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Book of the Week - Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

The first time, I heard anything about Terry Tempest Williams was many years ago, when I was about to go to New Mexico for a writing workshop with Natalie Goldberg at Ghost Ranch, Georgia O'Keeffes former home. A little while, before the workshop started, Natalie sent us a list with things to bring and how to prepare ourselves. Among pen & paper, there was also the book "An Unspoken Hunger" by Terry Tempest Williams on that list, and the unambiguous order: READ! I did not understand the book back then, only that it was really good, and that Terry Tempest Williams was a great writer. I could taste the quality and depth of her words. But I guess, somehow, I was too young to fully grasp it. I still had my first very spiritual experiences in nature back during this workshop, walking the O'Keeffe landscape in combination with writing with Natalie and meditating with a zen-nun, brought me insights and joy, peace of mind really in an intensity, I had never experienced before. Maybe it was there, that I realized for the first time, that we will not be able to find peace, if we do not respect nature.
Refuge now is the second book, I read by her, and I enjoy every page, every word nourishes me. 
It is a book written by a daughter, who loses her mother to cancer, and every page carries the pain about this. Since I lost my mother to cancer, I could relate instantly.

„I was raised to believe in a spirit world, that life exists before the earth and will continue to exist afterward, that each human being, bird, and bulrush, along with all other life forms had a spirit life before it came to dwell physically on the earth. Each occupied an assigned sphere of influence, each has a place and a purpose.“

Refuge was written in 1991 for her mother, who had died of cancer in 1986. 

"I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethoughts
of grief. I come into the presence of still water." (Wendell Berry)

Tempest Williams reads this poem, The Peace of Wild Things, to her mother, when she is already very weak. The two women often communicate about literature and nature, both gates into stillness.

The reader finds so much wisdom, both, from Tempest Williams herself and the other authors, she quotes, that the entire book is like a wonderful learning experience, or rather, itself a gate into stillness.

It is a book, in which landscape is made palpable as refuge. It is a book, in which still water, still places, the stillness within ourselves, is made palpable as refuge and the path to this refuge is mapped out through Tempest Williams intimate knowledge of the landscape and birds around the Great Salt Sea in Utah, where she grew up, where she still lives and works as a writer. She is well known as conservationist, nature writer and spiritual person, really. You find your still place, when you go into nature.

„I know the solitude my mother speaks of. It is what sustains me and protects me from my mind. It renders me fully present. I am desert. I am mountains. I am Great Salt Lake. There are other languages being spoken by wind, water and wings.“

This book is a testimony of her connection with the land around her, it is also a book about her dying mother and her own grief. Maybe this is one of the reasons, I feel so close to this book. Because what she writes about her mother, I feel, I understand completey, because the dying process and what she and her mother learned from it, is so familiar to how I experienced my mothers dying of cancer five years ago. The stillness was the same. Tempest Williams succeeds on a very skillful and high level to write about mortality, spirituality and nature. She connects everything with everything, and makes the interconnectedness of us all with the entire life around us palpable.

„We are no more and no less than the life that surrounds us.“

When my mother was dying and I sat with her in her room, I understood this truth instantly. I also understood, that everything our ego ever desires, is completely unimportant, because we are part of a bigger picture. Our ego is the most unimportant part about us, but it lives our lifes most of the time. This is really a huge waste of our time and energy. I looked at my mom and I thought: Only those, who have succeeded in getting rid of their ego, will have a peaceful journey to the other side. My mother let go of her ego completely, before she died. Being with her, was like being in a vast landscape. There was only peace. I meant to keep all, what I understood, in my mind and heart and live it. But of course, this kind of wisdom is so much against our everyday life rules, that it slipped away after a while. 
There is a piece in the book, where the mother talks about a story written by Tolstoy. A man is wrongly accused of murder, spends 26 years in a prison camp in Siberia, and does not free himself, when he finally has the opportunity to, because he no longer wants anything.

"I ask Mother, why this story matters to her. "Each of us must face our own Siberia," she says. "We must come to peace within our own isolation. No one can rescue us. My cancer is my Siberia."

Terry Tempest Williams catches this bigger picture, she connects our mortality with our place here, and our spirituality.
It is a beautiful book, very deep and nourishing. I love reading it. I feel, it catapults me back to my mother’s bedside and all the depth and peace, I found there. I love reading it, because it reminds me again of the fact, that nothing, my ego desires, really matters. It reminds me, that I would really like to spend more time with books and places and people, who remind me of this. 

I should mention, that Refuge is also a book about birds. Every chapter is called like a bird from the Great Salt Lake area and shows up in this chapter. So we learn a lot about birds and how they are threatened by the growth of the Great Salt lake and consequently the destruction of their home, The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. The birds, in the end, represent us, humanity, losing our refuge by destroying this planet. I admit, that I found the parts about her mother, personally, more interesting, but I still loved her description of the birds, their behaviour, their unusual names like Snowy Egrets, Long-Billed Curlews, Western Tanager, Whistling Swan. The birds, she "meets" in the field (while writing the book, she works as a curator and naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History), often carry a message to Terry, metaphorically, by their special behaviour or their general characteristics. The birds always fit right into the chapter. The connection between them and the part of the story, she is telling, is always obvious, which makes it so obvious again, how much we are a part of nature, that we are really nothing without it.

Yes, a wonderful book.

(c) Susanne Becker


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