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Finding Beauty in a Broken World Hardcover – October 7, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Williams (The Open Space of Democracy) travels to Ravenna, Italy, a town famous for its ancient mosaics, to learn a new language with my hands. Back home in Utah, Williams views the lives of a clan of endangered prairie dogs—a species essential to the ecological mosaic of the grasslands and the creators of the most sophisticated animal language decoded so far—through the rules of Italian mosaics. After intimate study of a prairie dog town at Bryce Canyon, her visit to 19th-century prairie dog specimens at the American Museum of Natural History segues, dreamlike, to a glass case of bones from the genocide in Rwanda, where Williams, overwhelmed by the death of her brother but knowing that her own spiritual evolution depended upon it, travels with artist Lily Yeh, who understands mosaic as taking that which is broken and creating something whole, to build a memorial with genocide survivors. The book, itself a skillful, nuanced mosaic (a conversation between what is broken... a conversation with light, with color, with form) uses this way of thinking about the world to convincingly make the connection between racism and specism and sensitively argues for respect for life in all its myriad forms. (Oct.)
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*Starred Review* Ecologist and writer Williams composes gracefully structured inquiries lush with unexpected and revelatory correspondences. In her most far-reaching and profoundly clarifying work to date, Williams considers the complex beauty of brokenness and the redemptive art of creating wholeness from fragments in a triptych of explorations. She begins in a mosaics workshop in Ravenna, Italy, and then brings the understanding gleaned from working with tesserae to her day-by-day observations of a beleaguered Utah prairie dog town. Williams marvels over this tunnel-building, highly communicative species and dubs them “prayer dogs” for their habit of standing and watching the sunset. Prairie dogs are crucial to the biodiversity of the grassland ecosystem, a living mosaic, yet they have been brutally massacred and driven to the brink of extinction. The story of her brother’s death entwines with Williams’ riveting account of her trip to Rwanda with visionary artist Lily Yeh to help create a genocide memorial. Brokenhearted in this land of bones and sorrow, Williams gathers shattering stories of death and resilience with the help of an extraordinary survivor who becomes her son, bearing witness to the horror of neighbors slaughtering neighbors in an attempted annihilation. Scientific in her exactitude, compassionate in her receptivity, and rhapsodic in expression, Williams has constructed a beautiful mosaic of loss and renewal that affirms, with striking lucidity, the need for reverence for all of life. --Donna Seaman
Top customer reviews
Although I enjoyed her overall approach, Williams is most at home when sharing her love of the natural world in southern Utah. I would have been happy if the book had simply focused on her experiences with the prairie dogs in Bryce Canyon. It reminded me of watching episodes of Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet. I wanted to keep reading about the prairie dog clans and her experiences as a volunteer. Her studies made me want to learn more about the hummingbirds that live in the Pinion Pines and Utah Juniper outside my kitchen window.
I can tell Terry Tempest Williams enjoys traveling the world, but I encourage her to focus on the needs and issues that impact the American southwest. Living in southern Utah myself, I feel connected to her descriptions and experiences.
Although I enjoyed this book, I'm hoping that future works will revisit the place-based approach I loved in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. I'd love a book that provides insights into the wide range of endangered plants and animals of our area. Prairie dogs are just the beginning.
"We have forgotten the virtue of sitting, watching, observing. Nothing much happens. This is the way of nature. We breathe together. Simply this. For long periods of time, the meadow is still. We watch. We wait. We wonder. Our eyes find a resting place. And then, the slightest of breezes moves the grass. It can be heard as a whispered prayer." (p. 196)
"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, never internalized." (p. 196)
"There are long skeins of time when I feel so confused and lost in this broken world of our own making. I don't know who we have become or what to believe or whom to trust. In the presence of prairie dogs, I feel calm, safe, and reassured, sensing there is something more enduring than our own minds. I feel a peace that holds my heart, not because I believe this is better than the world we have created. I feel at peace because the memory of wild nature is held within the nucleus of each living cell. Our bodies remember wholeness in the midst of fragmentation." (p. 198)
"Clay-colored monks dressed in discreet robes of fur stand as sentinels outside their burrows, watching, watching as their communities disappear, one by one, their hands raised up in prayer." (p. 205)
Individually, the two main stories (the initial mosaic story is little more than an introduction) are interesting, and, perhaps because I am a biologist myself, I found the prairie dog story very interesting. They just don't work as a combination.
Also quite jarring is that like in most of Terry's books, she is very sloppy with bird names, which is surprising for someone who is working so closely with nature, and who actually takes pains to name birds to species level in her books. But did she really see a ruby-throated hummingbird in Bryce, or was that a broad-tailed (which also has a ruby throat), given that the former is extremely rare in Utah and the other is ubiquitous? She misspells "trogon" for "trogan", and not in the wildest imagination can the call of a wagtail be called a "song" (I believe she calls it soothing or something as well). Either these birds are misidentified, or her field notes are just confused. Either way, it doesn't speak well for someone talking so much about the environment and wild animals and location to make these mistakes. That, together with the lack of cohesion in this book, lowers my opinion of it.
The last part of the book, chronicling her visit to a Rwandan village, was difficult to read. There is profound suffering, trauma and an overall sense of defeat and unending sorrow. Yet Williams renders her very personal journey within a universal context of finding the ability to survive and the will to mend this broken world.
Williams' writing is profoundly compassionate, erudite, and visceral. Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a deeply human book. Hers is a voice that should, and needs, to be heard, recognized, and celebrated.