Author Pieces Together Natural Mosaic

Terry Tempest Williams writes about the collision of the human and natural worlds. The environmental writer is best known for her 1991 book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, which weaves together the author's personal experiences with observations of nature and human's often-destructive impact on it.

Her new book also combines seemingly disparate elements: her apprenticeship in mosaic design; the challenges facing the Utah prairie dog; and the genocide in Rwanda. It's called, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and it had its genesis on the anniversary of Sept. 11. Williams begins it this way:

We watched the towers collapse.
We watched America choose war.
The peace in our own hearts shattered.
How to pick up the pieces?
What to do with these pieces?
I was desperate to retrieve the poetry I had lost.
Standing on a rocky point in Maine, looking east toward the horizon at dusk, I faced the ocean. "Give me one wild word." It was all I asked of the sea.

Williams writes that the sea answered "mosaic." She took this message literally and signed up for a mosaic apprenticeship in Ravenna, Italy. She found out that she wasn't any good making art out of broken bits of tile.

"And because I couldn't create a mosaic out of tessera," Williams says, "I wanted to see if I could create a mosaic out of words. And the question can be asked, 'Why have an essay about prairie dogs next to an essay about the Rwandan genocide?' I believe that there are semblances between seemingly disparate ideas if we can stand back and see a larger picture."

Making The Larger Picture Personal

Williams' father, John Tempest, points to her book, Refuge, and the way it links her mother's death from ovarian cancer to nuclear testing in Utah. Tempest says it wasn't easy for him when the personal went public.

"Refuge was hard for me — it was about the death of my wife and it was hard for me and we had a lot of go-rounds on it," he says. "But in the long run I think it has helped a lot of people. When Refuge was on tour, all the women would come bringing their mothers and their sisters with their bandanas on their heads because they were taking chemotherapy and it was so touching. And I think they were helped by the message of hope that nature's a cycle and things eventually cycle around and it all works out."

Connecting human life to nature's cycle puts Terry Tempest Williams in good company, says Jennifer Sahn, editor of Orion Magazine.

"Refuge was an amazing book for what it did to bring the story of human health and the story of environmental health together in a really passionate way," says Sahn. "No one had done that as passionately since Rachel Carson — and I think Terry is the most prominent woman nature writer since Carson."

Like the author of Silent Spring, Terry Tempest Williams is an environmentalist committed to showing man's impact on the land. Her connection to nature was forged as a young girl. Her father ran a family pipe-laying business and took her out on jobs with him all over the American West. It was on these trips that Terry Tempest Williams learned to pay close attention to the natural world. That skill came in handy when she was researching the second section of Finding Beauty in a Broken World, which is about prairie dogs.

"I watched prairie dogs every day, rise before the sun, stand with their paws pressed together facing the rising sun in total stillness for up to 30 minutes," says Williams. "And then I watched them at the end of the day take that same gesture 30 minutes before the sun goes down they would press their palms together in perfect stillness. I don't mean to anthropomorphize, but when you look at a creature that has survived over the millennium begin and end each day in that kind of stance, it causes one to think about one's own life and speed and rapidity in which we live."

That family that she observed is one of the last remaining Utah prairie dog communities on protected land. In 1973 the Utah prairie dog was put on the endangered species list, but after lobbying from developers and ranchers it was demoted to a threatened species status. Most westerners see them as pesky rodents — more suited to extermination than protection.

Piecing Together The Mosaic

In the last section of Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Williams makes what some might consider a wild leap from the extermination of prairie dogs to the genocide in Rwanda. Montana novelist Rick Bass says this was a courageous choice.

"People are going to criticize her for that, saying, 'Oh Terry, a prairie dog is not a human being, you can't write about the two things in the same book'," Bass says. "She's not saying a prairie dog is a human being, she's saying we're killing everything from the bottom to the top with no culpability, no accountability, no emotions, no considerations. She's just bearing testimony to the things she loves about life and about being alive."

Williams' decision to go to Rwanda followed a harrowing period in her life. Her brother had just died of lymphoma, a death she also believes is tied to nuclear testing. She had also been studying the prairie dogs' demise. Williams says she thought she couldn't handle any more death or pain.

"You know I look at the plight of the prairie dogs," says Williams. "I look at my brother's death from lymphoma as a downwinder and I look at the causes that underlie any war and I think if we look deeply enough, closely enough, we see the same symptoms. It's about power, it's about greed, it's about certain elements of the population that are expendable."

For Williams, it's this mosaic that needs to be pieced together, so we can learn from what we've done and repair what is broken.

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