Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge

Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge

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Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge

Everything known to man is held in some sort of balance. It is a delicate balance, one which swings rhythmically to the ebb and flow of this world. Many have studied it but it has proven too complex, too broad to understand everything that is at work. That is why it must be preserved. One such movement has recently begun which looks exclusively to preserve this balance, ecofeminism. Terry Tempest Williams is just that, an ecofeminist. In her memoir Refuge¸ Williams attempts to examine the ecological and social worlds that balance on this pendulum. Refuge brings together a range of topics and ideas with her own mix of environmental, social, and cultural problems to present the reader with a clearly laid out stance for ecofeminism. There is an ecofeminist stance in Refuge because she believes women have a bond with nature that men do not, land has its own life, and all things were created equally.

The roots of ecofeminism are credited to a rising interest in both the environment and women’s rights. These topics became hotly debated after the Victorian era but many scholars say “ecofeminism is a new term for an ancient wisdom” (Diamond & Orenstein). Ecofeminism combines ecological and feminist rights to generate a very virtuous cause. It aims to change human’s relationships with each other and also with the environment, but it of course encompasses much more than that. Ecofeminism can best be defined as an attempt to show that all life is interconnected (Baker). That humans and nature share a common bond and that bond is what each depends upon to ensure the other survives.
There is a definite stance by Williams to assert that women are more connected with nature than men in Refuge. This is clear because Williams identifies each sex with different components of life. Men are matched with culture while women are connected to nature (Kircher). This is clear when Williams says, We spoke of rage. Of women and landscape. How our bodies and the body of the earth have been mined. ‘It has everything to do with intimacy,’ I said, ‘Men define intimacy through their bodies. It is physical. They define intimacy with the land in the same way.’ (10)

This quotation shows that women understand the earth while men simply try to dominate and overcome nature. It is male doctors who diagnose and treat Diane.

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And it is male government officials who try to lower Great Salt Lake. They are trying to stop the natural process of things and their solution is always of a physical nature. On the other hand, women find refuge in nature; they are ‘soul centered and strong, women who recognize the sweet smell of sage as fuel for [their] spirits.’ (290) Women truly feel for the land while men do not care for its woes. This is why women must defend the land and be the caring mothers of earth. Just before Williams commits her act of civil disobedience she reflects that, “A contract had been made and broken between human beings and the land. A new contract was being drawn by the women, who understand the fate of the earth as their own.” (288). It is Williams, as an ecofeminist, who intends to write this contract. The ‘human beings’, in this case men in the form of culture, have failed to live peacefully with earth (Kircher). The women must take the world into their own hands because they are the only ones that understand the importance of uniting human life with that of earth.

Furthermore, Williams understands that the earth has its own life. She knows it does not serve a mere physical purpose for humans to abuse and plunder. It is alive. Yet the crimes men commit against nature have scarred it. “Each time there was another nuclear test, ravens watched the desert heave. Stretch marks appeared. The land was losing its muscle.” (288) As humanity continues to jeopardize its own existence, ecofeminists fight to save it. Women like Williams show the error in human ways, and that the body of earth is not unlike our own. It has ‘sensuous curves – the small of a woman’s back. Breasts. Buttocks. Hips and pelvis. They are the natural shape of Earth.’ (109) Williams draws upon life in nature because she knows that earth has power and potency dwelling under the surfaces. As an ecofeminist she looks beyond the physical qualities of earth and finds a world alive within it, a natural earth that supports and cares for its inhabitants. This alone shows the agency within the land (Englehardt). The life that Williams recognizes in the earth also creates equality between humankind and nature.
Ecofeminists strive to create equality between the natural world and civilization because it is important for people to accept. Williams firmly believes that from burrowing owls to ‘beergut-over-beltbuckled men’ (12), everything was created equally. As an ecofeminist, she would stress that our world is not fair and that everyone is not given the same chances, but as the dominant civilization of this earth we must recognize and respect nature because our fates hang under the same shadow(Englehardt). That is why Terry Tempest Williams pays such close attention to nature in Refuge. Our culture must appreciate the earth’s power in order for life to survive. As one Kenyan women puts it, “My people believe if you are close to the Earth, you are close to people…It is a matter of living the circle.” (137) The Great Salt Lake will rise and fall and the birds shall come and go but there is always some underlying equilibrium in things. Life is guided by this natural flow to bring everything back unto itself. It is through this ‘circular metaphor...that she hopes will have specific, direct cultural and political consequences instead of apolitical, private, and muted ones.’ (Kircher). Williams shows that everything is equal because we share this circle, not because we are the same. It is very important to acknowledge the ecofeminist view point here because ecofeminists strongly believe each and every form of life has equal rights to the land. Williams advocates that, “We are no more and no less than the life that surrounds us.” (29) This means that every person has an equal claim to the earth. If that is not respected then the natural order, which all things follow, will be disrupted. People owe each other this dignity, not just because it belongs to everyone but out of mutual respect for nature and man.

Williams clearly takes an ecofeminist stance in Refuge because women are more connected with nature than men, the land has agency, and equality between humanity and earth is essential. The push Williams makes towards women’s rights sends a strong message of defiance towards the male patriarchy. Likewise, her strong stance for ecological safety is of great significance because of the positive implications such changes would bring. There is, of course, a lot of progress to make but by focusing energy into specific movements such as ecofeminism, success becomes all the more likely.


Baker, Susan. Ecofeminism and its Contribution to Feminist Theory. University of Wales at Cardiff. 1995.

Engelhardt, Elizabeth S. D. The Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism and Appalachian Literature. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. 2003.

Diamond, I. & Orenstein, G. F. Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Eco- feminism,
Sierra Club, 1990.

Kircher, Cassandra. Rethinking Dichotomies in Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge. Ed. Gaard, G. and Murphy, P. D. Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy. (1998) University of Illinois Press.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge. New York. Vintage Books. 2001.
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