- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

FINDING BEAUTY IN A BROKEN WORLD

By Terry Tempest Williams

Fantheon $26, 419 pages

Reviewed by Philip Kopper

As Terry Tempest Williams is a woman of parts - museum curator, author, teacher, crusader - her latest book is aggressively and intentionally an amalgam of art, intellect, ecology and spirit - one part screed, two parts paean, all parts pensee, an extended meditation. Digressive, discursive and given to tangents, an odd book in many ways, it makes good on the promise of the title, and offers beauty in many forms within three contexts.

Like all tours de force, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World” is a contrivance. Ms. Williams constructed it in a manner intended to convey both the ubiquity of her search and her success at finding meaning that ignores irony and goes beyond ambivalence. Its very range is one of its most impressive elements, as it opens in Italy where she learns the ancient art of making mosaics, then moves to join a team of biologists doing field work in a prairie dog colony in Utah, then moves to Rwanda to witness the strange fruits of genocide.

On the face of it, this might suggest a straightforward structure. But it isn’t, as Ms. Williams weaves her own life, and reflections on it, in and out of all three places and narratives.

In Ravenna, where she is an apprentice, her teacher speaks in cryptic aphorisms. “You can learn this technique in 15 minutes” - how to make glittering the fragments that compose a mosaic, how to place the glass tesserae in juxtapositions that create images. “It will take you a lifetime to master it.” Mosaics are ancient and anonymous and composed in a tradition governed by rules. “Making mosaics is a way of thinking about the world,” says the teacher. “Mosaics are created out of community.”

Ms. Williams’ next stop is a community of prairie dogs, a virtual rodent city, in Utah where she treads ground that is familiar - both to her as a Westerner, and to any reader who cares a lick about the natural world. Five species of these critters, comparatively old for mammals, are besieged by humans and regarded as pests in most of the Rocky Mountain West. They are detested by developers and ranchers and in some places suffered by politicians and bureaucrats. Admired for their social organization by biologists, they are deemed a “keystone species” because of their essential roles in their primeval habitats - as diggers in soil, spreaders of seeds, sustainers of predators, etc. Explaining both the biology and politics of prairie dogs, Ms. Williams’ experiences are instructive and entertaining.

Her travels and travails in Rwanda are, predictably, horrendous as any witnessing of genocide and its aftermaths must be. She sees too many bodies to comprehend - too many skeletons and human skulls, too many remains of slaughter. Yet she finds a village “that is in the process of painting itself alive, breathing life back into its community through color and the joyful emancipatory gesture of creating beauty.” Here she joins others in building a memorial to the victims of mass murder, a locus for remembrance and reconciliation.

One miracle of Ms. Williams’ approach is the common sense she brings to these meditations. On the other hand, her practice of writing in fragments can become labored, even irritating in some of the ways that the book breaks the mold. For instance, it has no table of contents, or even a clear organizing principle besides the author’s perambulations in these particular travels. As for the digressions and tangents, she might consider them side trips, and for the reader willing to pursue them - to linger and ponder - some of them contain marvelous things to contemplate.

A most moving and crystalline aside involves Ms. Williams’ brother, Steve. Early in the book we learn he has terminal cancer. “Before he died, Steve requested that his body remain at home for a period of time as family and friends gathered. … ‘I want the children to be familiar with death and not fear it.’…

“There were eight nieces and nephews ranging from 4 to 14. … They stood in the hallway, tentative and frightened, but they loved Steve and we told them before entering that this was Steve’s gift to them, to be able to witness how death is part of life and how the body becomes a shell after the spirit leaves.

“The children entered the room where Steve’s body lay. They touched his feet; they touched his arms and felt them as cold. They moved closer and lovingly rubbed his forehead. Respectful, curious. And then, one by one, they began to cry, freely and unself-conscious. One of them said ‘Steve was my best friend.’ Another said ‘I miss him.’ Within minutes the children were sitting on the bed alongside his body telling stories about their uncle. Fear was transformed into comfort, curiosity melted into love, and the silence was no longer uncomfortable. …The children understood. …”

Ms. Williams continues, “And I thought about the conversation we had shared a few days earlier about what we thought the afterlife might be. He said, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing how all this works.’ ”

Lest you infer that the Tempest family of Utah are a clan of tree huggers, think again. The generations-old family business is digging - laying pipelines, waterlines, sewers and such. At Steve’s burial “I watched and wondered what the men in my family know that I will never understand because of one simple thing - their tool of choice is a shovel.” It is a boast, in part because by contrast, as ying lives with yang, Terry Tempest Williams’ tools are words, ideas, sentences, fragments. She uses them to dig into chosen corners of our world, and to illuminate some unknowns in flickering light.

Philip Kopper’s books include “The Wild Edge,” a natural history of the beach, and “America’s National Gallery of Art,” a history of that museum.

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