The middle third of Terry Tempest Williams’s Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a meditation on the ecology of prairie dogs in the American Southwest, the grassland ecosystem that depends on them, and what would happen if they disappeared. For 14 days, Williams joins a research team to observe prairie dogs in what is one of their last wild, protected habitats – Utah’s Bryce Canyon. Essentially, she is responsible for observing the comings and goings of this remarkable animal. Although often thought of as nothing more than a rodent, the prairie dog also happens to have the most sophisticated animal language known to science – capable of describing the size and shape of an individual predator – and it is one of the six species identified as most likely to become extinct in the 21st century.
Williams, the author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, has been concerned with prairie dogs for some time. In 1979 she wrote a case study of the animal and interviewed a state senator who was sponsoring a bill that would compensate landowners whose crops or domestic animals are damaged by protected wildlife. The prairie dog was classified as an endangered species in 1973. “What is the value of a prairie dog?” the senator asked Williams, neatly summing up the dominant worldview that has shaped our relationship to the natural world. “Would you rather eat prairie dog or beef?”
Whether the senator was aware or not, the fate of the prairie dog has in many ways been determined by the expansion of industrial animal agriculture, especially cattle. During World War I a prairie dog eradication program was launched to clear rangeland in order to increase beef production. Armies of men distributed more than one thousand tons of poisoned grain in 1920 to eliminate them. The agency considers the animals to be “the most pernicious enemies to agriculture.” In economic terms the prairie dog is of little value, though it does command a fairly high price on the exotic pet market.
Of course consideration of the impact of human development on complex ecosystems rarely occurs until it is too late. Nine vertebrate species, including the mountain plover, burrowing owl, golden eagle, and ferruginous hawk are said to depend on prairie dogs. If the prairie dog becomes extinct these other species may follow. For Williams, the grassland ecosystem of the American West is a fragmented landscape of cities, golf courses, and suburban sprawl whose primary use must be re-imagined if there is any hope that the prairie dog will defy the dark forecast of extinction.
That her discussion of this prosaic animal (“not a grizzly bear, or wolf or whale,” she writes) comes between a trip to Italy, where she takes up the art of mosaic, and an exploration of the legacy of the Rwandan genocide through that very same art is all the more remarkable. Such a book is full of potential pitfalls, but Williams seems to avoid most of them. The form of the book is itself mosaic-like, and perhaps that helps in the telling of multiple narratives that on the surface do not seem to be intimately connected. One cannot draw easy comparisons between the eradication of prairie dogs and the mass slaughter of humans. Yet such comparisons arise, perhaps inevitably. The word varmint, Williams informs us, has two meanings: (1) an animal of a noxious or objectionable kind and (2) an objectionable or troublesome person or persons. Toward the end of the book she relates a story told by a young man, Louis Gakumba, whose surname means “many cows,” the cow being a symbol of status and well-being. As a boy of 9 he recalls watching from a distance as a group of Hutus, part of the Interahamwe —paramilitaries who carried out much of the killing during the 1994 genocide – butchered forty of his family’s cows. “It was at that moment, I understood genocide,” he said.
It is the confluence of human and ecological genocide that perhaps unifies Williams’s many narratives in this kaleidoscopic book. “All I can see are rivers running red,” she writes, “this time not with the blood of the people but the blood of the land.” The Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, was also about the taking of land – “killing those who have it, claiming it for yourself.” Williams has always written eloquently of the relationship between humans and the natural world but perhaps never as urgently. “It is no longer enough to simply let nature take care of itself,” she writes. “Our press on the planet is heavy and relentless. A species in peril will most likely survive now only if we allow it to…. Otherwise, we are entering a narrative of disappearing intelligences.”
– Adam Federman
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