Terry Tempest Williams

Embracing Solitude

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”
-Emily Dickinson

Mankind and Mother Earth create the world we are able to live in, the world we are able to grow, discover, and find refuge in. They also present us with challenges. Often, we are unable to find the reason behind them and we question why such sadness is brought upon us. Terry Tempest Williams is forced to tackle many of these challenges throughout her life. Through her 1991 memoir, Refuge Ann Unnatural History of Family and Place, we are able to see her journey through using the natural world to help make sense or find peace with the Unnatural.


Photo by: Marvin Nauman

Perhaps it is just my generation because we have access to most human’s lives with the touch of a button. Perhaps it’s the crowed life I’ve lived that has not allowed for much solitude. But until reading this memoir, I never understood why people enjoyed being alone. I always questioned why someone would choose to be alone with their thoughts, which to me seems like a haunting place to enter. Naively I did not see nature as being a place to seek refuge in, but as a place that makes the world seem all too large, again leaving me with thoughts I wasn’t ready to process alone.

You know when you read something and it stays with you for a long time? Or you are listening to a specific song when you learn something new, good or bad? It triggers a feeling that you will forever associate it with. Linda Hogan said memories were songs, Terry Tempest Williams lyrical writing proves this.

I know the solitude my mother speaks of. It is what sustains me and
protects me from my mind. It renders me fully present… My serenity
surfaces in my solitude.

While I find discomfort in my own mind sometimes, Tempest is able to allow her solitude to be an escape from her thoughts. To reach a level of thoughtless solitude and pure serenity is an exciting challenge I want to take upon myself. The last line of this quote echoes in my mind each time I am walking my dog through the park and alone with the trees and the birds. It echoes when I am at recess with my kiddos and they are all playing soccer on the field and I am standing there anxiously, feeling like my life and theirs are miles apart. But yesterday when this happened I looked around at the forest that engulfs the field; I watched the breeze tickle the grass that was left untouched by the students; I watched the kid’s hands and knees get muddy from falling into the earth and the fall air cool their sweaty foreheads. The natural world made me feel grounded and content.

Tempest’s story changed my view in many ways. It left me with questions that I felt excited to seek answers to. Many other ecological texts left me angry and questions society as to why humans can be at war with the land, but I left this memoir wanting to find solitude within the natural world. To find love for something as small and intricate as a bird, a love that allows you to rationalize the unnatural mankind problems and find sanctity in them.

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness,
of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

The fusion she talks about is crucial to have in the world we live in. The everyday thoughts each human is forced to take on can be overwhelming. Having an imagination that allows a small escape and allows creativity to enter into your daily actions helps smooth this over. I may have a stronger feeling for this because of my desire to teach English and the creative process to my students, but Tempest really pushes this farther with her comparison of the cancers process and the creative process. “An idea surfaces and demands total attention.”

Demanding attention from an unnatural disease that has invaded your body is horrible and completely unavoidable. Mind and imagination are needed when this happens. Being able to use your imagination to bring the good back into your mind is crucial. Tempest uses the natural world to this. The Great Salt Lake, the dessert, and the animals keep her grounded. I believe her mother helped teach her to accept this connection and use it to find value in life. When she writes Tempest saying, “I am realizing the natural world is my connection to myself. Landscape brings me simplicity.”

Becoming one with your surroundings and with the larger world around you helps you understand life. I think Tempest used the rising and lowering of the lake as a symbol of her own life. Cancer weaved its way in and out of her and her family’s life, but she was still able to return to nature and find her serenity in solitude. She did not use solitude as a hiding place from difficulties her life had, but as a place for rejuvenation, for healing.

“How do you find refuge in change?”
-Terry Tempest Williams

My answer to this question is Nature. Find peace in the larger world that surrounds you. Allow change to happen and trust that life will find a way to work itself out. Do what you can to encourage this change, just as Tempest has done with her bird refuge and attunes to the level of the lake. Allow your imagination to explore the change so your mind and body are ready for it. Use solitude to understand yourself and your connection to this world.

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