dia de los Muertos later that year; Williams mourns but also celebrates her mother’s life as she joins in the festivities in a Mexican village.

During the summer of 1987, a massive pumping project aims to moderate the lake levels, but just as the pumps are turned on, the lake water starts to recede. This is one of many proofs throughout the memoir that the lake is a force beyond human control. Williams loses both of her grandmothers in the years following Diane’s death, but their losses make Williams realize that she must use her voice to speak on behalf of the women who have influenced her. A year after Diane’s passing, Williams learns that she witnessed a nuclear test in the Nevada desert when she was a child; she had previously thought the image was only a recurring nightmare. Her father informs her that they were driving and pulled over to see the mushroom cloud and brightly colored sky; they had heard and felt the explosion while in the car. Williams begins to consider the impact of nuclear fallout on the health of people in the area, especially the women in her own family. Refuge represents her speaking up on behalf of the land and, like the women in her dream who seek to save their town from nuclear testing, reclaiming the desert.

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