"I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change." So writes Terry Tempest Williams in her extraordinary spiritual memoir about a seven-year period during which she faced change, death, and destruction in her family and one of her favorite places in the natural world. She finds strength and meaning within her Mormon family circle and through her love of nature, especially birds.
Click here to read our review of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. The following quotes and questions are designed to help you connect with Williams’ work and see its resonances in your own life.
A Comment from the Author
On nature literacy: "A story keeps things known and in the case of the natural world few are literate. Have we felt the movement of snakes or experienced a happy tongue among huckleberries? Do we know the songs of native grasses or the prayers of migrating birds? We cannot confront the mysteries of life directly by involving ourselves patiently and quietly in the day-to-day dramas of the land. To ask a question and find a story about an episode of earth is to remember who we are. Wild rivers run through our veins." (from "The Storyteller" in Pieces of White Shell)
For Discussion and Reflection
1. Finding God in the Natural World
"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.
"It made sense to a child. And if the natural world was assigned spiritual values, then those days spent in wildness were sacred. We learned at an early age that God can be found wherever you are, especially outside. Family worship was not just relegated to Sunday in a chapel." (page 14)
- What signs does Terry Tempest Williams give in the early pages of this book that she is on very intimate terms with the natural world? How does the landscape seem to influence her character?
- What were you taught as a child about the "spirit world," the natural world, and finding God wherever you are?
2. Birds as Spiritual Teachers
"I love to watch gulls soar over the Great Basin. It is another trick of the lake to lure gulls inland. On days such as this, when my soul has been wrenched, the simplicity of flight and form above the lake untangles my grief.
" 'Glide' the gulls write in the sky and, for a few brief moments, I do." (page 75)
- What role does the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge play in the life of the author? How is this special place affected by the flooding?
- As a child, Terry Tempest Williams was enchanted by "the magic of birds, how they bridge cultures and continents with their wings, how they mediate between heaven and earth." (page 18) Read aloud passages in the book where Williams describes the feelings and understandings birds stir in her.
- Animals can teach us many things and move us to a deeper appreciation of spiritual matters. What animals have done this for you? What was the situation and the learning?
3. Seeing Others through Death
” 'I believe in facing life directly, to not be afraid of risking oneself for fear of losing too much.' I paused. Here was my mother standing outside the shadow of cancer and my grandmother standing inside the threshold of old age. These were the women who had seen me through birth. These were the women I would see through death." (page 119)
- Respond to Terry Tempest Williams's description of cancer on pages 43-44? What does she learn from her mother's battle with cancer?
- How would you describe the relationship between this daughter, mother, and grandmother? What moments between them hold special meaning for you?
- What risks does the author take in seeing her mother and grandmother through death?
4. Sacred Sojourns
"I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the message of my heart upward. I pray to them because I 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." (page 149)
- On the previous page, the author talks about the confluence of the desert, belief, and humility. Are you able to join her in making the leap from Christ's sacred sojourns in the wilderness to your own? Why or why not?
- What is your reaction to the author's description of praying to the birds? What role does prayer play in your life? How do you sustain and enrich this spiritual practice?
5. Shaping Your Life
"I feel like a potter trying to shape my life with the materials at hand. But my creation is internal. My vessel is my body, where I hold a space of healing for those I love. Each day becomes a firing, a further refinement of the potter's process.
"I must also learn to hold a space for myself, to not give everything away."(page 168)
- As a potter who is shaping her life with the materials at hand, what does the author realize about the yin of fighting for life and the yang of letting go?
- How does Williams replenish her soul? Have you learned to "hold a space for yourself, to not give everything away?" How do you feed your soul?
6. The Female Holy Ghost
"If we as Mormon women believe in God the Father and in his son, Jesus Christ, it is only logical that a Mother-in-Heaven balances the sacred triangle. I believe the Holy Ghost is female, although she has remained hidden, invisible, deprived of a body, she is the spirit that seeps into our hearts and directs us to the well. The 'still, small voice' I was taught to listen to as a child was 'the gift of the Holy Ghost.' Today I choose to recognize this presence as holy intuition, the gift of the Mother." (page 241)
- Williams notes earlier that she was "raised in a culture that believes in personal revelation, that it is not something buried and lost with ancient prophets of the Old Testament." (page 196) What do you think of her views regarding the Holy Ghost and the importance of "holy intuition"?
- How would you respond to those who assert that the Holy Ghost is the displaced member of the Trinity? What images and ideas do you have about the Spirit? What is most appealing about a female Holy Ghost?
7. A New Contract with the Earth
"The women couldn't bear it any longer. They were mothers. They had suffered labor pains but always under the promise of birth. The red hot pains beneath the desert promised death only, as each bomb became a stillborn. A contract had been made and broken between human beings and the land. A new contract was being drawn by the women, who understood the fate of the earth as their own." (page 288)
- As an eyewitness to the atomic tests which took place in the Nevada desert, Williams must wonder if she, like so many of the women in her family, will be stricken with cancer. What is her initial response to the news that her family witnessed a 1957 bomb explosion? Do you identify with her act of civil disobedience?
- Williams calls for a new contract with the earth which will be enacted by women. What ideas, attitudes, and actions described in this book can be used as an environmental ethic?
This guide is one in a series of more than 200 Values & Visions Guides written by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Text copyright 1995 by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Photo of Terry Tempest Williams by Rosalind Newmark. This guide is posted as a service to visitors to www.spiritualityandpractice.com. It may not be photocopied, reprinted, or distributed electronically without permission from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. For a list of guides in the Values & Visions series and ordering information, email your name and mailing address to: email@example.com.