Finding Beauty in a Broken World
by Terry Tempest Williams
Pantheon Books / $26 / 416 pages
Renaissance art, endangered prairie dogs and Rwandan genocide are the compelling triptych in Terry Tempest Williams' quest to piece together the shards of a fractured and fractious world and find meaning within the broken bits.
Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a meditation on what in Yiddish is called tikkun olam - repairing the world. Williams repeatedly pairs violence and beauty in escalating examples while positing that beauty's healing grace can resonate in the darkest of places, be it a dying ecosystem in the Southwest desert or in a nation recovering from genocidal mass murder.
Williams, an award-winning scholar, environmentalist and naturalist, is chairwoman of environmental humanities at the University of Utah and has written 10 books on various aspects of the natural world, from snow to the desert. In Beauty , Williams begins in Ravenna, Italy, the birthplace of the mosaic. There she learns the art and art history of mosaic, which she recounts in fascinating, staccato detail. Mosaic soon becomes the metaphor for her various quests: "A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken."
Throughout this provocative narrative, Williams explains that everything has its own language. The language of the mosaic is how the hammer and a chisel-like instrument called a hardie smash glass or stone to create the tiny bits that become the images on the floors and walls of Ravenna.
The language of the prairie dog - a constant chip and chirp - is just as rich, if wholly different. When Williams takes her newly minted experience of mosaic back to her native Southwest, she becomes involved in a project observing and recording the lives of a clan of endangered prairie dogs in Bryce Canyon from the anchor of a tiny 4-foot-by-6-foot plywood box perched 10 feet above the burrows where the clan lives. From there, Williams records every moment of the animals' lives in an effort to stave off their extinction.
They have lived since the Pleistocene Era, a million years ago, but housing developments and urban sprawl are destroying their habitat.
"Prairie dogs create diversity. Destroy them and you destroy a varied world," writes Williams, who explains "prairie dogs are part of a grassland mosaic. Mosaic as a word and a concept has found its place in ecological principles."
For Williams, the interconnectedness between what happens in the animal world and what happens in the human world can be ignored only at great peril.
The prairie dogs are being killed off by developers in organized shoots described in sickening detail. These harrowing scenes are juxtaposed with the daily diary of Williams' sightings and monitoring of the animals.
When Williams examines prairie dog remains preserved and cataloged at the American Museum of Natural History, the perfectly preserved bones and skins lead her to think about her own recently dead brother who collected skulls and leads the narrative to the Rwandan genocide.
Williams travels with Philadelphia artist Lily Yeh to help create a memorial project. Rwanda provides an even more harrowing study in contrasts: incomparable and incomprehensible stories of stomach-churning violence and amazing resilience and survival. The pain is palpable in Williams' record of events.
In the end, Williams does help the healing - she adopts a Rwandan boy. The leitmotif of the mosaic as Williams conveys it is in the integration of the broken bits. She explains, "Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find."
This is a provocative, disturbing and profoundly important book. In prose by turns elegant and colloquial, poetic and passionate, Williams takes us to worlds we would never otherwise see and illumines why the extinction of any aspect of our world can shatter it irreparably. Beauty is Williams' most important, most visceral, most demanding work. It should - no must - be read.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the award-winning history, "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is currently at work on a novel about Trotsky in Mexico.
"What you see from a distance is not what you see up close. ... There are places in the world where beauty remains hidden and miraculously intact."