For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Refuge

Original Air Date: Dec. 11, 1995

Today Laura Erickson reviews a book that tells about birds from a unique viewpoint: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams. 3:38

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I’ve just finished reading a powerful and lovely book titled Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams. It is a woman’s personal account of her mother’s death from cancer in tandem with the rise of the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the flooding of Bear River Wildlife Refuge–two events that are hardly related on the surface, yet are intertwined in her heart. Her slow acceptance of these overwhelming losses through the course of the book has a rhythm and flow as powerful and beautiful as the Colorado River.

Williams fills her book with birds, quoting Emily Dickenson’s line, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Like Dickenson, she writes letters to her friends and relatives, and in this age of telecommunications she writes:

Our correspondences show us where our intimacies lie. There is something very sensual about a letter. The physical contact of pen to paper, the time set aside to focus thoughts, the folding of the paper into the envelope, licking it closed, addressing it, a chosen stamp, and then the release of the letter to the mailbox—all are acts of tenderness. And it doesn’t stop there. Our correspondences have wings–paper birds that fly from my house to yours–flocks of ideas crisscrossing the country. Once opened, a connection is made. We are not alone in the world.

Williams sees birds through the eyes of both a birder and a poet, seeing more than just field marks when she studies two of the larger, more conspicuous shorebirds of Utah. She writes, “Godwits are serene. They demand little from you except the patience to observe. Curlews cause guilt. You are reminded of your intrusion, that you do not belong.” She understands that “Wild geese seem to know where they are from and where they are going.’‘

The sighting of a rare bird is more than just a check on a list for her. “How can hope be denied when there is always the possibility of an American Flamingo or a Roseate Spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?”

The hardcover edition of Refuge was published in 1991 by Pantheon; it’s also available in paperback by Vintage Books. The birds that permeate the very fabric of the book serve an integral part in her healing. She writes:

I pray to the birds. 1 pray to the birds because 1 believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. 1 pray to them because 1 believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.