How we can all find beauty in a broken world

#4: Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams (2009)

Reading Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World following David Gessner’s My Green Manifesto proved to be a fortuitous coincidence. The two books work well in conversation with one another because both authors come to realize the importance of thinking local as an approach toward solving larger problems.

Williams sums it up best for herself in a quote from Mother Theresa: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Whereas Gessner comes to his revelation during a trip down the Charles River, Williams comes to hers by visiting several places and then pieces together her experiences into a literary mosaic—a key conceit that affects both the structure and content of her book. “A mosaic,” she says, “is a conversation between what is broken.”

Williams takes a bold risk in Finding Beauty: structures the book as a series of small and large fragments. Rather than paragraphs, the book has section breaks. Some fragments appear as a single sentence, or a single quote, on a page. Longer narrative sections have section breaks rather than paragraph breaks, separated from other narrative sections by a double section break. She includes transcripts of letters, snippets from poems, sections of journals.

Together, the many fragments form a whole memoir that explores the relationship between beauty and place.

She begins the book, or nearly so, in Ravenna, Italy, where she learns the art of mosaic making. There, she also explains the aesthetic sense that will inform the book. “I believe in the beauty of all things common,” she declares. “I believe in the beauty of all things broken.”

This is especially important to her because, in the wake of 9-11, she “was desperate to retrieve the poetry I had lost.” She also understands that American society, on the whole, was already broken apart even before the terrorist attacks. “Fragmentation and breaking up is indeed the essence of the twentieth century,” she writes.

Mosaic-making is a way to begin to reconstruct beauty from fragmentation. “We create the future through a rearrangement of forms, what we have learned from the past,” she says.

In the next segment of the book, she spends time with a group of researchers observing a colony of endangered Utah prairie dogs. Technically, Utah prairie dogs are “threatened,” not “endangered,” because political pressure prevents their full protection even though the species sits on the brink of extinction. “The manipulation of extinction is done most efficiently through bureaucracies,” she says—a statement that will have haunting resonance later in the book when she visits Rwanda.

Too many moneyed interests consider prairie dogs to be pests even though scientists have come to understand the central role prairie dogs play in prairie ecology—so central, in fact, that without prairie dogs it’s essentially impossible to have healthy prairie.

“The issues circling the Utah prairie dog are the same issues shaping politics and culture in the American West. How do we view progress?” Williams asks.

She watches the prairie dog colony closely and documents the literal moment-by-moment movement of the “P Dogs” under her watch. This section of the book was least successful because it gets boring, fast. Even Williams gets bored. “Five more hours. Damn,” she admits.

She includes the tedious details because, over time, she begins to notice small things about the prairie dogs that give her a new appreciation for them. “I had no idea. I had no idea of the power of prairie dogs,” she realizes. “I am beginning to see prairie dogs differently, being stretched by all I am seeing, learning, perceiving.”

She attempts, through her approach, to allow readers to have the same kind of discovery for themselves. One must be a patient, willing reader to stick with Williams through this stretch of the book, however. At one point, I said to a friend, “Oh God, she jumped the shark with these damn prairie dogs.”

She then goes to a museum to look at their prairie dog holdings, and goes specimen by specimen through the collection. More tedium. While I’m hardly anyone to second-guess a writer/naturalist like Williams, I thought this stretch of the book could’ve been executed more effectively because I nearly gave up on her, despite the beauty of some of her writing and despite the interesting insights she was beginning to have and connections she was beginning to make.

For instance, her father owns an excavation company that some of her brothers work for. They dig very much as prairie dogs do. “The men in my family are responsible for seeing that the circulatory system of our communities works,” she writes. She compares the results-oriented work of the diggers with the less concrete work she does as a writer. “Writing is manual labor of the mind: a job like laying pipe,” she writes, quoting John Gregory Dunne. “I wonder. As a writer, you never know if your work has standing or has any practical value in the world.”

Williams’ attention shifts to family for a while when her brother Steve dies of cancer—the latest of several family members to be struck down that way. The individual tragedy is then juxtaposed against the massive scale of death she comes face to face with when she visits Rwanda to help with a public art project to commemorate victims of the 1994 genocide.

In Rwanda, “the sadness…can be felt like humidity as it seeps into our skin,” she says. The country is so broken that “[t]ime, here, does not seem like a horizontal line but rather a circle drawn tight around Rwanda that contracts and expands like traumatized lungs.”

The scope of the genocide—upwards of a million deaths, most of them violent and horrific, with even more rapes, beatings, and atrocities heaped on top of them—pushed Williams to the brink of an emotional breakdown. She wondered how a single public art project could do anything to help the country heal.

“It is not in our psychology as human beings to respond to the grand abstractions of catastrophe,” Williams says. “We turn away. But we can respond to the suffering of another human being.” Keeping her focus on the project, then, helped keep her from being overwhelmed by tragic weight of the genocide.

The village where they worked, Rugerero, along the Congolese border, embraces the project in a way that redefines the entire community in surprising ways. Beauty doesn’t just blossom, it erupts. As the scribe for the group, Williams comes to understand her role in much the way Gessner saw writers: they needed to tell success stories and share them far and wide as positive examples for others to follow. Share successes as a way to inspire.

Throughout, Williams remains deeply grounded in place as a way to tell her stories and make connections between her mosaic pieces. For instance: “Dirt—the prairie dog mounds, the graves of genocide, the grave of my brother—who can fathom the meaning of holding a fistful of dirt?”

Finding Beauty does just that. The process is sometimes slow, and it sometimes seems hopeless—but Williams believes everything broken has an inherent beauty waiting to be found. “There is a way of being in the world that calls us beyond hope,” she says. “Mosaic is not simply an art form but a form of integration, a way of not only seeing the world but responding to it.”

Williams would challenge us to concentrate on the pieces. As we snap them into place, the whole they create will come into being, come into shape, come into focus. The world may be in pieces, yet it still can be beautiful—and we can help make it so.


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