Direct eye contact breeds intimacy. Look at someone long enough and the distance between you, no matter how vast, contracts almost into nothingness. And if you doubt the awesome power contained within a locked gaze, you'd surely change your mind if you peered into the cool, gray eyes of Terry Tempest Williams.
Of course, for many -- the environmentally conscious, the Westerner, the activist with a love of lyricism -- an intimate connection with Williams already exists, not through eye-to-eye contact, but through what her eyes have witnessed and transformed into words. These words have flowed across the pages of 15 books, with her 1991 release, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Vintage, $13.95), holding a special place for many. In that slim yet weighty volume, Williams balances the tale of her mother's battle with ovarian cancer with the environmental degradation of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah, her home state. Her affecting prose, written with the skill and economy of a poet, enlivens her most recent work, Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Pantheon, $26), a memoir/ treatise that uses the practice of creating mosaics as a metaphor to examine how a fragmented world -- torn asunder by genocide, by species extermination -- can be made whole again.
If the book sounds serious, it is. Along with being deeply affecting and serene too. Much like Williams herself, who came to town last month for a near sold-out lecture at Benaroya Hall. The day before her talk, she sat down for a chat on the top floor of the main branch of the Seattle Public Library. Raindrops cascaded upon the glass exterior. And, in the reverent hush, she spoke of Rwanda and sorrow, of evil and saviors, of the prairie dog and the Navajo, of the broken and the healed. And never once did Williams shift her eyes from mine.
You called your book Finding Beauty in a Broken World. So what are some signs our world is broken?
Our capacity to concentrate. We no longer have time to observe, to think, to be, to feel in a full way, whether it's watching prairie dogs or whether it's watching rain. Being present with one another, being present with the world we're in. I think we move so fast, our time is fragmented, fractured. The fact that Congress had a $700 billion bailout: That says to me that all sense of reason and proportion is broken in this country. Call it greed, call it accountability, call it our own incapacity to restrain ourselves in this very consumptive world. I have friends who are Buddhists, who say, "Nothing's broken. This is what is." But I guess I have too much of an activist's heart, and I see justice broken, I see our civil liberties broken.
You know, this book was really set on the cusp of Sept. 11, and I was in Washington, D.C. when it happened. Immediately I saw how the rhetoric shifted, and how fear was ushered in. And instead of this beautiful encapsulating moment of empathy -- that we are with the world, we're all vulnerable together -- what I saw was "Us vs. them," "We're gonna smoke them out," and everyone just shut down. And I made the decision as a writer, as a citizen, to speak out. I heard Dick Cheney say, "The energy policy that we're developing is being made behind closed doors." And I wrote an op-ed that said, "Our energy policy may be constructed behind closed doors and in secret, but if you want to see what it looks like, come to Utah, where it's a ground-thumping experience." The government gave [the Bureau of Land Management] the first order that our public lands are not our public commons, but should be opened up to oil and gas interests. They sent out these 40,000-pound thumper trucks and roared through wilderness study areas, no public process.
What really became scary was my own rhetoric had become as brittle and shrill as those I was opposing. I had lost my poetry in this anger. And I went down to the ocean and -- call it a plea, call it a prayer -- I just said, "Give me one wild word." And the word that came back was mosaic. And I took it literally. I could never have imagined where that journey would lead me: to Rwanda, literally creating mosaics out of the rubble of the war, with genocide survivors.
You didn't want to go. Yet you did. How did you overcome your apprehension?
My brother had just passed away from lymphoma. Our family has known death, as all families do. In our case, we're down-winders from where nuclear tests were conducted from '52 to '62, and below ground 'til '92, so I just, I didn't want to go. That was one reason: my own grief.
In a deeper sense I didn't want to confront my own complicity in turning away, in averting my gaze as Clinton did when, in a hundred days, a million Tutsis were murdered. And what did our country do? They debated for three months whether this truly was a genocide. I didn't want to go and have to confront my own inaction. I said, "No," [to] Lily Yeh, [who] is so fierce--
Who is Lily Yeh?
Lily Yeh is a Chinese-American artist. Beautiful community spirit. She's done all this amazing work in Philadelphia. She is a mosaicist. I said no, and she just kept staring. And I said. "Yes." And I think on some fundamental level, I knew that if I said no to Rwanda, I would be saying no to my own humanity, to my own spiritual obligations.
What was it like when you first got there -- you know, first impressions sometimes hit you hard.
I had two. One: How exquisite the country was. I mean gorgeous. Lush. It's on the equator. These beautiful white snow-capped hills. [Rwanda] means "Land of a thousand hills." I was not prepared for the physical beauty. That was my first impression.
The second impression, when we got out of the plane, was this one woman's eyes. They were eyes turned inward. They were so heavy. And then we were immediately taken by the Red Cross to one of the churches where 10,000 people had been murdered. And there I met a young woman. And if one can be soaked in sorrow, she was. Her parents' bones were there. She was the storyteller, the keeper of that story, and I think she was more connected to the dead than the living. And she told of the massacre, that she was in the fields where her mother told her to stay, as her family was butchered by Hutus. And you realize every square inch of the country has been bathed in blood.
There's this expression, "Never again."
After being in Rwanda, what came to me was "Never again" is actually "Never? Again." A gentleman named Raphael Lemkin, who was Jewish, in the '40's came up with this term [genocide]. And I honestly don't think there's anything in our human imagination, even though it's happened again and again, to really understand what it is. I think, unless you've been there, or talked to someone who's been there, it becomes an abstraction. For me, I had to see those bones, I had to see the women plowing the fields with their hoes, with bags of potatoes and bags of skulls, both bearing equal weight.
Is there a depth to sorrow that one can't fathom?
I felt it there. The other thing that I couldn't fathom is the resiliency of the human spirit. The capacity of the children to sing, their hunger to write, to read, to learn. In that sense, it was a place of extraordinary faith. [With Rwandan President] Paul Kagame, his leadership, it's one of the most thrilling places on earth right now, in terms of their vision of reconstruction and of how they are seeing the health of the environment, the health of the villages, the health of the economy, all intertwined. Talk about a mosaic.
You had this line in the book: "Social change depends on love." Why do you think that's so?
Because I think it's in our capacity to open our hearts to one another. I think it's Lily Yeh: She went to Rwanda and she met with the women and the women said, "We need a place to bury the bones of our children." And so, as an artist, she, with the women, made these plans for a genocidal memorial. She came back, got a team, called them barefoot artists, we went back together, and all of us constructed this. And so, finding beauty in a broken world is really creating beauty in the world we find. Louis Kakumba, who was my translator, was saying that what he knows about Rwanda is that it's two hands: on one, we're angels; on the other, we're Satan. How do we bring those two hands together in prayer?
One part [of the book] was about prairie dogs. Can you talk about why they're important?
I love prairie dogs because they're the "Untouchables." I love prairie dogs because, as kids, my brothers called them "Pop guts." I watched everyone in the West with their .22's and shotguns shoot the hell out of them. And against all odds