Finding Beauty in a Broken World
By: Terry Tempest Williams
“A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken” (pp. 6). In the very beginning of the book, Williams introduces the topic of mosaic art. She gives a brief history, citing many famous mosaics such as the mosaic located in Pompeii. This particular mosaic richly shows the local flora, fauna and animal life of Roman occupied Egypt in 30 BC. She discusses the evolution from paganism to Christianity and how the mosaics became “everyman’s Bible; one didn’t have to rely on words, only the shimmering stories told though images above, meant to overwhelm the viewer as one would be in the presence of God” (pp. 1).
Terry Tempest Williams uses the imagery of the mosaic, a beautiful compilation of broken and irregular pieces of stone and marble, to represent the earth and how we can find beauty in all of its imperfections. She said, “There is perfection in imperfection. The interstices or gaps between the tesserae [broken pieces of marble that make up mosaics] speak their own language in mosaic” (pp.35). Two of the examples that I found most engaging were the example of the prairie dog and genocide in Rwanda.
For the first several chapters, TTW discusses the habits, anatomy, and evolution of prairie dogs, and the impact that they have on the Earth. Based on her research, she concluded that, “nine vertebrate species may drop in population or disappear completely if prairie dogs are eliminated from glassland ecosystems” (pp.35). This is a startling statistic considering that Niles Eldredge of the New York Times published that the Utah Prairie Dog is one of the species that is most likely to become extinct in the twenty-first century. As it stands right now, approximately 98% of prairie dogs in Colorado have already been eliminated, and often in cruel and inhumane ways.
However, TTW points out that if you talk to farmers and agriculturalists in the west, prairie dogs are considered to be nuisances. They burrow holes in which horses and cattle can stumble and break their legs, they also cause other damage to crop and grazing lands. Many believe that the government should compensate farmers whose lands have been destroyed from the existence of prairie dogs (pp. 43). However, to date, there has not been a bill that has passed enacting such a law.
From the book, you can tell that TTW is sympathetic to the plight of the prairie dog. She points out that the prairie dogs, in addition to providing biodiversity, also have other redeeming qualities. She says, “The hunger of prairie dogs shocks the landscape into greater productivity. Their digging and scratching stimulates the soil, creating more opportunities for seeds to germinate. With heightened water drainage as a result of their tunnels, plants grow. Plant diversity follows. Animal diversity follows the plants” (pp. 56-57). Like the broken mosaic pieces that look like nothing more than pretty, tattered stones up close, from a distance they create a beautiful work of art. So are the prairie dogs a seemingly insignificant player in the mosaic of the world, but when viewed from a distance, they contribute to the beauty and productivity that is our Earth.
She then discusses what it actually means to care, and where our priorities lie. TTW gives a vivid description of many of the ways that civilians exterminate these prairie dogs, and to be honest, many of them made me sick to my stomach. It was terrible to think that somebody would set fire to the burrows and extinguish anything that laid therein. She then pointed out something that really stuck with me. She said,
“To regard any animal as something lesser than we are, not equal to our own vitality and adaptation as a species, is to begin a deadly descent into the dark abyss of arrogance where cruelty is nurtured in the corners of certitude. Daily acts of destruction and brutality are committed because we fail to see the dignity of Other” (pp. 127).
She applied this principle to the genocide in Rwanda. Terry Tempest Williams travelled there to study genocide and happened to be there for some interviews when the planning and execution for the genocide memorial was being put up. She was struck by the frailty of human nature, and our patternistic lifestyles. After the Holocaust, we said, “Never again”, and yet this sort of thing continues to happen again and again. The world is full of broken shards, and yet, like the mosaic artworks, these broken pieces have to come together to make a beautiful work of art. TTW explains, “Shards of glass can cut and would or magnify a vision. Mosaic celebrated brokenness and the beauty of being brought together” (pp. 385). However, we have to see the broken pieces and allow them to inspire us to change. Jane Goodall said, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved” (pp. 71).
This book was inspiring for me. I loved how descriptive she was of the time that she spent amongst the prairie dogs and the people in Africa. It truly afforded me the opportunity to put myself into that position and think how I would react. It enabled me to form opinions about my world and how I wanted to help sustain it. We certainly live in an imperfect world, but we can find beauty and perfection in God’s creations if we look at the whole picture, the whole work of art. We can perfect each piece of the puzzle one by one, and find beauty in the broken world as TTW would have us do.