Terry Tempest Williams
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An Unnatural History
of Family and Place


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Quote from Refuge

"There isn't a page here that doesn't whistle with the sound of wings."
--Wallace Stegner, author of Crossing to Safety

"Remarkable....Her demonstration of how deeply human emotional life can become intertwined with a particular landscape could not be more relevant to our lives."
--Barry Lopez

"Profoundly moving...one of the most significant environmental essays of our time."
--Kansas City Star

An Unnatural History
of Family and Place

Pantheon Books
September, 1991, Hardcover.
ISBN: 0-679-40516-X

An Unnatural History
of Family and Place

September, 1992. Trade Paperback.
ISBN: 0-679-74024-4

REFUGE was released in a new paperback edition with a special afterword to celebrate the 10th Anniversary Edition in Fall, 2001, by Vintage.


As Utah-born naturalist Terry Tempest Williams records the simultaneous tragedies of her mother's death of cancer and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary, she creates a document of renewal and spiritual grace destined to become a classic in the literature of nature, women, and grieving.

Disaster is at the center of this haunting book by Utah naturalist Williams (Pieces of White Shell, 1984), as the Great Salt Lake rises to break all records, submerging roads and driving the resident wildlife away, and as the author's mother dies of cancer at age 53. In the case of the lake, there's no one to blame except the developers who have so despoiled the wilderness that there's nowhere left for fugitive wildlife to go; in the case of Williams's mother, it's difficult not to blame the federal government. After her mother's death, Williams tells her father about a recurring dream of a blinding flash of light; he informs her that she actually saw it: an above-ground detonation of a bomb that she witnessed as a child while sitting on her pregnant mother's lap, innocent spectators trusting their government to protect their welfare. But, in fact, federal policy in the 50's dictated the confining of nuclear testing to a ``virtually uninhabited'' section of the country, considering that an adequate safeguard. Six aunts, a grandmother, the author's mother, countless neighbors in the Mormon community in which Williams was raised--all cancer victims- -were some of these ``virtual uninhabitants,'' Williams says. It is worth enduring the heartbreak of this intimately observed death in order to reach the author's culminating insight into the place where her only refuge from such grief lies. Williams's evocations of the austere beauty of the Utah desert, the Great Salt Lake, and their wildlife also offer great rewards. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Related Links:

  • Composer Phillip Bimstein composed Refuge, a string quartet in four movements, based on Terry Tempest Williamsí readings from her book of the same name. It was composed for the Abramyan String Quartet. Excerpts from it can be heard by visiting this myspace page.

  • Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

  • Passages from Refuge read by Terry Tempest Williams are available on CD, in collaboration with musicians David Darling and Nancy Rumbel, by Wind Over the Earth music. Hear two audio clips from this CD in Real Audio format (requires plugin). Track 9 (1:05). Track 11 (1:14).

  • The Utah Rivers Council has done a lot of work to protect the Bear River from dams that would decimate bird habitat.

  • April 29, 2002, feature article in High Country News entitled "The Great Salt Lake Mystery," by Tim Westby, about the ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake.

  • May 1994 reading of Refuge, this article is about Terry Tempest Williams' visit to UC Davis.

  • Article from The Salt Lake Tribune Sunday, April 25, 1999. Abramyan Plays Bimstein's Take on Tempest Williams by Catherine Reese Newton. The Abramyan String Quartet premieres composer Phillip Bimstein's interpretation of Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge.

  • Excerpt Clan of One Breasted Women, epilogue to Refuge. Clan of the One-Breasted Women was originally published in Northern Lights, January 1990, Volume VI, No. 1.

  • Photos from Bear River by photographer Don Baccus.

  • Nevada Test Site.
        U.S. Dept. of Energy.
        Federation of American Scientists.

  • Common Marsh Birds of Northern Utah.

  • Great Basin Web.

  • Utah Birds.

When Women Were Birds Finding Beauty in a Broken World Illuminated Desert The Open Space of Democracy Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert LEAP New Genesis: a Mormon Reader on Land and Community Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness Great and Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Centennial Reader Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place Coyote's Canyon Between Cattails Pieces of White Shell Secret Language of Snow