“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Refuge – An Unnatural History of Family and Place - Terry Tempest Williams

In the northern part of the state of Utah in United States is the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere, covering an average area of 4400 km2, known as the Great Salt Lake. Great Salt Lake is the remnant of Lake Bonneville; a great Ice Age Lake that rose dramatically from a small saline lake 30,000 years ago. There are many islands in the lake. In spite of its high salinity, the lake supports numerous species of birds and other wildlife. Great Salt Lake area offers one of the most spectacular natural sceneries. The lake is landlocked and fed by three major rivers and several streams.

Utah is also home to the largest Mormon communities in the country, having settled here in the mid 1800s. Utah is also site to above ground atomic testing that took place during 1951 to 1962. Utah is home to the author Terry Tempest Williams.

In human life a continuum can be recognized that extends from oneself to one’s family to one’s surroundings and finally extending and encompassing the universe. One of the tragedies of modern humanity is that it has forgotten to realize this fact. The result is alienation from oneself, one’s family, the nature that supports our life and ultimately a disconnection with the cosmos.

Naturalist, conservationist, ornithologist and author of award winnings books, Terry Tempest Williams in her book The Refuge, weaves the story of connections. Primarily, the book is about the ecology of Great Salt Lake and its major group of life, the birds. The descriptions and the mood that her words create can be matched only by the haunting, vast landscape of the Lake. Interwoven through the high and low tides of the lake is the story of her family, especially her mother and grandmother who have been afflicted with cancer. Just as the birds of the lake survive and sometimes succumb to the fluctuations of the floods, so does the author and her family, with the trauma of illness and the joy of love and acceptance of life. The cancer that eats into the bodies of her family and herself is the result of the nuclear bomb testing. In a frenzy called the Cold War, the American government methodically bombed the land. The then Atomic Energy Commissioner said – “Gentlemen, we must not let anything interfere with this series of tests, nothing.” The people were told – “we find no basis for concluding that harm to any individual has resulted from radioactive fallout.” A suit filed against the government was quashed by the nation’s Supreme Court ruling that the ‘United States was protected by the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity. Irene Allen who filed the suit said that –“if my testimony could help in any way so this wouldn’t happen again to any of the generations coming after us …” There is a bitter universality to this. Governments, of the people, by the people and for the people, acts against the people themselves. This story repeats over and over, across the history of mankind.

The overwhelming account of bird life and its observation might be slightly tedious to the lay reader. But the strange birds could be that of anywhere in the world. It is the history of nature, once unruffled, now torn to shreds by humans.

What sets the book apart is not the above politics, but the intimate understanding of a landscape and the family the author loves so much. With maturity and wisdom, in this narrative of dying and surmounting the pain of death, that of nature and womanhood, Williams show how one can accept life with spiritual grace. As an African woman asks Williams- “You Americans, why is death always such a surprise to you? Don’t you understand that dance and the struggle are the same?”

************* Balachandran V balanpnb@gmail.com


  1. I can instantly recall the movie "Silkwood" starring Merryl Streep which based on the "Seven mile island" nuclear disaster.
    As for the poisoning of the lands by repeated testing of nuclear arsenals well all of us will have to find ways to surely and certainly make this world uninhabitable for man and wild. Don 't we?

  2. I think we are all at the precipice now, we have caused more damage to the ecosystem than we can possibly imagine, we have played with the evolution theory, passed on defective genes and created a sub standard gene pool thereby negating survival of the fittest rule..which actually took care of everything. Its time to face the consequences now..

  3. v interesting post. have a special interest in salt lake city and the mormons.
    is there same exposure at pokharan deserts? underground testing hurts humans?
    you should provide for forwarding of your posts directly from your blog. settings will show show the provision for it.

  4. @pkj: You would remember that that Pokhran test was a lone one and that too underground, whereas the testing in Nevada and Utah went on for more than a decade and also above ground. I am not sure about the radiation details in Pokhran, but it would be comparatively less as it was underground. I don't know if there were any studies on its effect on the animal life( Human population was virtually nil in Pokhran) or anybody.

    The writing is beautiful, especially about the human spirit of the stoic Mormons who suffered from the tests. I am sure details can be obtained from the net.

    Um, I don't know how to provide for direct forwarding ( I couldn't understand it, actually!) Could you pl explain it and how to change the settings? Thanks.

  5. Bals, Go to settings and email option. Type the email addresses you want direct posting and the post is displayed on those emails( gmail) immediately as your post is on the net.Save the address and get blogging as usual.

  6. Sir, A government that poisons its own people, will it care for the lives of Iraqis. You may have read about what the high cancer rates in Fallujah and other places linked to the use of depleted uranium shells. Nice post.


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