Perhaps only Terry Tempest Williams could weave a coherent and compelling story from these seemingly unrelated parts: the broken chunks of stone and glass that form a mosaic, the language and social lives of a colony of Utah prairie dogs, and the aftermath of genocide in Rawanda so horrible I can't imagine what it must have been like.
"A mosaic," Tempest Williams writes at the beginning of the book, "is a conversation between what is broken." That's a wise and beautiful way to open a book that is her personal response to the events of 9/11. She begins with the study of mosaics and mosaic-making in Ravenna, Italy. After learning how to cut the stone and glass tesserae into the shapes of the design she has picked, she realizes she has to train her eye to pick out the individual colors and patterns of the tesserae and discern how what seems a jumble close-up becomes a vivid picture from the viewing distance.
From seeing the whole picture in the broken pieces that make up mosaics, Tempest Williams moves to watching Utah prairie dogs, one of the most unloved species in her own home landscape. Beginning with the facts of their lives and the devastation to their habitat, as well as the disdain in which these social, communicative rodents are held—including by the men in her family—Tempest Williams weaves the story of what prairie dogs mean to the mosaic of the landscapes where they live. The 200 wildlife species associated with their tunneling "towns," the way their burrows channel water deep into the soil to recharge groundwater tables, the fact that their engineering, their constant turning of the soil fertilizes it, the way their feeding increases the productivity of the plants they graze on. Their complex array of sounds that researchers consider a detailed language, able to convey not only that a person is walking toward their burrows, but details of that person's gait and dress.
The entire middle section of the book is taken up by William's detailed notes as she spends days watching a Utah prairie dog town as part of a research project, observing all the individuals, their habits and interactions, their care for each other, their play, the way they watch the world around them with their huge eyes, the details of their daily lives. Through her observations, the prairie dogs that are routinely gassed in their burrows, poisoned, shot, and trapped by the thousands come alive as individuals with stories of their own. Characters we want to know.
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
From prairie dogs as spiritual sentinels to devastation, to William's brother Stephen's death from cancer, from Stephen's death to Rwanda with its unimaginable genocide, where she helps build a monument of reconciliation, Williams takes each broken piece and carefully, mindfully lays them into a pattern that will grip readers until the very last word. The pattern: beauty, the beauty of human kindness, of forgiveness, of love offered and received.
But that's not the whole story. The gift Williams discovers in Rawanda, a place she feared to approach with her already wounded heart, is one she is terrified to accept, one that calls on her whole being, one that she and her husband Brooke must embrace together. I'll give this much away: they do embrace the gift, and the grace they receive from that gift is what finally makes this story of finding beauty in the horribly broken land and culture of Rawanda touch heart and soul.
Find the time to read this book. You won't be sorry; you might be changed. That's okay.
Terry Tempest Williams is a writer who can crack open hearts and minds, leaving readers breathless and inspired. Her books include Refuge, Leap, Red, and The Open Space of Democracy, and her work has been written up in magazines ranging from People to Orion. She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah, and has received Lannan and Guggenheim fellowships in creative nonfiction. Visit her website.
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