Summer reading

I’m getting ready to crack the spine on Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World.  Over a year ago, I heard her read a little from the pre-publication draft and attended a workshop she conducted.  It was apparent to me that she had changed her approach to her audience somewhat as well as to people she does not expect to be in her audience but are part of her expressed concern with the stances human beings take in or against nature.    

If anybody would like to join me in reading this book, we could discuss it here on WIZ as we go along.  If nobody else wishes to read with me, then I’ll put up a review, probably in August.  It takes me a while to get through a book because I take copious notes but I’ll try to keep up a reasonable pace.

Also, if anybody has reading suggestions for nature-themed fiction, non-fiction nature writing (ex. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods), or literary science or nature writing, including nature-themed poetry, Mormon or un-, please list them in the comments.

If you would like to read my Field Notes from Williams’ writing workshop, go here.

10 thoughts on “Summer reading”

  1. I started the book this weekend and so far remain interested. Also, I find it stimulating to the writer in me, so I write as I go along.

    At the reading she did Feb. 2008, Terry said that in this book she was returning to her poetic roots. I think this true, but the roots are not the same. They seem to be going quite a bit deeper than I remember them going before.

  2. You are, I infer, in the Italian mosaic-making section? I can see poetic roots there, both in the inexplicable occurrence of vision and the laborious, never-perfect word-wrighting.

  3. Ye-yep. I’m in the mosaic section, still early on.

    What did you think of her statement “Mosaics become the narratives of a newly conquered world,” p. 10?

    Well, here’s more context:

    A mosaic located in Pompeii, which celebrates the flora and fauna of the Nile River, is a wildly rich execution of life in foreign lands. Romans occupied Egypt in 30 BC and were charmed by the beauty of what they found. Hippopotami, crocodiles, cobras, wolves, mallards, ibis, and all manner of aquatic plants are created in a highly stylized mosaic.

    Mosaics become the narratives of a newly conquered world. (p. 10)

    There’s something apt about the idea, yet the connection between the art and the appropriation seems hung rather loosely. Is this—I guess I could describe it as “coolness,” a possible hanging back from throwing herself completely into the language—what you meant when you said on another post that the fire of her earlier work isn’t present in this one?

  4. Yes. Still, I see light coming through the perception that the conqueror must work with bits and fragments of its own world to assemble the conception of the new. Not sure whether the “highly stylized” is an echo of the disassembly-assembly of mosaic making or less intricately an assertion that the representations of the animals vary from the standard representations the author holds in her mind.

  5. Okay, I’m out of the mosaic intro and into the prairie dog section. It’s harder for me to maintain emotional equilibrium here because I live in one of the prairie dog war zones Williams describes.

    Impressions:
    1. So far, I find her use of mosaic design and technique effective in how she “stanza-izes” the bits she shows us, page layout included. At first, those single-chip pages she inlayed put me off, those pieces surrounded by all that white. Now I’m used to them. I do find what she’s doing poetic as well as evidential.

    2. This is experimental writing, as her work often is. What she said at the reading over a year ago about her intent was “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” and that she wanted to find language “that opens our hearts rather than closes it.” If Finding Beauty in a Broken World is not so much about fire (I think she was saying that night that she wanted to lean back from her “fire”), I am finding that it is about light. So far, and in spite of the strong feelings the prairie dog material evokes, I’m liking this.

    3. I’m very interested in what she says about prairie dogs. When I moved into the area, we were bounded on two sides, growing to three, by a prairie dog town, with more boroughs up and down the road. After Valentines Day, we were greeted whenever we stepped out the front door by a chorus of alarm barks. We enjoyed watching the pups emerge and play.

    We have also been mortified to witness landowners shoot the dogs as sport and to “protect their property.”

    One local boy said to me, a couple years back, “It’s fun to see them explode when you shoot them and then it’s fun to watch the eagles eat them.”

    At the same time, we discouraged the dogs from colonizing our yard, which they tried to do three years running. We patroled our acre and a half with our rodent-unfriendly husky a couple or three times a day and buried any holes that erupted as soon as we found them. This was even more effective, in my opinion, than shooting the dogs, and nobody died. Of course, dealing with the burrows one at a time is easier than dealing with several dozen in an established prairie dog town. As for keeping the dogs off the lot, we thought it better to handle the matter that way until we decided what to do with the space (which we still haven’t done). Then we’d think through the prairie dog options.

    4. The locals are unmoving on the prairie dog question. They have their narrative take. Much of their language reminds me of the story Wyman Meinzer relates about Texas farmers blaming the coyotes for the spread of mesquite, until it was discovered that 70% of the mesquite beans the coyotes ate were rendered inviable in their digestive tracts. They were actually putting a dent in the spread, not causing it.

    The stories around here about the prairie dogs range from the “livestock breaking legs” tales to the “crop damage” tales. I don’t know how meaningful these stories are, having neither raised crops nor run livestock. They stayed out of my garden. But having alfalfa in my yard (that’s one of the important crops around here), I find myself wishing prairie dogs or something could help me control it. It is colonizing my garden, crowding out the flowers and vegetables.

    So I’ve had little or no problem with prairie dogs, but I do have a growing alfalfa problem. The prairie dogs were easy to discourage from setting up house. The alfalfa is like a green fire that keeps igniting and spreading.

    5. During February 2008, heavy snows fell in the area and covered the ground for about three weeks. The prairie dog colonies were buried beneath the snow cover and emerged late. When the snows melted off (there was some flooding, probably in the burrows as well), only a portion of the population showed above ground. Gunmen easily picked off many of these, some of the men operating outside the law, shooting from their vehicles, from the road, and within 600 ft. of our house (some from right across the road from our house, within 100 ft.).

    The town across the road died out, as well as the big one on BLM property a little east of here. I don’t believe shooters got them all; I think the late winter killed quite a few and possibly fostered the spread of some disease that pared the population way back. It not only hit the prairie dogs but also the gophers, which are also gone, and the rabbits and hares, which were overabundant when we moved in but have now thinned out so that you see them more rarely. In my neighborhood, only a tiny remnant prairie dog colony remains east and a little south of our house.

  6. greenfrog (and anybody else interested):

    Been thinking about why the phrase “highly stylized” appears in that paragraph on p. 10. “To stylize” means: 1. To restrict or make conform to a particular style. 2. To represent conventionally, conventionalize.” I think that in Terry’s usage here, both meanings apply.

    So the “wildly rich execution” of the wildlife in the mosaic of conquest that the Romans produced imposes narrative limits upon the species involved, restricting the narrative for the conquerors’ purposes, forcing upon the exotica a kind of narrative conformity, all be it artistically skillful and fetching (and therefore manipulative of its viewers).

    Because of the ambiguity of the phrase “wildly rich execution,” I don’t think the phrase “highly stylized” necessarily speaks in praise of the mosaic’s beauty, especially with that sentence “Mosaics become the narratives of a newly conquered world” following up. It could just as well be a remark upon how narrative stylizing facilitates conquest, even to the point of the wildly rich execution of species.

    Her display of the narrative (news articles, memos, historic records, other events of language) surrounding prairie dog eradication bears this out. It could be said that the narrative the conquerors (human beings) piece together for their purposes in killing off (conquering) prairie dog populations is “highly stylized.” It acts to impose restrictions on the prairie dog story, forcing upon it a kind of purposeful flat conformity to impose limits upon the possibilities for meaning and outcome. They participate via narrative in the “wildly rich execution” of prairie dog species.

    IMO, TTW’s show of craft here exceeds my expectations. I am deeply satisfied with the level of skill she’s showing in Finding Beauty, a level that I’ve never before found in her writing. The poetic roots she sets down in the mosaic section run deep into the prairie dog section.

    Let’s see how the rest goes.

  7. I often tell my kids that ‘there are always other options’. Your description of the prairie dog controls people were using reminded me of something I learned about closer to home: my husband sprays weeds with chemicals so the yard will have grass, and only one kind of grass. I discovered that he was killing vitamin C rich plants, and then we were going out to the store buy oranges.
    Not to say that prairie dogs should be harvested (well…), but I think we often go about perceived problems in such a shut in way and deny ourselves better solutions.
    I also warn my kids that just because there are other options, doesn’t mean we’ll find them. It doesn’t mean they never existed, but we just didn’t find them in time. So I guess I was warning them that not all their inheritance would be solutions, hunh? No wonder they roll their eyes at me so much.

  8. Your description of the prairie dog controls people were using reminded me of something I learned about closer to home: my husband sprays weeds with chemicals so the yard will have grass, and only one kind of grass. I discovered that he was killing vitamin C rich plants, and then we were going out to the store buy oranges.

    This interests me because it demonstrates a principle, one I haven’t fully worded-up yet. I say it roughly like this: If we’re doing something in one field of action, we’re doing it to greater or lesser degrees in others. I’ve applied it more specifically this way: If we’re behaving badly toward animals and other forms of life, chances are good that we’re behaving in similarly bad ways with other humans.

    I also warn my kids that just because there are other options, doesn’t mean we’ll find them.

    If you’re looking for the perfect solution, then yes—that might be hard to come by. But a spread of other options always exists and is fully accessible, if we can train our eye to see into the moral ultraviolet and infrared red ranges of our spiritual spectra.

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