I’ve just finished Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams. Not her most recent book, but one of the few that I hadn’t read. At times I struggled with this book. It covers three distinct (sort of) topics: making mosaics (she actually goes to Italy and learns this ancient art); prairie dogs; and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
The book itself is a mosaic: Snippets of this and that, observations, occasional quotations, sometimes it flows smoothly and other times it’s bumpy and discrete. I decided early on to write about this book. But then I got bogged down in the prairie dogs and decided not to write, since Rwanda was still coming up and I was looking forward to that a bit less than the prairie dogs.
But like a mosaic, the whole of Finding Beauty in a Broken World is much more than the sum of its parts. When I finished it this morning, I realized it is one of her best books yet. (Although it’s possible I say that about all her books.)
I most love her writing and her love of nature. She spends a couple of weeks in Bryce Canyon observing prairie dogs as part of a research study. We get 110 pages of her observations (this is where I got bogged down a bit), much of it about prairie dogs but also the surrounding environment.
“Cloud ships are sailing across the plateau once again. . . . Two pronghorn antelope passing through. Elegance on four legs.”
More than merely beautiful, her writing is meaningful at the soul level. Terry Tempest Williams makes my soul cry, because she doesn’t hide from the broken parts of our world. Terry Tempest Williams also makes my soul sing, because she doesn’t ignore it, she takes it on, she raises her voice. At first bored with hours and days of nothing but observing prairie dogs and making notes, “slowly, hour by hour, panic and boredom became awe and wonder. I grew quiet.” She writes,
The degree of our awareness is the degree of our aliveness. . . . Much of our world now is a fabrication, a fiction, a manufactured and manipulated time-lapsed piece of filmmaking where a rose no longer unfolds but bursts. Speed is the buzz, the blur, the drug. Life out of focus becomes our way of seeing. We no longer expect clarity. The lenses of perception and perspective have been replaced by speed, motion. We don’t know how to stop. The information we value is retrieved, rarely internalized.”
And I learned a lot about prairie dogs. They are endangered but poorly protected. They are a keystone species because they have a major effect on biological diversity in prairie ecosystems. They have a significant language, including different calls for different species of predators. They can convey descriptive information about a predator, including size, color, and how fast it’s traveling. Their language includes nouns, modifiers, and the ability to develop new words. Seriously.
I also learned a lot about Rwanda (though I knew a bit more about Rwanda going in than I did about prairie dogs). Like the section on prairie dogs, there was some grisly, difficult reading. But again, she also finds beauty and hope.
Should you start with this book if you haven’t read any Williams? I don’t know that I’d recommend it. If you are intrigued, I would start with Refuge, perhaps her most famous book, and then follow it up with When Women Were Birds. Published 21 years apart, both of these books involve Williams’s mother—her death from cancer in the first book, and the journals she leaves behind in the second. Both are extremely powerful and moving.
Terry Tempest Williams is my hero because of her words as well as her actions. She tells it as she sees it, doesn’t hesitate to jump deep into the experience, and then goes to work to see what she can do to help fix it. Finding beauty in a broken world.