Author Pieces Together Natural Mosaic The environmental author Terry Tempest Williams writes about the collision of the human and natural worlds. She's best known for Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Her new book is called Finding Beauty in a Broken World.

Author Pieces Together Natural Mosaic

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SCOTT SIMON, host.

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, Randy Owens' tales from and of Alabama. But first, 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," that weaves together the author's personal experiences with observations of nature and man's impact on it. Her new book also combines seemingly disparate elements: her apprenticeship in mosaic design, the challenges facing the Utah prairie dog, and genocide in Rwanda. It's called "Finding Beauty in a Broken World." Caitlin Shetterly has the story.

CAITLIN SHETTERLY: "Finding Beauty in a Broken World" had its genesis on the one-year anniversary of September 11.

(Soundbite of book "Finding Beauty in a Broken World")

Ms. TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS (Author; Naturalist; Environmental Activist): (Reading) 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 the 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.

SHETTERLY: 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 at making art out of broken bits of tile.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And because I couldn't create a mosaic out of tessera, I wanted to see could I 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.

SHETTERLY: Williams' talent is making the larger picture personal, says her father, John Tempest. He points to her book "Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place" and the way it links her mother's death from ovarian cancer to nuclear testing in Utah. John Tempest says it wasn't easy for him when the personal went public.

Mr. JOHN TEMPEST: "Refuge" was hard for me. You know, it was about the death of my wife. And it was hard for me. And we had a lot of go-arounds on it. But in the long run, I think it has helped a lot of people. I mean, when "Refuge" was on tour, the book tour, all the women would come bringing their mother and their sister with their bandanas on their head because they were taking chemotherapy. And so, the audience would just be full of bald women taking chemotherapy. So, you know, it's so touching.

And I think they were helped by the message of hope, that nature's a cycle, you know, and things eventually cycle around, and it all works out. That's the basic premise of "Refuge," and basically it's the premise of this book probably, too. And I think it is true. You know, it is healing - nature is healing. It's all a great, big cycle.

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

Ms. JENNIFER SAHN (Editor, 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. No one had done that as passionately since Rachel Carson. And I think Terry was the most prominent woman nature writer since Carson.

ADLER: 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.

Mr. TEMPEST: I read one time, I was reading, and it said a girl of 14 is just as physically strong and fit as a boy. So I treated Terry like a boy. I took her touring(ph) with me everywhere I went. And so I taught her a lot of lessons. I took her out on the jobs with me. So she's taken it from there and gone way beyond I ever thought of, you know.

ADLER: 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 her book, which is about prairie dogs.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I watched prairie dogs every day stand with their paws pressed together facing the rising sun in total stillness for up to 30 minutes. And then I watched them at the end of the day take that same gesture. Thirty 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 the speed and rapidity with which we live.

ADLER: The prairie dog 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. Most Westerners see them as pesky rodents, more suited to extermination than protection.

Mr. TEMPEST: In my perspective, as a young boy, when we were on our way to Jackson Hole in Wyoming driving with my parents, they'd let us out and my brother and I with our .22s would shoot dozens of them just for target practice. You know, they were everywhere. See what I mean? They were just so common, it was ridiculous. So, I wouldn't tell Terry this, but I, you know, shot up to a hundred of them in a day, myself, as a young boy, see.

SHETTERLY: In the last section of "Finding Beauty in a Broken World," Terry Tempest 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.

Mr. RICK BASS (Novelist): People are going to criticize her for that, saying, oh, Terry, a prairie dog's not a human being. You can't write about the two things in the same book. 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.

SHETTERLY: Terry Tempest 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. And she'd been studying the prairie dogs' demise. Williams says she thought she couldn't handle any more death or pain.

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, I look at the plight of the prairie dogs. 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, we see the same symptoms. It's about power. It's about greed. It's about certain elements of the population that are expendable.

SHETTERLY: For Terry Tempest Williams, it's this mosaic that needs to be pieced together so that we can learn from what we've done and repair what is broken. For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Shetterly.

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