The Strands of Life: Braided Form In “Refuge”

Life is filled with many strands. Whether they be happy, sad or somewhere in between, hundreds of personal stories and experiences make up one’s existence. Because of this, writing a memoir seems like a daunting task. However, creating a braided narrative makes writing the story of one’s self seem like less of a giant. A literary device commonly used in both essays and memoirs, braided form effortlessly weaves together multiple ideas and experiences into one cohesive narrative, or in other words, braid. This writing technique allows writers to address an overarching theme, question, or message without being limited to one story.

Terry Tempest Williams does just this in her 1991 memoir Refuge. Weaving together the story of her mother’s battle with ovarian cancer, and her subsequent death, with the simultaneous flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge during the 1983 rise of the Great Salt Lake, Williams explores the themes of natural change and losing one’s place of refuge. In doing so, she teaches a master class on the braided narrative, creating a beautiful and coherent story from multiple strands of her life. 

Williams is telling two different stories in Refuge. In a way, she is. On one hand, readers of this memoir are being taught a thorough lesson on the flooding of Bear River, the largest tributary of the Great Salt Lake and how it affected the world around it. On the other hand, readers are experiencing a valuable and honest account of a daughter coming to terms with her mother’s death. Despite having nothing to do with each other on the surface, the two narratives are connected in a much deeper sense. Williams skillfully weaves together the rise of the Great Salt Lake with the rise of tumors in her mother’s body through fragmented segments that come together to tell one story with one message. In both of these narratives, death seems like an inevitable fate. The birds who seek refuge in the lake are at risk, much like Williams’ mother who faces a seemingly impossible battle to win. The anxiety and suffering that comes with the recognition of near death is the thread that weaves these two narratives together. Williams makes this connection clear in the prologue of the memoir: 

The losses I encountered at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as Great Salt Lake was rising helped me to face the losses within my family.  When most people had given up on the Refuge, saying the birds were gone, I was drawn further into its essence.  In the same way that when someone is dying many retreat, I choose to stay.” (3-4)

The inclusion of this passage in the very beginning of the memoir establishes the connection between Williams’ informative writing on the Great Salt Lake and her personal account on how death affects her life, as she compares her attitude toward the birds in the refuge with how death takes form in her life. Because this is one of the earlier connections between the two narratives, there is no fragment or “white space” that separates them, meaning the ideas are strung together in the same paragraph. Without the physical separation between the two ideas on the page, readers subconsciously view them as related to one another. This moment sets up the overarching metaphor of the memoir while seamlessly introducing readers to the idea of a braided form. 

    With the door opened to the braided narrative, Williams dives deeper into the connection between her mother and the lake. Strengthening the braid, “Whimbrels” sees Williams juxtaposing two of the most important aspects of her life:

… The long-legged birds with their eyes focused down transform a seemingly sterile world into a fecund one.  It is here in the marshes that I seal my relationship to Great Salt Lake.

I could never have anticipated its rise.

My mother was aware of a rise on the left side of her abdomen.  I was deep in dream.  This particular episode found me hiding beneath my grandmother’s bed as eight black helicopters flew toward the house.  I knew we were in danger.” (22)

Although it may come across as clunky and confusing, this passage is a perfect example of how Williams has mastered the braided form. Separating the two thoughts with a blank space establishes the fact that they are not explicitly related, however, because of the already established relationship between the two, readers know to connect the dots. Another technique Williams uses in this passage is the repetition of a connecting word, in this case, the word “rise”. “Rise” holds great meaning in both of these specific moments, marking the turning point for the Great Salt Lake’s destruction and Williams’ mother’s increasing battle with cancer. By repeating the word, readers see the connection play out in front of them, as the memoir’s metaphor comes to life. Using one word also allows Williams to gently transition from one to another in a way that makes sense.

Another technique that strengthens the braided narrative in Refuge, is Williams’ subtle increase in her use of white space. As both narratives progress, the number of line breaks between them grow greater and greater. Most notably when stakes are high and Williams is feeling more anxious than before, one sentence fragments begin to tell the story: 

“Mother.  She is preoccupied.  Yesterday, on the telephone, she said she didn’t think she could make the family backpacking trip in the Tetons scheduled for summer.

‘I think I may have pulled some muscles in my stomach,’ she said.

I want to believe her.

It rains and rains.  Great Salt Lake continues to rise.

Eudora Welty, when asked what causes she would support, replied, ‘Peace, education, conservation, and quiet.’

Mother, Mimi and Jack, and I are seeking quiet in St. George, Utah.” (133-134)

    This passage, albeit chaotic and disjointed, is the one of the strongest moments of the braided narrative Readers go back and forth between both stories, feeling the anxiety that Williams herself felt in these very moments. Although a white space breaks them apart, their shortness and intensity connects these sentences together. They might deal with two different subjects, but they mean the same to Williams and in turn her readers. The use of white space creates a physical separation between the narratives that readers can actually see. One can view each of these passages as separate strands that once braid with one another, create a beautiful end product. 

The message behind Refuge is change is inevitable and tomorrow is never promised. Williams wants readers to know that no matter how hard they try, they can never prevent natural change, such as flooding or cancer, from taking over and reshaping their lives. By combining two stories that explore this idea. Refuge serves as a two-in-one deal and gold star example of the production and effectiveness of braided form. The braided narrative allows a much richer and fulfilling reading experience, as one walks away with multiple examples of one important lesson or message. Instead of simply telling two separate stories, Williams effortlessly weaves them together in a way that makes readers reflect on their own lives and the strands that they can braid together to create something beautiful. 

Work Cited

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Second Vintage  Books. 2001.

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