Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

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Terry Williams' fate was sealed in the aftermath of the 1983 springs. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer at the same time that the Great Salt Lake overflowed. The flooding was significant because she believed her mother's condition was caused by atomic tests conducted in the lake. Williams, a poet and naturalist, bore a large part of the responsibility for the unnaturally harmful technology that exposed her mother and other species to radiation. The purpose of this paper is to show how the theme of natural versus unnatural interweaves to produce sad and unexpected outcomes that smack Williams in the face. Terry Tempest Williams love and connection with nature is untold. The personal tie to the Great Salt Lake, the animals in the area especially the burrowing owls marked her life. As a child, she used to watch the birds with her grandmother and spend her good time at the refuge. The 1983 spring however came with the rising of the Great River Lake that recorded rising heights which endangered the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge that Williams held close to her heart (Williams 1). On the other hand, she discovered that her mother was suffering from ovarian cancer. Her mother, Diane, was reluctant to go for treatment with reasons that she preferred living a natural life rather than exposing herself to the unreliable medical treatment. Later on, Diane agreed to take up the eleven months long chemotherapy. At first the doctors concluded that the medication was successfully taking effect not until they realized that some other cancer was still in the body hence other extra weeks would be needed to treat the disease. To add to Williams problems, the Great Salt Lake grew uncontrollably. In attempt to keep the lake in check, the Utah government came up with several options.

The theme of unnatural vs. natural is also clear in William’s assumption that the family’s breast cancer was caused by unnatural factors such as radiation and atomic testing. It does not occur to her that the disease could occur naturally due to genetics. The cancer diagnoses tore apart Diane’s physical and emotional stability. This prompted her interaction with Tamra, a cancer patient who they exchanged letters in effort to deal with the frustrating circumstances. Shortly afterwards Tamra died of the brain tumor (Williams 81). The death of Tamra wrecked apart Diane who started to perceive that her fate would follow Tamra. As for Williams the tragedy made her realize how such little time was left for her to spend with her mother. Consequently, Williams took her mother to the Bird Refuge in effort to spend extra time with her. The experience was warmly received by Diane who insisted that the Great Salt Lake was a place to go back to. It saddened Williams at how the lake’s beauty had eroded and how the birds were continuously being displaced as sinking and freezing progressed.

The thesis can be expounded by William’s writing on the nature and pervasiveness of cancer as a disease. It is evident from the narrative that cancer can be caused by both natural and unnatural ways. Ordeals seemingly did not stop overwhelming Williams’s life as she discovered that she had a cyst in her right breast. The cyst was removed in the hospital but wild thoughts running in her mind made her wonder if her life would be limited to the cancer journey. The fact that every woman in her family and society as a whole had faced the wrath of cancer worries worried her more (Williams 80). Affected individuals had to undergo painful experiences including chemotherapy, radiation and even mastectomy. Diane’s sickness kept worsening as the change in the Great Salt Lake region grew displeasing. In a picnic by the Bird Refuge, Diane and Williams discussed how the atmosphere had changed along the lake due to snowstorms.

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The theme is in line with the author’s impression that humans destroy the environment especially when they are faced with the need of fixing it to suit their selfish needs. As Williams fought with her mother’s illness, the government puts effort towards suppressing the flood so that it does not destroy and take over more land. Ironically, as Diane’s conditions worsened, the Bird Refuge increasingly flooded. Williams tried her level best to lift her mother’s spirits by dressing in bright clothing in order to divert her attention from her weakening spirit and give her other nicer things to think of (Williams 120). In that year Christmas for Williams was not any celebrations but a gathering full of sleepless nights, tension and frustrations. At some point William’s father yelled at her that he was not ready to deal with Diane anymore while he expressed how much their home had turned into a hospital. The situation became dreadful as Dr. Smith recommended subjecting of morphine on William’s mother. The struggle by Terry William to keep her calm and restore her sanity was real as even the family being led by the father would not keep their pieces together (Williams 160). Cancer eventually caused the death of Williams’ mother, the only other thing apart from the Bird Refuge that Williams clanged on. In the mortuary, Williams love for the pure and natural was seen as she wiped off the makeup applied on the body of her mother. Williams’ grandmother called Mimi was then diagnosed with cancer by Dr. Smith. This came with no shock since the whole process of adapting, growing, transformation and resilience, Williams had already endured it. Mimi in the same way felt that she would not fight the disease as Dian had done. The lessons from the experience with Diane gave Mimi the stance that she would let nature take its course. Conforming to the unnatural medications and suffering which led to no solution was not a journey that anyone was ready to bear.

The mistake of disrupting nature and creating unnatural mechanisms that are harmful to human kind is highly condemned by Williams. Utah Government resolved to unnatural methods to suppress the rising of the Great Salt Lake. Upon a visit by Williams she discovered that the plan not only cost billion dollars but also brought environmental distractions and disorder such as displacement of birds in the refuge. Flooding ended and the Bird Refuge became clear. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge was granted funds to restore the Refuge back in place. Williams continued to focus on their history of cancer and how much it had affected them yet it was uncommon in the area in the past. It then dawned to her realization that the cancer had been caused by the atomic bomb that had explored in their locality years ago. She felt betrayed and bitter for how much the government did nothing to prevent the testing of the bomb. Thousands of people who suffered afterwards including herself, her mother, grandmother and all her family be it blood related or not faced the wrath of unnatural technology (Williams 2).


In the end, Terry Williams honored all who have suffered directly or indirectly. She felt at home even with the lonely desert, alone with nature. The transformation of the tragedy into a document that austere the beauty of the wildlife, desert and the Great Salt Lake while condemning reckless overuse of technology is Terry Tempest William’s message in her story. More so, the author expounds on the need to appreciate the fact that cancer can be caused by natural and unnatural events.

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Work Cited

Williams, Terry T. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Internet resource.

September 01, 2021

Life Health



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Fate Cancer

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