I spent the evening of February 15 in Bluff, Utah listening to Terry Tempest Williams read from herÂ new book Mosaic: Finding Beauty in a Broken World, due out later this year.Â
I have notÂ felt inclinedÂ to like Williams’ work,Â though I’ve kept up with it.Â Â Her intensely personal styleÂ results in stories that, to my ear,Â feel forced and nervous.Â Many people like that about her — that emotionally, she’s on the edge.Â It feels honest to them and strikes chords.Â
But it seems to me that such a style makes whatever story she’s tellingÂ overwhelminglyÂ about her and lessÂ about her audience (whom she aims to persuade) and the subject (nature, art, science, etc.).Â In a medium where the expressed purpose is to argue for conservation of the definitely not herÂ and better behavior all around toward other species and peoples, IÂ found that herÂ methods ofÂ piecing together experience often got in the way of the message.Â Â
And valid or not, her criticism of the LDS culture rolled marbles under the feet of aspiring LDS nature writers, and while I’ve not taken any of her criticisms personally, I count others’ reactions to her work as one of the obstaclesÂ that must be facedÂ in encouragingÂ the development of this genre in the LDS writing community.Â Â All the same,Â I respect herÂ as a pioneering voice in the modern re-emergence of literary nature and science writing, a medium that’s very important to me.Â I attendedÂ Friday night’sÂ event out ofÂ professional duty with cautious interest, expecting more of the rhetorical same from her.
So the wonder and delight I felt as I listened to her speak about and read from MosaicÂ took me by surprise.Â “Something,” I thought, “has changed.”Â In fact, asÂ Williams talked about her experiences writing Mosaic,Â she said,Â “Writing this book was very different for me.”
With moreÂ graceÂ andÂ uncertainty than I recall everÂ having seenÂ her show, sheÂ explained how,Â following experiencesÂ during and after the attacks on 911, it dawned on her that “My rhetoric was becoming as brittle as [that of the] the people I was railing against.Â I needed to find my way back to poetry.”Â While she has always shown an interest inÂ engaging community, Mosaic appears to be an experiment for her in finding language “that opens our hearts rather than closes it.”
She described how, in herÂ search forÂ a rhetorical springboard, sheÂ stood on the eastern sea coast in New England, begging the seaÂ to “Give me just one word, one wild word to follow” to beginÂ her journey back to poetry.Â Â The sea gave her the word: “Mosaic.”Â She chased this word through Italy, where she enrolled in a mosaicists’ workshop, then she tracked it through prairie dog towns in the western U.S. and into the boneyards of Rwanda, where she acted as scribeÂ during the building of a memorial for those who died during the 1994 genocide there.Â Â Â This throwing herself to the wolves ofÂ faith and war seems to haveÂ given her writing something more than it hadÂ before.Â Â Â The quality of her intelligent if not always hospitable prose appears toÂ have been heightenedÂ through an infusion ofÂ twoÂ vital qualities: kindness and hope.
As she read from Mosaic,Â herÂ reliance upon the repetition of images, phrases, and themes showed that she had, indeed, come back round toÂ the music and dance of poetry.Â Â With each line, she wove repeated phrases into new subjects.Â Â Round and round she went: light, processes in the production of mosaics, light, community, bones, the death of her brother Steve in 2003, bones, prairie dogs, community, prairie dogs as mosaicists, light, the destruction of prairie dog towns,Â prairie dog bones, the unburied bones of women and others murdered in Rwanda, theÂ construction of the memorial to the Rwandan dead, mosaic, hope, laughter, light, community, mosaic.Â Â Her writing abounds with wordplay, an effectiveÂ meansÂ for allowingÂ a wide rangeÂ of response inÂ a variety ofÂ readers.Â Â Â The spiralling repetition calls to mindÂ a hawk’sÂ or eagle’s flight as it circles above the ground it’s considering, circling, circling, all the whileÂ looping its way forward toÂ its next point.Â Â Poetically,Â this style isÂ incantational rather than straightforwardly lyrical, yet I found it to have an emotional elegance reflective ofÂ lyrical style.Â
Her point in the passages she read, made through juxtapositioning repeated yet widening phrases and themes,Â appeared to beÂ thatÂ life on EarthÂ might be viewed asÂ a mosaic, its many individualsÂ being cut irregularly to betterÂ engage the play of light across life’s surface.Â Both human and wild species make up this mosaic.Â Human beings build communities,Â and so do prairie dogs –Â vibrant communities upon which many species, including our own, are dependent.Â She told, for instance, of a government proposition to the Navajo Nation to irradicate prairie dogs on a part of their land.Â “But who will pray for the rain?” the Navajo elders asked.Â Â The government agents chuckled at the question but went on with their project, eliminating prairie dogs from that area.Â The result:Â without the constant churning of the soil andÂ engineering prowessÂ of the prairie dog infrastructure, the ground in that areaÂ turned toÂ hardpan,Â resulting in nightmarish problems withÂ runoff and erosion.Â
Her description ofÂ the prairieÂ dogs’ overall statusÂ as undesireables among ranchers and other economic interests and herÂ relating of theÂ brutal suffocationÂ of the dogs in their burrowsÂ might come off as overdone to some who findÂ her placing ofÂ animals in the same moral plane as humans to beÂ untenable.Â Yet I found her movement from theÂ razing of prairie dog communities to theÂ genocide in Rawanda convincing,Â especially when she providedÂ small details that flashed and burned with insight.Â For instance, she revealed thatÂ the HutuÂ oppressorsÂ called theÂ Tutsis they mass-murderedÂ by a nameÂ that means “cockroach.”Â Whether or not youÂ can accept the elevation of prairie dogs above the categoryÂ of obnoxious vermin, the real comparison lies betweenÂ acts of violence humans perpetrate against other species and acts of violenceÂ humansÂ perpetrate against theirÂ own species.Â Â
In spite of the somberness, evenÂ terror, thatÂ Mosaic gives voice to,Â Williams ended the evening on upbeat and, more importantly, convincingÂ notes of hope and even joy.Â She recounted her experiences with RwandanÂ children, orphaned by the genocide and by no doubt other ravagesÂ to their culture,Â telling how a group of them asked her to sing them a song.Â The only song she couldÂ think ofÂ was a Jello ditty she had learned at LDS girls’ camp.Â These children, who had suffered so much loss and horror,Â rippled with easy laughter when she explained through an interpreter what Jello was and what other words in the song meant.Â “You cannot take hope from these children,” a guide told her.Â The work that went into the memorial itself that she had gone to Rwanda to chronicle provided another focal point for communal healing and hope.Â If a people who hadÂ lost so much could still have hope, she mused, how much easier ought it to be for we who have so much.
In Refuge, there’s a scene in the chapter titledÂ “Red-Shafted Flicker” where Williams recalls coming home from schoolÂ “devastated” because other children had made fun of her naturally curly hair.Â Her mother takes her to the bathroom and sets her before a mirror.Â Â SheÂ asks the crushedÂ eight-year-old what she sees.Â When Williams doesn’t answer, she says: “I see a beautiful girl with green eyes.Â I want you to stay here until you see her too.”
Sometimes in her writing, itÂ has seemedÂ Williams was still stuck in front of that mirror.Â Whether it wasÂ Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Eartly Delights or a pictograph of a woman giving birth, sheÂ looked hard for her own image in whatever surfaceÂ was at hand.Â There’s nothingÂ unusual about imposing one’s image upon the landscape.Â Certainly,Â psychologists, sociologists, and writer-philosophers assert thatÂ there is no “Other,”Â a “not you” of being and experienceÂ to get across to, only the “you” that experience or a landscape mirrors back.Â Me,Â IÂ believeÂ Other does exist, and while people do project themselves with great devotion, do put in a great deal of time before the mirror, at some point that mirror ought to give way to a window, to the “not you” of experience and nature that makes it possible for you to become something other than you are.Â Â
But ifÂ the samplesÂ I heardÂ from MosaicÂ are anything to judge by, Williams hasÂ stripped the silver backing off the glass and madeÂ the mirrorÂ into a window, which she has thrown open wide, and we can see through her and past her.Â She has created a generous rhetorical environment thatÂ permits the reader to makeÂ his/her own pertinent connections.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
As soon as this book is available, I’ll review it.Â Hopefully, it willÂ live up to the promise thatÂ Friday night’s reading made toÂ the hope-starved audience hanging on her every word.Â Â Â Certainly, I came away from that reading feelingÂ excited and hopeful and as if a burden had been lifted off.Â