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Terry Tempest Williams is an award-winning ecological writer who, throughout her works, portrays images of the natural landscape in the American West, particularly around the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991), Williams makes a connection between natural and man-made geological change, the poisoned environment, and human disease as she relates her mother’s decline and death from breast cancer and tracks the physical effects of the toxic environment on humans, animals, and the environment itself. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice (2012), a sequel to Refuge, exposes the power of things in their voicelessness through Terry’s reflections on her mother Diane’s journals and variations on the voices of birds. This paper employs ideas from new materialism to examine Refuge and When Women Were Birds as literary examples of the agency of nonhuman matter in the power of “things” to tell a story. By adding this nonhuman narrative to the human story, Williams’s text has the power to awaken its readers to wonder at the natural world, to feel dismay at its poisoning, and even to inspire its readers to protect the environment.


KEYWORDS: affect, agency, matter, thing-power, Refuge, When Women Were Birds

DOI: 10.30395/WSR.202112_15(2).0005