Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” as Want to Read:
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  8,996 ratings  ·  811 reviews
In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mothe ...more
Paperback, 10th Anniversary Edition, 314 pages
Published 2001 by Vintage (first published 1991)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Refuge, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Refuge

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.17  · 
Rating details
 ·  8,996 ratings  ·  811 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I read this book after a quick bout of reading envy. Another reading friend posted about it on her Instagram stories and it reminded me that the essay I read in the Writing Non-Fiction class I took, "The Clan of One-Breasted Women" comes from this book. In that essay, Terry examines the facts of radiation fallout in the Nevada/Utah desert and the high occurrence of cancer in the women of her family. One of my closest friends just had a bilateral mastectomy last Friday, and I've had that essay on ...more
Abe Brennan
May 17, 2007 rated it liked it
Williams is an especially confounding writer, and part of it has to do with her voice—it’s very assured, but in that certainty lie the seeds of alienation and annoyance. It’s the assurance born of privilege, of money, and of an intact family. She can speak of democracy all she wants (and she does, especially in later works), but she’s at the higher end of the social spectrum—democracy (or any system) tends to work out for those people. Additionally, she tries too hard to wring some elemental tru ...more
Aug 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: environment
Perhaps it was the clarity and honesty in Williams’ writing that was so extraordinary and won me over.

Before reading I didn’t care one iota about the focal points in this book. That is the Great Salt Lake or Mormonism or the overarching theme of a mother fighting in the latter stages with metastasized breast cancer. I lost my own mother to cancer and I didn’t want to relive that experience. I decided to read it because I like books on the environment and it had many positive reviews.

So my initi
Sep 22, 2007 rated it really liked it
I hold tight hoping Terry Tempest Williams will devote an entire book to her grandmother. "Refuge" was a beautiful book of love, loss of loved ones, loss of self – and doing what you can to get it all back.

I love the opening of each chapter with the tracking of the elevation of Great Salt Lake during the flood of the 1980s -- how the lake began to embody everything for the author and to all of the people of Salt Lake City. This is a personal story about being part of a bad and a good world comm
Sep 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Yes, this is one of those books that I will list as "amazing" for me. I had a difficult time getting started into this one but I pushed through for several reasons. It was recommended to me by my grad school professor. So, of course, I wanted to read to understand more closely the mind of this mentor and I like the idea of the subtitle "An Unnatural history of Family and Place." I had not heard of Williams previously. Initially it had too much naturalist talk for me and then its other subject ma ...more
Jun 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Reading this book is like... watching the wetland landscape of your childhood home transform and disappear, and watching your mother and beloved grandmother succumb to cancer and die. Just like.

This book was -- stunning. Like a cattle prod between the eyes. And painful. Like crying sand instead of tears.

And so familiar (yes I lived in Utah, yes with all my ancestors' pioneer histories, yes with the pervasive blessing and burden of Mormonism, yes with the inspiring and healing landscapes of moun
Apr 25, 2011 rated it it was ok
There is something very different going on in Terry Tempest William's head than my own. Her mother is dying of cancer and she is a scientist who studies birds near Great Salt Lake.

"The pulse of 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
Apr 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I have lived in Salt Lake City for almost a year. Its a place where family, faith and nature are interwoven into everyday life. Nature and family are important to me, organized religion not so much. I am not a Mormon. However, there is something about living on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountain Range that makes you want to reflect on your life and what it means to be close to nature on a spiritual level. Terry Tempest Williams's book, Refuge, is the perfect book for women ...more
Nov 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Terry Tempest Williams is a writer with a deep and active interest in environmental education and conservation, Refuge is both a memoir of a period in her life when she accompanied her mother through the illness that would claim her life, and shortly after her grandmother, leaving her the matriarch of the family at the age of thirty-four.

Although this is the book she is most well-known for, I first read and reviewed her writing and encountered her mother in a more recent, and equally extraordina
Aug 18, 2019 rated it liked it
‘It’s strange to feel change coming. It’s easy to ignore. An underlying restlessness seems to accompany it like birds flocking before a storm. We go about our business with the usual alacrity, while in the pit of our stomach there is a sense of something tenuous.
These moments of peripheral perceptions are short, sharp flashes of insight we tend to discount like seeing the movement of an animal from the corner of our eye. We turn and there is nothing there. They are the strong and subtle impres
Apr 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Oh, a difficult book. Heart-rending and heart-lifting.

Refuge weaves together two tragedies: a catastrophic flood of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah and the death of Williams's mother from cancer.

Terry Tempest Williams is one of my hero-writers. The solid science of her naturalism is balanced by her mysticism. She writes desert prose from the desert: it can be harsh and unsparing, but there is so much beauty to be had.

Recommended for grievers and bird-watchers.
Ms. Dumonet
Sep 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
this is no conventional book by a conventional author- it is written by a fierce nature lover and serious nature writer. though nature writing is not my favorite genre, tempest williams reached me in a way no author ever has. i've turned to this book like i would turn to a best friend over the past few years- it's always as good as i remember it. ...more
Aug 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
Terry Tempest Williams is a local author with a transcendent story. Part memoir, Utah history, Audubon guide, and observer, Williams tells the story of the rise of the Great Salt Lake in the 1980's and its destruction of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Alongside this historical and ornithological account, Williams relates her own search for refuge as her mother and grandmother die of cancer, Both "down winder" victims of the nuclear testing in Nevada during the 1950s and early 60s. It is a ...more
Jul 18, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who has lost a parent
Shelves: memoir
This book was listed as "suggested reading" for a nature-writing class that I took in college. The book is about the long, slow death of the author's mother from cancer. In Utah in the 50's, parts of the state were used for nuclear testing. Many people got cancer as a result. It's a sad book, but starkly realistic. Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist, and I actually met her when I lived in Utah. She's lovely. This is a realistic American story of a family tragedy, how our environment can hurt ...more
Linda Brunner
May 16, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book was written in 1991 so a bit dated but the musings on the big things: i.e. faith, family, love of the natural world and mortality are timeless. Throw in questioning authority, women's issues and how government lies to us and we suffer as a result and you get close to the picture. There's lots going on here.

The books begins with Mary Oliver's poem Wild Geese. One of my personal favorites. A clue perhaps to the depth and promise of the book. It did not disappoint.
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Everything about Great Salt Lake is, exaggerated--the heat, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain."

"When most people had given up on the Refuge, saying the birds were gone, I was drawn further into it's essence. In the same way that when someone is dying many retreat, I chose to stay."

I finished The Hour of Land, late last summer and fell hard for Terry Tempest Williams and wanted to read everything she has written. Well, nearl
Nov 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The writing is so beautiful and descriptive that I felt like I could see everything she wrote about. Why have I not been to the Bird Refuge? Maybe I need to venture out to the Sun Tunnels. This is a book with two stories that the author weaves together: the rise of Great Salt Lake and the impact on the wildlife, particularly the birds, is one story. The other is the rise of her mother’s illness. The way Williams puts it together is heartbreaking and moving.
Nov 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a lovely read. It is a book to be slowly savored. The author weaves a story of birds of Utah, threatened by the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake, and the story of her mother's cancer. Both are events that are ravaging the course of her life - the flooding of the GSL destroying the habitat of the birds and changing the landscape that she grew up around while her family is rallying around her mother and the battles that she faces - chemo, radiation, surgery, and all the attendant comp ...more
Mar 09, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir, 50-states
I finished Refuge at least two weeks ago and have spent a lot of time wondering why I didn't like it as much as I expected to. That's not to say there was nothing I liked about it. I learned more about the Great Salt Lake--its structure and the birds that make their home there--than I have in years living near by. I loved that and the way she made me think about these valleys and mountains as shared places: native species with an ever burgeoning population.

Maybe my familiarity with the area was
To say this is very much out of my wheelhouse is an understatement; I only took it up because a colleague in my thesis-writing group is focusing her project on Williams. Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised how immediately familiar the physical and mental landscapes felt—I too experienced a rural upbringing, snugly sheltered by religious belief and close familial/ community bonds—while at the same time I was constantly struck by how differently my own response to such environmental factors ha ...more
Karen deVries
Aug 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir-ish
With Mitt Romney running for President, Mormons are in the media spotlight, and this is how I encountered Terry Tempest Williams. I heard an interview with her on one of my favorite radio shows (OnBeing). The interview was so compelling that I looked for her books at a used bookstore, and this is the one they had. Now that I'm well into a few other books by her, this one seems like as good a place as any to start. Terry Tempest Williams is a conservationist,a writer, a daughter, and a Mormon liv ...more
Kerri Anne
This book is the sort of beautiful that makes your soul ache.

I've seen reviews criticize the dialogue as not sounding at all natural enough, and while I think those criticisms are indeed fair, I'll admit I hardly noticed, so swept up was I in the maternal relationships of the book, and of an ever-changing bird refuge as a metaphor for a family's wholeness.

This book is about so many stark and important and timeless truths, but for me, this book is about saying goodbye to people who make up the
Jan 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
My copy of this book is covered with notes and underlined passages. Williams uses her intimacy with nature to adeptly describe her intimacy with people, relationships, core beliefs, and life's meaderings. I identified with many of her images and experiences--not because I share her love of birds, but because I share her poet's heart. I am always thinking in parallels and comparisons. It was validating and liberating for me to read of someone else doing the same. I also have seen cancer death up- ...more
Jun 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I first read this book in 2000, and I knew it was "good," but it didn't draw me in. I've taught her epilogue, "Clan of the One-Breasted Women," several times, and I'm rereading *Refuge* because I assigned it.

It is brilliant. Tempest Williams writes, about her mother's ovarian cancer--and that of her grandmothers and aunts--which Tempest Williams believes was caused by nuclear testing. But it's about more than that: it's about how the land and water are tied so closely to our bodies and the dest
Easton Smith
Apr 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
After reading "Finding Meaning in a Broken World," or at least trying to, I was skeptical. I was worried that this book, too, would have too many loose ends, too much 'everything is everything' sentimentality. But no. This is a heart buried deep as a root for us to find thirty years after, when the Great Salt Lake is now receding rather than expanding, and it's meanings are all fermented in the best way, now. I loved this book.

Mothers and lakes and birds. Loss and healing wrapped into place. A
Jul 06, 2007 rated it really liked it
This series of essays is written by a woman who happens to be Mormon. The fact she is Mormon seems to do more with geography in this book, than by choice. It is a wonderful series of essays because she is a naturalist in writing. The Salt Lake and the environment around there take on almost a divine beauty in the way she describes it. There are some poignant, wonderful tender essays about the land, and her mother and her writing style is just that - tender.
Feb 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a beautiful and powerful memoir of observations about birds, the Great Salt Lake, Mormons and cancer. It sounds like a random combination, but it isn't. She ties everything together and it makes a very coherent story about what it means for her to live in that part of the world as someone who cares about nature. ...more
Jade Warwick
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wow, wow, wow. I finished this book a moment ago, and I pressed it to my chest and closed my eyes and listened to my heart beat against it. This is a book about grief, love, birds, acceptance, and the willingness to live life, even when you know pain. "Pain prepares us for peace." ...more
Jun 09, 2020 rated it liked it
Poetical and peaceful writing. Follows the rise of the Great Salt Lake, in its cyclic natural phenomenon; the disappearance of the birds as their marshes flood; and the author's mother's struggle with breast cancer.

"You learn to relinquish," Mother said..."It's not that I am giving up. I am just going with it. It's as if I am moving into another channel of life that lets everything in . Suddenly there is nothing more to fight."
How can I advocate fighting for life when I am in the tutelage of a
Gideon Burton
"I go to the lake for a compass reading, to orient myself once again in the midst of change." So reflects Terry Tempest Williams, the powerfully sensitive narrator of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. She sounds like Thoreau in his statement about going to the woods to live deliberately, and like Thoreau, Williams finds a pace and perspective needed to manage the changes in the landscape of her life. She does find refuge, and invites us into that sacred space.

I keep coming back
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Outdoor Conservat...: Refuge (Jun 2020) 12 14 Jun 28, 2020 05:14PM  
Nature Literature: Refuge discussion 7 25 Oct 25, 2015 09:14AM  
500 Great Books B...: Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place - Terry Tempest Williams 1 10 Jul 25, 2014 03:39PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Solace of Open Spaces
  • Desert Solitaire
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky
  • A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There
  • The Secret Knowledge of Water
  • Basin and Range
  • All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West
  • Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape
  • A River Runs Through it and Other Stories
  • To Dance with the White Dog
  • The Land of Little Rain
  • Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
  • The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance that Changed the World
  • The Songlines
  • Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
  • Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana
  • To Speak for the Trees: My Life's Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest
See similar books…
See top shelves…
Terry Tempest Williams is an American author, conservationist and activist. Williams’ writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah in which she was raised. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women's health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.

She has testified before Congres

Related Articles

  The United States of America is an awfully big place. Sensibly, we chopped it into states a long time ago. This simplifies...
627 likes · 199 comments
“Buddha says there are two kinds of suffering: the kind that leads to more suffering and the kind that brings an end to suffering.” 81 likes
“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.” 52 likes
More quotes…