A dangerous woman is coming to Spokane this week. At least that's the opinion of William Merwin, president of Florida Gulf Coast University. Last October, writer Terry Tempest Williams - who visits Spokane Community College on Monday - was scheduled to address the freshman convocation at FGCU, but Merwin revoked her invitation and canceled the event after Williams refused to sign an agreement that she refrain from criticizing the Bush administration during her talk. Students protested the unilateral decision and organized their own event; Williams accepted their invitation, foregoing her usual fee, and spoke to 450 students.
Those who co-opt language for political gain and who fear the sound of a clear voice ringing through the wilderness have reason to feel threatened by Williams. Like the red rock canyonlands that are her home, she is bold and direct, with no artifice and no pretension. Her 1991 book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, put her on the map as an advocate for the natural world and a critic of those who would abuse it. She has grown into her role as a passionate storyteller rooted in the landscape of the American West.
"In the open space of democracy, the health of the environment is seen as the wealth of our communities," she told the graduating class at the University of Utah two years ago. "We remember that our character has been shaped by the diversity of America's landscapes and it is precisely that character that will protect it."
Ironies and outrages abound in the FGCU debacle. The speaking engagement was part of Williams' Open Space of Democracy tour. Named for her most recent book, published last year by the Orion Society, the tour had Williams speaking out about the need for dialogue across partisan lines and the duty of all citizens to remain engaged in the political process. This is the message that was censored by Merwin because it was deemed too radical for university students to hear.
"To commit to the open space of democracy is to begin to make room for conversations that can move us toward a personal diplomacy," Williams wrote in the book's first essay. "If we cannot engage in respectful listening there can be no civil dialogue and without civil dialogue we the people will simply become bullies and brutes, deaf to the truth that we are standing on the edge of a political chasm that is beginning to crumble. We all stand to lose ground. Democracy is an insecure landscape."
Merwin did not act alone. The university's trustees, almost half of whom were appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, voted to postpone Williams' speech until after the Nov. 2 election.
The day after he canceled the convocation, an Associated Press report revealed that Merwin had contributed $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign, along with additional contributions to other Republican candidates.
Shortly before the November election, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at Florida Gulf Coast University. Only registered Republicans were allowed to attend.
Early in the Open Space of Democracy project, Williams exchanged letters with Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, a conservative Republican. He asked her what she would be willing to die for. After much consideration she wrote back: "What I would be willing to die for, and give my life to, is the freedom of speech. It is the open door to all other freedoms."
Fortunately, the First Amendment remains alive at Spokane Community College, where Williams will deliver a speech Monday evening as part of the President's Speakers Series. All students taking English 101 this quarter at SCC are reading Williams' Refuge, a book woven of two parallel stories: the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge at Utah's Great Salt Lake, and the death of Williams' mother, Diane Tempest, at the age of 52 from ovarian cancer. Responding to both events in the mid-'80s, Williams - then naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History - put pen to paper to express her grief and tell the story.
"I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women," she wrote. "My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two who survive have just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.... This is my family history."
In the book's epilogue, she recounts her memory of seeing the unnatural flash and mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb on the horizon while traveling with her parents as a young child. The Tempest family, like so many others in Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site, where above-ground atomic testing took place from 1951 to 1962. More than 20 years later, a federal court determined that the tests were responsible for the unusually high rates of cancer among the downwinders; an appeal overturned the claims against the federal government on the principle of sovereign immunity.
"In Mormon culture, authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not," Williams wrote. "For many years I have done just that - listened, observed, and quietly formed my own opinions, in a culture that rarely asks questions because it has all the answers. But one by one, I have watched the women in my family die common, heroic deaths. ... The price of obedience has become too high."
This was the start of Williams' activism. In 1988, she and nine other Utah women crossed the fence line at the Nevada Test Site in an act of civil disobedience to protest environmental degradation in the name of security. As she was arrested, she was frisked by a female officer.
"She found a pen and a pad of paper tucked inside my left boot," Williams wrote in Refuge. "'And these?' she asked sternly. 'Weapons,' I replied. Our eyes met. I smiled. She pulled the leg of my trousers back over my boot."
Words are powerful. They bear the power of a voice speaking out for a community, for a place, for the common good. That is the power that Williams wields and encourages others to use as well. It is not political, economic or military power, but it can trump all three.
"It is easy to believe we the people have no say," she concludes in The Open Space of Democracy. "It is easy to believe that the American will is only focused on how to get rich, how to be entertained, and how to distract itself from the hard choices we have before us as a nation. I refuse to believe this. The only space I see truly capable of being closed is not the land or our civil liberties but our own hearts."
Publication date: 04/28/05