Reading & voting: Williams’ “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family & Place”
As I write this I’ve just spent the past two or three hours sitting in the tire shop and waiting for a tire change. It was busy there; fortunately I knew it might take a while and planned ahead so I had my drink and one of my textbooks to read. The book’s cover is attractive: off in the distance you can dimly make out a rust-colored desert background with scudding dust-red clouds reflected on the red surface below — though it’s not clear whether that is a mirage or a lake. Up closer to the viewer, and strikingly precise in comparison to the soft, distance-faded edges of the background, flies an osprey. It is a curious choice of bird for the cover: distinctively marked, ospreys are renowned for being extremely poorly suited to captivity. To put it simply, they pine away. This one flies free on the cover, but I still find myself wondering: what is a fish-eating bird doing in a desert biome?
The cover suits the book, which is titled Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. The author is Terry Tempest Williams; I generally enjoy her writings for her ability to intriguingly weave together personal experience, a deeply compassionate emotion, and ecofeminist themes. This book is as excellent as I expect: she ties together the natural rising of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the ensuing disastrous loss of viable living and nesting grounds for a huge variety of birds and other wildlife due to the pressures of human encroachment… with her mother’s — her entire matriline’s — doomed struggles with cancer, due to Utah and Nevada having been used as nuclear testing grounds.
There is a rich sweetness sometimes to Williams’ writing, like too much chocolate on the tongue: it is a sensuous ecstasy which you know will lead invariably to a sort of painful regret. When I start the book I already know the most likely outcome of both her mother’s battle with cancer, and what happens to any biome — no matter how beautiful or thriving or unique — when it butts up against regular human greed. Still, I read. There is a sort of aching tenderness in respectfully witnessing the gift of another’s vulnerability and pain — it hurts, but I find myself hoping that pain shared is somehow lessened, despite my not being able to do anything about it. Williams lays bare her heart as she writes profoundly of emotion — guilt and shame, furious rage, frustration and helplessness — and more than once leaves me feeling the sting of sympathetic tears.
I find myself wondering: why am I reading such a sad book? If it were not a class requirement, would I pick it up? I’ve not yet finished the book, but I have faith in the author’s ability to both help me face the unfaceable, and help me eventually feel emotionally uplifted so I can continue the struggle — whatever battle I may be facing. Right now, however… I sit at my kitchen table and feel emotionally wrung out from the book so far. Scattered in front of me are the three ballots I must fill out to vote — a civic duty I take seriously — and I’ve not yet taken the time to consider how I can vote most wisely. Is a vote just for the sake of voting better than not? Should I vote randomly and maybe help elect something I consider reprehensible, or by not voting fail to assist in electing something worthwhile?
For a moment I feel bone-tired as I bleakly wonder: is there actually anyone in these ballots who can do what I truly want? Do I really think any of these candidates will actually make a difference or help bring about a world of peace, compassion, and generosity?
Fortunately my housemates come to my rescue… with a hot drink, aspirin, and suggestions based on their previous research. I am well cherished, and that caring kindness gives me the internal reassurance of my convictions: I will vote to the best of my ability in order to help create the better world I want to see come about.
I have discovered, over the years, that I am an ecofeminist: I recognize the historical, symbolic, and political relationship which exists within Western cultures between the denigration of nature — and the denigration of women, people of color, and the underclass. I further believe for our continued health, humanity must turn toward ecocommunity: the creation of vibrant and sustainable human communities, a way of being in this world that reflects a respect and love for all of life and has these sentiments as fundamental ethics: healthy diversity and difference, egalitarian interdependence which models power-with rather than power-over, and at its root a love for all the wondrous life on this planet. In such a situation, like Starhawk suggests, I try to continuously work towards that goal… and I vote.
* The definitions of ecofeminism and ecocommunity which I present in the last paragraph are directly inspired by or quoted from the following brilliant authors: Charlene Spretnak’s “Critical and Constructive Contributions of Ecofeminism” in Worldviews and Ecology, and Karen J. Warren’s “Introduction” and Judith Plant’s “Learning to Live with Differences: The Challenge of Ecofeminist Community,” both from the wonderful Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature.