Just finished Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Pantheon, 1991) by Terry Tempest Williams. The narrative revolves around the Great Salt Lake and involves several Mormon scenes, but has as its primary themes the fragility of the various ecosystems that rim the Lake, the struggle of the author's mother as she deals with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and the challenge of being a spiritual woman in a patriarchal society. I highly recommend the book to anyone who loves nature, who lives within a hundred miles of Great Salt Lake, who is a woman, or who has cancer in the family.
The book is so multi-faceted that almost everyone will enjoy one of the themes. The author speaks with some authority on all of the themes, but rather than try to summarize what she says in the book, I'm just going to give a few short quotes (in italics, with page numbers from the 10th anniversary edition paperback) and add comments.
Within ten minutes, Mormon chapels across the Salt Lake Valley were vacated (p. 45). This is how the Church responded to Mayor Ted Wilson's plea for help in the face of the imminent flooding of Salt Lake City in Spring 1983, a largely forgotten but exciting moment in Utah history. Volunteers filled sandbags and built dikes to channel overflowing creeks down city streets and safely out of the city.
There are ghosts at the Great Salt Lake who still dance on starlit nights (p. 81). This is the conclusion of a short history of Saltair, an open air entertainment pavillion and dance hall that once graced the south shore of the Lake. A non-Utahn, I must have driven past the spot a dozen times before I finally heard about the place.
Cooperative fishing has its advantages (p. 99). From white pelicans, who fish in packs, the author moves to a discussion of Lorenzo Snow and the United Order in Brigham City, a Mormon cooperative affair. It's hard to imagine how they would have gotten by in the early years if competition rather than cooperation had ruled the economy, but in the long run managed economies fare poorly. Her verdict on the failure of the humans versus the success of the pelicans: Fear of discord undermines creativity. And creativity lies at the heart of adaptive ecology (p. 102). Hmmm. Abandoning the United Order when it ceased to function efficiently seems socially adaptive. Mormons actually gave up socialism without much of a fight.
An individual doesn't get cancer, a family does (p. 214). While a lot of the narrative covers the natural history of the Great Salt Lake, the book isn't just about snowy egrets and bald eagles. There are gut-wrenching scenes in the hospital and at home, recounting the pain, suffering, and heartbreak experienced by a cancer patient and the patient's family. I couldn't take 300 pages of that, but here those scenes are mercifully broken up by long excursions into Utah natural and social history.
A flash of light in the night in the desert (p. 282). The author is stunned to learn one day from her father that her recurring dream of a flash of light over the desert was, in fact, an actual event that she had witnessed as a young child. It was an open-air test detonation of an atomic device over Nevada on September 7, 1957. Funny, we worry now about terrorists setting off a nuclear device, but the US government nuked Utah and Nevada repeatedly during the decade of the fifties, and did it while telling people there were no health risks at all from that activity. Her belated conclusion: [Q]uestion everything . . . . Tolerating blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion ultimately takes our lives (p. 286).