For its dramatic mountains, desert sunsets, salty blue lake and exotic migrating wildlife, Northern Utah has inspired surprisingly few works of literature. Its most famous, Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge,” turns 25 this month — but it feels as timeless as the land and pain it describes.
On its surface, “Refuge” is a memoir told through eyes of a bird-loving naturalist. But there’s more in its depth. It’s a reflection on the cycles of a lake and the cycles of life. It’s a confrontation of man’s arrogance toward nature. It’s a journey to accept things people can’t control. It’s a story of faith. It’s a history of Northern Utah and a family record. It’s an exploration of how to love a world that’s full of hurt and loss, and its message still resonates.
“I think the question that was keeping me up at night was, ‘How do we find refuge in change?’ ” Williams recalls. “In the midst of a rising Great Salt Lake and the flooding of the Bear River Bird Refuge, I was also experiencing the loss of my mother and grandmother from cancer. It was this parallel story that begged me to consider the cyclic nature of life.”
“Refuge” first published on Sept. 8, 1991, Williams’ 36th birthday. The book’s release falls almost exquisitely between Edward Abbey’s rumination on humanity and wilderness in “Desert Solitaire,” and Cheryl Strayed’s search for healing in the landscape with “Wild.”
Tempest remembers the nerves she had the days before publication. The book is deeply personal, including its intimate portrayal of her family’s highs and lows. The day “Refuge” hit bookstores, her father called early in the morning with a gift.
“I met him in the driveway, he was carrying a plastic satchel. I thought it was a makeup kit for the book tour,” she says. “It was a pearl-handled pistol. I think it was my father’s way of saying, ‘Protect yourself. This is a vulnerable book.’ ”
In the late 1980s, heavy snowpack and lots of rain took the Great Salt Lake to its record high. State officials scrambled as the streets of Great Salt Lake flooded and briny waters threatened the farmland and industry along the lake’s expanding shore.
Williams mourned as the lake swallowed the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and scattered the birds, her spirit animals. At the same time, her mother was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.
“I could not separate the bird refuge from my family,” Williams wrote. “Devastation respects no boundaries. The landscape of my childhood and the landscape of my family, the two things I had always regarded as bedrock, were now subject to change.”
The beauty and severity of Northern Utah became a metaphor for the human condition, and Williams captured the landscape through expressive writing. She reflected on Antelope Island, severed from the Wasatch Front by a flooded causeway.
“The pulse of the Great Salt Lake, surging along Antelope Island’s shores, becomes the force wearing against my mother’s body. And when I watch flocks of phalaropes wing their way toward quiet bays on the island, I recall watching Mother sleep, imagining the dreams that were encircling her, wondering what she knows that I must learn for myself.”
For as much as Williams writes about her mother’s and grandmother’s slow marches toward death, she also writes about life. Birthdays. Wild bird eggs. Bubbles trapped beneath ice, signs of the fish swimming below. And life ultimately finds a way, even in the desert, in a saline lake or in a fragmented family.
“I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together,” Williams wrote.
Other literary works with ties to Northern Utah
“Borrowed Horses” by Siân Griffiths
Griffiths teaches creative writing and literature at Weber State University. Her novel, set in northern Idaho, tells the story of a failed Olympian, ailing family and troubled love.
“Monsters: A Love Story” by Liz Kay
A struggling poet Stacey Lane’s feminist Frankenstein novel is turned into a movie and she begins an up-and-down affair with the director. Novelist and poet Liz Kay grew up in Ogden but has since relocated to Nebraska.
“The Latter Days: A Memoir” by Judith Freeman
A journey away from the Mormon faith, complete with missteps, wrong turns and heartache, from a woman living in Ogden, Utah.
“25th Street Confidential” by Val Holley
All the stories that gave Ogden’s most notorious street its rowdy reputation.
“Ophelia's War” by Alison L. McLennan
A tale of the tough choices a Mormon young woman of the Utah territory faces, including prostitution and polygamy. Author Alison L. McLennan lives in Ogden.
The moon is another recurring theme. Long-billed curlews with beaks curving like a crescent moon. Ibises serving as the guardians of ancient Egypt’s Moon Gates to heaven. Williams’ grandparents falling in love under the moonlight at Great Saltair. Sleeping in Utah’s West Desert with the moon watching over like a mother. Women holding the moon in their bellies, in tune with its cycles. The waxing and waning of the lake and the living.
The book spans seven years, but Williams’ recollections are vivid. She says it comes from the daily habit of journaling.
“I think journals are my sketchbook. It creates an immediacy on the page,” she says. “Even my own eccentricities of counting how many visits a cliff swallow makes to its nest from the mud, how many drips of morphine were going into my mother’s blood — it’s my way of paying attention to the world.”
Williams has lost many family members to cancer, most of them women. The book culminates with the lake receding and her realization that nuclear testing in the southwest desert might be to blame. Her mourning turned to environmental advocacy.
Terry Tempest Williams’ advice to aspiring writers:
“Follow your heart. Be bold. Learn to love a place deeply. And keep a journal. The most important thing for an aspiring writer is to write.”
For those living downwind, nuclear fallout is as much a part of the Utah legacy as its Mormon heritage.
“I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women,” she wrote. “Most statistics tell us breast cancer is genetic, hereditary ... What they don’t say is living in Utah may be the greatest hazard of all.”
A year after “Refuge” published, testing of atomic bombs at the Nevada Test Site ended. About a decade later, the Bear River refuge recovered enough to again support millions of migrating birds. Fifteen years later, the new visitor center opened, on higher ground to reduce flooding risk and near Interstate 15 to help lure travelers.
“Terry Tempest Williams is a local sweetheart,” said Kathi Stopher, visitor services manager at the rebuilt refuge. “She writes so emotionally and she’s so engaging. It opens the flood waters, so to speak. She adored the birds and loved all things nature.”
Williams found her salvation at the Bear River refuge. Stopher said that message speaks to people everywhere, beyond Northern Utah.
“Regardless of whether it’s the refuge, if it’s the forest, if it’s the seashore, there’s something healing about being enveloped by nature — by being in the wild, unencumbered by those modern interferences and disruptions that prevent us from being set free,” Stopher said. “It gives you a moment of respite. Especially in dealing with grievous times.”
But the Bear River refuge’s birds face different threats today. Great Salt Lake is now approaching a record low. The water that feeds the wetlands is being lost to climate change and diversions.
“I think the Great Salt Lake continues to show us how vulnerable we are to these sweeps that are made by the human hand,” Williams says. “But I think it also shows us that as human beings, we’re small in the scheme of things.”
On the 25th anniversary of “Refuge,” readers are still touched by its words. It flies off the shelves at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge’s visitor center. Ogden’s new independent bookstore, Booked on 25th, can’t keep it in stock. Few writers have tapped what Northern Utah has to offer, and Williams’ story continues to be an inspiration to local readers, said bookstore owner Marcy Rizzi.
“She was raised in the same environment,’” she said. “There’s this connection and kinship of culture and geography. It makes you go, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ ”
Williams has released numerous books since “Refuge,” expanding her scope well beyond Northern Utah. Her latest work, “The Hour of Land,” travels through the country’s national parks, exploring their value and many threats. She persists as an advocate for the land. She continues to feel connected to the Great Salt Lake, too, and the wildness it holds within Utah’s urban core.
“Every time I go to Great Salt Lake, I am humbled,” she says “We need to honor that wild heart that we call the Great Salt Lake — the water heart of the West.”
Williams says she hopes the legacy of “Refuge” is one of love — a love of place, a love of family and a love of action. Writing the book, she says, was an act of faith.
“I’m grateful. I’m grateful to the readers,” she says. “I’m grateful my mother and grandmother are alive on the page. I love that people are visiting the Bear River Bird Refuge and see it not only as a refuge for birds, but a refuge for our humanity.”