I spent the evening of February 15 in Bluff, Utah listening to Terry Tempest Williams read from her new book Mosaic: Finding Beauty in a Broken World, due out later this year.
I have not felt inclined to like Williams’ work, though I’ve kept up with it. Her intensely personal style results in stories that, to my ear, feel forced and nervous. Many people like that about her — that emotionally, she’s on the edge. It feels honest to them and strikes chords.
But it seems to me that such a style makes whatever story she’s telling overwhelmingly about her and less about her audience (whom she aims to persuade) and the subject (nature, art, science, etc.). In a medium where the expressed purpose is to argue for conservation of the definitely not her and better behavior all around toward other species and peoples, I found that her methods of piecing together experience often got in the way of the message.
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 obstacles that must be faced in encouraging the development of this genre in the LDS writing community. All the same, I respect her as a pioneering voice in the modern re-emergence of literary nature and science writing, a medium that’s very important to me. I attended Friday night’s event out of 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 Mosaic took me by surprise. “Something,” I thought, “has changed.” In fact, as Williams talked about her experiences writing Mosaic, she said, “Writing this book was very different for me.”
With more grace and uncertainty than I recall ever having seen her show, she explained how, following experiences 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. I needed to find my way back to poetry.” While she has always shown an interest in 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 her search for a rhetorical springboard, she stood on the eastern sea coast in New England, begging the sea to “Give me just one word, one wild word to follow” to begin her journey back to poetry. The sea gave her the word: “Mosaic.” 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 scribe during the building of a memorial for those who died during the 1994 genocide there. This throwing herself to the wolves of faith and war seems to have given her writing something more than it had before. The quality of her intelligent if not always hospitable prose appears to have been heightened through an infusion of two vital qualities: kindness and hope.
As she read from Mosaic, her reliance upon the repetition of images, phrases, and themes showed that she had, indeed, come back round to the music and dance of poetry. With each line, she wove repeated phrases into new subjects. 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, prairie dog bones, the unburied bones of women and others murdered in Rwanda, the construction of the memorial to the Rwandan dead, mosaic, hope, laughter, light, community, mosaic. Her writing abounds with wordplay, an effective means for allowing a wide range of response in a variety of readers. The spiralling repetition calls to mind a hawk’s or eagle’s flight as it circles above the ground it’s considering, circling, circling, all the while looping its way forward to its next point. Poetically, this style is incantational rather than straightforwardly lyrical, yet I found it to have an emotional elegance reflective of lyrical style.
Her point in the passages she read, made through juxtapositioning repeated yet widening phrases and themes, appeared to be that life on Earth might be viewed as a mosaic, its many individuals being cut irregularly to better engage the play of light across life’s surface. Both human and wild species make up this mosaic. Human beings build communities, and so do prairie dogs — vibrant communities upon which many species, including our own, are dependent. She told, for instance, of a government proposition to the Navajo Nation to irradicate prairie dogs on a part of their land. “But who will pray for the rain?” the Navajo elders asked. The government agents chuckled at the question but went on with their project, eliminating prairie dogs from that area. The result: without the constant churning of the soil and engineering prowess of the prairie dog infrastructure, the ground in that area turned to hardpan, resulting in nightmarish problems with runoff and erosion.
Her description of the prairie dogs’ overall status as undesireables among ranchers and other economic interests and her relating of the brutal suffocation of the dogs in their burrows might come off as overdone to some who find her placing of animals in the same moral plane as humans to be untenable. Yet I found her movement from the razing of prairie dog communities to the genocide in Rawanda convincing, especially when she provided small details that flashed and burned with insight. For instance, she revealed that the Hutu oppressors called the Tutsis they mass-murdered by a name that means “cockroach.” Whether or not you can accept the elevation of prairie dogs above the category of obnoxious vermin, the real comparison lies between acts of violence humans perpetrate against other species and acts of violence humans perpetrate against their own species.
In spite of the somberness, even terror, that Mosaic gives voice to, Williams ended the evening on upbeat and, more importantly, convincing notes of hope and even joy. She recounted her experiences with Rwandan children, orphaned by the genocide and by no doubt other ravages to their culture, telling how a group of them asked her to sing them a song. The only song she could think of was a Jello ditty she had learned at LDS girls’ camp. These children, who had suffered so much loss and horror, rippled with easy laughter when she explained through an interpreter what Jello was and what other words in the song meant. “You cannot take hope from these children,” a guide told her. 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. If a people who had 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 titled “Red-Shafted Flicker” where Williams recalls coming home from school “devastated” because other children had made fun of her naturally curly hair. Her mother takes her to the bathroom and sets her before a mirror. She asks the crushed eight-year-old what she sees. When Williams doesn’t answer, she says: “I see a beautiful girl with green eyes. I want you to stay here until you see her too.”
Sometimes in her writing, it has seemed Williams was still stuck in front of that mirror. Whether it was Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Eartly Delights or a pictograph of a woman giving birth, she looked hard for her own image in whatever surface was at hand. There’s nothing unusual about imposing one’s image upon the landscape. Certainly, psychologists, sociologists, and writer-philosophers assert that there is no “Other,” a “not you” of being and experience to get across to, only the “you” that experience or a landscape mirrors back. Me, I believe 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.
But if the samples I heard from Mosaic are anything to judge by, Williams has stripped the silver backing off the glass and made the mirror into a window, which she has thrown open wide, and we can see through her and past her. She has created a generous rhetorical environment that permits the reader to make his/her own pertinent connections.
As soon as this book is available, I’ll review it. Hopefully, it will live up to the promise that Friday night’s reading made to the hope-starved audience hanging on her every word. Certainly, I came away from that reading feeling excited and hopeful and as if a burden had been lifted off.