Seeking a Safe Place across History
Editor's Note: This column was written in September before recent events in the Middle East.
My earliest understanding of the word refuge came from a bird refuge. Twice a year during the migratory season, my grandmother took my brothers and me to Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, where the cool, clear Bear River flows through a marshy delta into the dead sea of the Great Salt Lake. The birds found there a feeding ground and shelter on their long flights north or south. I learned to identify a white-faced ibis and thrilled at the occasional tundra swan. For thousands of years, the fresh waters of the Bear River delta also have been a human refuge from the surrounding deserts of the Great Basin for the Shoshone, Paiute, Bannock, and Ute peoples and is now a psychological refuge for urbanites from the exploding population along the Wasatch Front region.
As an adult historian, I have come to understand the word refuge quite differently from a rest stop for traveling birds or stressed city dwellers. The words refuge and migration go together, speaking to past histories and to our own moment of mass human migrations forced by climate change, economic deprivation, and political strife. Much of history consists of narratives about people migrating to find a refuge, a safe place to survive, live, and prosper, to escape slavery, starvation, or persecution.
The Western urtext about migration and refuge is Exodus, the biblical story about how the ancient Israelites fled slavery in Egypt and found the Promised Land. The Exodus narrative is everywhere in Western civilization, from messianic cults and the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. to, as Michael Walzer has argued, secular revolutionaries including Lenin. The Exodus narrative suggests the opportunity to fashion society anew, to make what had been unbearable better. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge fits well into this narrative tradition: after escaping from religious harassment and murderous mobs in Missouri and Illinois, emigrating Mormons, too, found a refuge among the tributaries of the Great Salt Lake.
Ubiquitous repetitions rule out such revealing but inconvenient truths.
Migration and refuge are everywhere in American history. The Pilgrims sought in Massachusetts a religious refuge from the Anglican establishment, and then the Puritan establishment forced Quaker and Baptist nonconformists to migrate to Rhode Island. Refugee narratives such as those about the Underground Railroad for self-emancipating enslaved people from the US South abound with attempts to find freedom. On and on across the history of America to the current moment, when the governors of Texas and Florida have forced migrants to find refuges in New York, Chicago, and Martha’s Vineyard.
Other narratives, however, have blinded people about the plight of those already on the land of refuge. One group’s liberation story is another’s tale of loss. The conquest narrative about Utah pretends that before the Mormons arrived, the land was empty, ripe for hardy white Americans to make the desert blossom as a rose. Jared Farmer’s fascinating book On Zion’s Mount explores how Mormon messianism made it necessary to hide the reality that northern Utah had been a thriving hub of Indigenous peoples’ activity, especially around Utah Lake, which was a major source of dried fish for as far away as the pueblos in New Mexico. The ubiquitous repetitions of the Exodus narrative rule out such revealing but inconvenient truths. As a bright student once asked a colleague about the biblical narrative, “So what happened to the Canaanites?”
For most of my life as a historian, I have studied the republic of Venice, whose chroniclers and early historians imbibed at the fountain of Exodus and other ancient texts of liberation when it came to explain the origins of their singular city—singular because of its water-bound site and because of its medieval and Renaissance institutions that guaranteed republican liberty. Until modern archaeology offered real evidence, Venetians did not know how their ancestors had come to settle in such an unusual place. In absence of a history, flattering fictions sprang up, one after another, most sharing the leitmotifs of migration and refuge. Building on the Aeneid, medieval and Renaissance writers imagined that after the destruction of Troy, its defeated nobility escaped to Italy, with some settling in the vicinity of Padua, which the Venetians conquered in the 15th century, allowing them to share fully in the Trojan foundation myth. The Trojans were a people who in the ancient world had refused to pay tribute to anyone and who even abandoned their homes to preserve their liberty from the Greek victors. The Trojan myth granted the Venetians primacy in the Mediterranean, the pure blood of the Trojan nobility, and exemption from the unseemly taint of the barbarian influences of late antiquity.
Myths, of course, need not be mutually consistent, and the Trojan myth was often subsumed into another refugee story about how the proto-Venetians abandoned the fertile mainland for the lagoons to escape Attila the Hun. As Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice in the early 17th century, put it, “True it is, that as all things savour of their first principles, so doth the said Republic.” The progenitors of the Venetians “were not of the meanest and basest quality,” and “they were timely instructed with temperance and penury (the nurses of moderation).” Many other migration myths have echoed these first principles that guiltless refugees can claim moral authority as a result of their suffering. What is left out of the Venetian narrative is the reality that immigration displaced the Indigenous population, the ancient Veneti, just as the Israelites displaced the Canaanites, the Pilgrims the Wampanoag and Massachusett, and the Mormons the Shoshone and Utes.
Now and in the future, hiding places from the newest source of migration, climate change, will be harder and harder to find.
The etymology of refuge links to shelter, retreat, and sanctuary. For centuries in Christian countries, churches were sanctuaries, hiding places from punishment or arrest, a concept that has been lost in such militantly Christian countries such as Hungary. Now and in the future, hiding places from climate change, the newest source of migration, will be harder and harder to find. “We hardly have a vocabulary for the extreme version of heat and drought we are now living through,” Terry Tempest Williams wrote in her recent essay in the New York Times about living in the Southwest through 47 straight days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with an average daily high of 107. “The heat bears down on our shoulders with the weight of a burning world. . . . You lose your mind.” As the climate apocalypse arrives, will we all lose our minds? An exodus may become necessary for millions, but where will they find a refuge?
The descendants of migrants clustered around the Great Salt Lake tributaries may soon need to find a new refuge and invent a new narrative. The lake is disappearing, leaving the dry lake bed strewn with the bodies of dead pelicans. The historic lake, which has existed for 13,000 years in its current form, has shrunk since 1987 by two-thirds. A Brigham Young University study reports that without extreme measures, the lake will disappear in five years. In the meantime, the 2.6 million people who live nearby will face swirling storms of mercury- and arsenic-laced dust from the desiccated lake bed. The airborne poisons will sicken many before migration becomes an option.
The birds in the refuge are already disappearing, and there are fewer havens for people too. Without refuges, there can be no refugees, but only permanent migrants roaming the world in a futile search for safety.
Edward Muir is president of the AHA.
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