Hero: Terry Tempest Williams

BeautyI’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 The lenses of perception and perspective have been replaced by speed, motion.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.


Terry Tempest Williams

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.

The Pleasures and Follies of Reading Themes

The reading theme for January is “year.” (Reading theme: I’m doing this with my friend Sheila—we’ve identified themes for each month of the year. Mostly that means the theme word is in the title of a book, but sometimes we get more creative.)

I have just finished The Checkered Years: A Bonanza Farm Diary 1884-88, by Mary Dodge Woodward. Sometimes I like diaries and sometimes not, and this one I loved. I read a year a day, from 1884 to 1888, the lives of this family—she a widow—in the Dakota Territory (eight miles from Fargo). I can’t imagine such a life (except this book has now helped me experience it in some small way): “I baked seventeen loaves of bread today, making seventy-four loaves since last Sunday, not to mention twenty-one pies, and puddings, cakes, and doughnuts.” That’s just the baking of course. There’s also the cooking, the washing, the garden, the sewing, the chickens….

As a Minnesotan, I fancy myself acquainted with snow and blizzards, but winter on the prairie in Dakota Territory in the 1880s makes my Minneapolis winter seem like Florida.

I do not think people anywhere else guard against cold as they do here. I doubt if they wear three pairs of drawers, a buffalo coat over a cloth coat, a fur cap, a mask, and arctics over two or three pairs of socks and a pair of shoes.

January 12, 1888. 42 degrees below zero:

I doubt if there is a poet living who possesses vim enough to write a poem about a Dakota storm. I guess a blizzard would knock all the poetry out of a man. There is no romance about this country.”

But despite the brutal winter, Woodward sees beauty all around, on the same day: “Today a Jack rabbit came very near the house. He looked beautiful, as large as a dog and snow white. I beg the boys not to shoot them and then, in summer they eat my vegetables.”

Possibly most fascinating is the mention of several mirages, most commonly in winter. I was familiar with desert mirages, but not prairie mirages.

There was a grand mirage this morning. Katie and I, as we hung out our clothes, watched a train sailing in the air; but we could see none of the farm houses between the cars and us, although there must have been many. We could see timber a hundred miles away; while villages ten miles away looked close at hand.”

I found the whole book fascinating and engaging, and very humbling.

dotyThe other extremely good year book that I’ve read is Dog Years, by Mark Doty. This is the story of the dogs that span 16 years of his life, a time that his partner died of AIDS, but it really is pretty much all about the dogs. I am not a dog person and I wanted to get a dog before I was even halfway through this book. If you even remotely like dogs you will likely love Dog Years.

In the world of fiction I started the year theme with Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years. My first Anne Tyler. Not a long book, but it took me nearly three weeks to finish. I guess I am not an Anne Tyler fan. I will give her another chance (but not for a good while). Three weeks! And I have so many good “year” fiction books! But then John Sandford’s new book, Deadline, came in at the library (I just can’t buy him new anymore), and I picked it up yesterday and finished it today. It’s really nice to get sucked into a book like that and who cares about the theme?

hareI’ve still got over a week left in January, for a couple of those enticing fiction books. The Year of the Hare and Leap Year are floating to the top. But who knows? Moods change.

Unfortunately, in nonfiction I have read all the year books that called to me. IHoover have a few left in the pile: A Year at the Movies, A Year in Provence, and The Years of the Forest. I’m not in the mood for France, so that will go back on the shelf; the movie book—it doesn’t look as enticing as it did several years ago when I found it in the dollar bin, and I think I’ll take it back to Half Price Books. The Years of the Forest is a small regret, because I love Helen Hoover. But after years of brutal winters (oh, summers too) on the prairie with Mary Dodge Woodward, I’m not keen to jump into brutal winters (summers too) in the north woods.

So this morning I needed a new nonfiction book to start, having finished The Checkered Years. Feeling just slightly guilty, I bypassed the few remaining “year” books, and picked up The Impulse Society, by Paul Roberts. I’m only to page 11, so I can’t say much. But based on this from the introduction, I think it will be interesting:

In everything from eating and socializing to marriage and parenting to politics, the norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in civic, social ways. We struggle to make, or keep, long-term commitments. We find it harder to engage with, or even tolerate, people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our faith in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.”

It sounds a bit like an updated Bowling Alone. I’ll keep you posted.


I seem to cry at the drop of a hat these days. This morning, it was this passage, an excerpt of a speech by Winston Churchill, in No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, weChurchill shall fight in the seas and oceans . . . we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

This was in 1940, just after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

KearnsNo Ordinary Time is primarily the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the home front in World War II, but we get a bit of the goings on in other parts of the world. As usual, Goodwin’s writing draws you in, almost making you feel like you’re living in the early 1940s. It will almost certainly make the year’s top 10, and I say this even though I have read only 80 of its 759 pages.

It makes me want to read 20 more books about the Roosevelts, World War II, and Winston Churchill. However, in a huge show of restraint, I will refrain from buying any until I’ve finished my current tome.