The work of an American environmentalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams “Refuge: an Unnatural History of Family and Place” deals with the issues of life in its multiple manifestations. In this book, Williams delivers a story of her life experience as a woman, a daughter, a person who loves nature, and the one who believes that nature is the ultimate resource humans have. The author meticulously reveals the tendencies in the modern world of unnatural human influence on the planet, mirroring the family life events in the changes in nature.
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Throughout the plot, the writer leads readers back and forth from the story of Great Salt Lake flooding and her mother’s struggle with cancer. These two issues are interconnected by the theme of natural causes of all things. The parallels between the development of the main character (the author) and the natural processes help in understanding the core of the book’s message. In the preface, the writer explicitly states that the flooding of Great Salt Lake “helped me to face the losses within my family” (Williams 3-4). Indeed, the book starts with the description of the water level of Great Salt Lake rising and flooding the territory of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (Williams 5-7). This is the place where Terry, the main character, has been spending much time since her childhood.
As the birds’ refuge becomes destroyed by the waters, Terry’s mother, Diane, is diagnosed with breast cancer. The author mentions early in the book that all women in her family have been impacted by cancer (Williams 3). The improvements in the situation with the level of water in the lake coincide with the successful surgeries and cancer regression in Diane’s body. Such similarities provoke a broad discussion of the role nature is supposed to play in human lives, and how humans treat nature.
Within such a comparison, the concept of refuge as a safe place becomes a very significant one for the book. On the background of the destruction of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Diane’s cancer experience and death become a loss of Terry’s refuge, her family. Most importantly, humans’ activities against nature are thought to be the reason for both problems. People try to restore the initial state of things by means of science and new inventions. It is valid for cancer treatment, as well as for pumping the waters of Great Salt Lake to save the birds’ refuge. However, as the closing chapters of the book imply, the author believes that nuclear weapon testing and other harmful endeavors of humanity become the ultimate cause for deadly illnesses, including breast cancer (Williams 281). The women who strike against nuclear testing resemble the need to restore natural forces and stop destroying the world in which humans live.
Consequently, the struggle between natural and unnatural forces, chaos and order are nothing else than the exchange of energy in the world where everything is interconnected. The author’s contemplation on her grandmother’s thoughts about the laws of thermodynamics concludes the book and claim that all the forces have their cause and outcomes (Williams 313). As it is stated, “energy cannot be created nor destroyed,” it only exists and transforms in nature. Thus, the power of nature and its ability to reflect people’s life experiences is used in the book to ponder upon the themes of life and death, humans, and nature.
Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: an Unnatural History of Family and Place. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2015.