A friend recommended this book to me based on a Facebook picture of burrowing owls that I shared. Refuge begins with these owls losing their nests as the Great Salt Lake rises and each chapter follows the level of the lake. Schema is powerful and, as a Midwest woman, I struggled for 3/4 of the book to not see Great and Lake and read Great Lakes. By the last few chapters, I could read Great Salt Lake and only quickly think of my own wonderful Great Lakes.
The Great Salt Lake is Terry Williams’ refuge from all of life’s challenges, but particularly those posed by the returned cancer of her mother and then the discovery of cancer in her grandmother. Williams struggles with her own and her mother’s pain, her sense of loss mirrored by the loss all around the lake as its levels rose and birds died or were pushed away from their nesting grounds. She recounts a mystical connection with her grandmother that centers on nature, but particularly birds. Williams’ best passages are those where she writes about birds and how they teach her about life. The most difficult for me were those where her naturalist-educator stepped in and became more technical.
Williams, her mother, and her grandmother all love solitude and yet are forced into painful intimacy with one another through their illnesses. Williams loses her mother, both grandmothers, and several aunts to cancer during this book and, at the end, suggests that the U.S. military’s above-ground nuclear testing is likely at fault. The book is about accepting, but not being passive. The idea that so many women (and men) in Utah would end their lives prematurely and so painfully because of a cost/benefit analysis in Washington, DC that discounted their lives is beyond infuriating, but those sorts of decisions continue to be made every day.
I’ve never desired to see much of the West and thought the Great Salt Lake would be interesting mainly for the salt. Now I want to see the birds.