Books

Examining genocide of humans, prairie dogs

Seventeen years have passed since Terry Tempest Williams gave us "Refuge," an indelible meditation on her mother's battle with cancer and the devastation wrought on a bird sanctuary by rising waters in the Great Salt Lake.

Since then, fans of this Utah native and naturalist have come to expect a common thread through her books: the artful weaving of observations from the natural world with the labyrinths of the human experience.

For Williams, this is not a stock formula; it is her sublime art.

Now she delivers the ambitious, even audacious "Finding Beauty in a Broken World."

Williams takes us from the breathtaking, Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, Italy -- a city she has spent time in -- and uses them as a metaphor for two communities, a besieged prairie dog colony in Utah and a village in Rwanda where she helped build a memorial to victims of a 1994 genocide that killed 1 million in that African country.

That's quite a juxtaposition, all delivered against the not-so-tacit backdrop of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's foreign-policy adventures.

Although Williams made her reputation as a naturalist and defender of the West's wild places, in recent years she has turned her eye to the broader world.

In her view, genocide in Rwanda can be equated with the war waged against the prairie dog, and vice versa: It is all about humanity's inability to recognize, at least in a sustained and universal way, the worth of communities.

The Utah prairie dog is one of six species in the world viewed as most likely to become extinct in the 21st century. Of course, this assessment was made in 1999 before global warming and its effect on polar bears was fully appreciated.

Prairie dogs have long endured "varmint" status in the West. Ranchers despise them because cattle and horses have a way of stumbling into their holes, breaking legs. Beyond that, they were seen as vermin that spread vermin.

Now they are threatened by the tract homes that are sprouting in the New West. So these creatures, pack animals that communicate in distinct dialects, are torched and gassed in their holes.

"We are all complicit," Williams writes. "A rising population is settling in subdivisions. The land scraped bare. The prairie dog towns and villages are being displaced. Sad, sorry state of habitation. They are prisoners on their own reservations."

The Rwandan village Williams visits is Rugerero. Today it is home to massacre survivors from three villages that were erased from the Earth. The violence was tribal, Hutu killing Tutsi. Much of the butchering was done with machetes. As one aid volunteer informs Williams: "That's Rwanda."

So much savagery amid such beauty. Here is Williams limning the Rwandan landscape:

"We arrive in Gisenyi at dusk. Smoke. Shadows. Figures captured in headlights. Lake Kivu is a long, reflective mirror. I am reminded of scenes captured in a ring I once had as a child; inside a plastic orb were the silhouettes of palms against a twilight sky made of iridescent butterfly wings, turquoise blue. We are surrounded by enormous mountains, a crown of peaks, snow-tipped and jagged. And then, suddenly, an eerie red glow is emanating from the Congo. An active volcano."

"We live among such a disconnect in this world: apart from nature, apart from each other. It's a comfort to have Williams in our midst, reminding us of the mosaic formed by every creature on Earth. But that comfort is also our challenge.

"Shards of glass can cut and wound or magnify a vision," Williams tells us. "Mosaic celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together."

  Comments