Monday, October 11, 2010

Refuge in change, and questioning authority

I have so many thoughts running through my mind that I hope I can convey them coherently and concisely.

This post is a continuation of a thread of thought I've been writing about over the past few posts about defining ourselves and personal responsibility. I just finished reading an incredibly complex and beautiful book by Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.  In the book, Tempest Williams interweaves the story of her grief of the loss of her mother to breast cancer with the changing nature of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. The book is about spirituality, genealogy, geography, archaeology, feminism, Mormonism, naturalism, and engineering, to name a few themes. I was having a discussion with some professors and students today about the book, and one professor mentioned how, in our redefinition of our interactions with our environment, it is essential that we seek refuge in change. It is very easy for us to find comfort in what we recognise the most, and in what we feel most familiar and comfortable with. For Tempest Williams, this thing turned out to be the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Over the course of her learning and dealing with the fact that her mother is dying of cancer, Tempest Williams reinvigorates herself for the fight (a personal one, too. She was diagnosed with breast cancer as well.) through spending time with birds. Tempest Williams seeks refuge from her grief in the migratory birds that land in the Bird Refuge. However, changes in Great Salt Lake leave her trying to find refuge in a changing environment. This speaks more broadly to sustainability and our ethics. Whether we like it or not, our future cannot look like the present. We cannot continue to sit back and allow people that do not live in our communities to define what is good for us, and what it means to live a meaningful existence.

It turns out the Tempest family lived close to nuclear testing facilities, and a potential cause of the cancer in the family was the nuclear ash. Various judicial decisions, in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court granted immunity to the US government over the nuclear fallout. In Tempest Williams' religion and faith, Mormonism, she says:

'...authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to "make waves" or "rock the boat." "Just let it go," Mother would say. "You know how you feel, that's what counts." 

For many years, I have done just that -- listened, observed, and quietly formed my own opinions, in a culture that rarely asks questions because it has all the answers. But one by one, I have watched the women in my family die common, heroic deaths. We sat in waiting rooms hoping for good news, but always receiving the bad. I cared for them, bathed their scarred bodies, and kept their secrets. I watched as beautiful women became bald as Cytoxan, cisplatin, and Adriamycin were injected into their veins. I held their foreheads as the vomited green-black bile, and I shot them with morphine when the pain became inhuman. In the end, I witheness their last peaceful breaths, becoming a midwife to the rebirth of their souls. 

The price of obedience has become too high. 

The fear and inability to question authority that ultimately killed rural communities in Utah during atmospheric testing of atomic weapons is the same fear I saw in my mother's body. Sheep. Dead sheep. The evidence is buried.'

I take this as inspiration to question what it is we are being handed and by who, and question why we have defined our lives in the way we have. This affects greenhouse gas emissions, dioxins released into waters, trash, and cancer.

I would like to thank James Dickson for his article in about my project. 


  1. I too have many thoughts running through my mind after reading this post and the recent article - I was inspired by your efforts.

    I can sympathize with this woman's story - is it not a story we all share? I do not know anyone (either person or animal) that is not impacted by the negative changes in the environment, if not now then in the future.

    I do believe it is hard to define the "who" and whether the "who" is the actual persons causing damage or those who allowed it to happen.

    As for religion and faith I believe it is important to separate culture and practices from truths and doctrine. I believe the following statement to be consistent with culture and not truths and doctrines taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

    "...authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to "make waves" or "rock the boat."

    I am a mormon mother of 7. I love this beautiful earth that has been gifted to us. It is God's creation. I will rock the boat in defense of God and his creations. I will certainly teach and expect my children to do the same.

    Not too long ago I marched with my then 6 little ones up the steps of the Salt Lake capitol with other moms ( in opposition to a proposed pet-coke plant.

    I want to do more. I am willing to do more and hope to learn all I can do to inspire others in their efforts - this has to be a group effort.

    As a mother I look into the eyes of our future everyday with great hopes and visions. I am optimistic.

    would love to chat sometime

  2. Alison,

    I am so happy to hear from you.

    Have you read the book? It is beautifully written. I know some professors that know her, and they were mentioning what a difficult position she is in, particularly regarding her outspoken nature in the context of her upbringing culturally, as well as where she was brought up.

    I commend you for your efforts so far, and I look forward to hearing more of your efforts and thoughts in the future. How did the rally at Salt Lake capitol go? Did you face any opposition? What makes you optimistic?