Acclaimed author Terry Tempest Williams is currently on the road for a cross-country “Open Space of Democracy Tour” sponsored by Orion Magazine and Orion Books, publisher of her most recent book, The Open Space of Democracy.

Photo: Mark Babushkin.

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Wednesday, 6 Oct 2004


When two young Canadians embarked on an extraordinary journey to follow the caribou migration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Being Caribou, a film by the National Film Board of Canada), they first sought the counsel of a Gwich’in elder in the village of Old Crow.

He said, “Plan for the unexpected and when you meet it, meet it with calm.”

As we embark on this “Open Space of Democracy Tour” — and I say we because this is being done in the name of community and the Orion Grassroots Network — we have indeed met “the unexpected.”

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Today, President William Merwin (not to be confused with the poet William Merwin) of the Florida Gulf Coast University made the decision to postpone the Freshmen Convocation where I was to speak on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004.

The students have been reading The Open Space of Democracy as one of their common readers.

President Merwin also made the decision to cancel, I mean postpone, all events associated with the Convocation, including the Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture I was to deliver the following day. His decision was a result of statements I have made in print that were negative about President George W. Bush.

When he expressed his point of view to two faculty members, Jim Wohlpart, chair of the Arts and Humanities Department, and Peter Corcoran, they argued strongly on behalf of the students that I be allowed to speak, assuring the president that this was never intended to be a “Bash Bush Rally” but rather a thoughtful presentation on how we might bypass political rhetoric and find our way toward our own humanity as we engage in meaningful dialogue and deep listening. They assured him that my allegiance was not to political polemics, but poetry.

It is my understanding, following this discussion, that the president then asked the professors to convey to me that in order for me to come to Florida Gulf Coast University, I would need to sign a statement that would ensure two things: 1) I would not represent a political point of view, and 2) I would not criticize the president of the United States, George W. Bush, in my remarks.

I refused to sign the agreement.

Of course, I hold a “political point of view.” Hopefully, every American holds a particular point of view that is based on their own values and ethics, informed by their own experience and intellectual inquiry. We exercise this point of view every time we participate in the majesty of the vote. And on principles of free speech, I refused to sign “a loyalty oath” that would say I would not criticize George W. Bush.

The negotiations deteriorated and President Merwin requested a phone conversation with me. I called him today at around 3:30 p.m. his time. We talked openly and candidly for an hour or so. It was cordial, yet firm on both sides.

I asked President Merwin to share with me his concerns. He was direct. The Florida Board of Regents and his own Board of Trustees at FGCU are all appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of the president. His donors at the university are largely supporters of the Bush brothers. In the name of “political balance” he could not put his university at risk, one week before the election. It was that simple.

“If you are looking for political balance,” I said, “it looks like I’m your answer.”

He did not see the humor.

President Merwin went on to say he had “survived 20 years as a university president by not doing stupid things.”

(The provost was with him in the room on this conference call if anyone would like to verify this conversation).

I must tell you, friends and readers, in fairness to the long conversation that the president and I had, it was cordial and respectful. In the end, we both agreed to disagree and I voiced my extreme sadness that we could not come together in a creative way that would honor the right of the students to participate in their Convocation in the name of “the open space of democracy.” It felt so close. But then the president said, “I have made my decision.”

He invited me to come back after the elections; the date he gave was Nov. 4, 2004. I asked him to send me a letter (which he has promised to do) to state why he has made this decision and why he views me as “threatening” to Florida Gulf Coast University.

I hung up the phone and my whole body was shaking. This unfortunate situation is now in the hands of the students. I feel like I have failed them.

I await their response.

To President Merwin, following our conversation, I wrote:

Dear President Merwin:

Democracy is an insecure landscape and today it feels more so. I am deeply disappointed by your decision to postpone the Convocation at Florida Gulf Coast University. I was looking forward to addressing the students in the spirit of conversation and discussing what engagement within a vibrant democracy means.

The fact that you view my presence as “threatening” to your university because of statements I have made in print regarding President George W. Bush is deeply troubling. If our institutions of higher learning can no longer be counted on as champions and respecters of freedom of speech, then I fear no voice is safe from being silenced in this country. I understand this morning the Board of Governors supported your decision by a vote of 11 to 1, the dissenting vote belonging to the president of the senate, a faculty member, the only trustee not appointed by Governor Jeb Bush. As an American writer, I believe that to deny the students their own Convocation at this point in time, when this is precisely the conversation we are having now as a nation, is not only a breach of contract, but more tragically, a breach in democracy.

I appreciated our conversation yesterday. It was important for me to listen to your concerns. You voiced your discomfort with my “anti-Bush” statements within the pages of my book, The Open Space of Democracy. You feared this would be a direct offense to Governor Jeb Bush, the brother of our president, who appointed the Board of Regents, your own Board of Trustees, and your donors, many who are supporters of the Bush brothers. In the name of “political balance” you made up your mind to postpone the Convocation and all other events associated with it, which also prohibits me from delivering the “Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture” the following Monday, Oct. 25, on Sanibel Island. You conveyed your sense of responsibility to “advance and protect” your institution and you feared that what I have said in writing is harmful to your university.

When I asked you what words of mine, in particular, had offended you the most, you shared them with me. As we read through the text together (pp. 17-19), it became clear that these words had been taken out of context, that my critique of President George W. Bush was, in fact, a critique of my own political rhetoric. What I was asking of myself was a deeper consideration of my own engagement in the democratic process, “… how might we face the polarity of opinion in our country right now, how we might take opposing views and blend them into some kind of civil dialogue.” Each of us has the opportunity to engage in reflective questioning if we choose to move forward as a responsive citizen. But taking my words out of context and portraying me as “a Bush-basher” misrepresents me as a writer. The integrity of any writer’s work resides in the dignity and imagination of ideas, not in the one-dimensional platitudes of a political campaign.

This is the irony of the situation you and I find ourselves in now. I do not believe either one of us wants to be trapped by ideology. The Open Space of Democracy is a call for conscious dialogue in times of divisive political rhetoric that has no heart.

We have missed a rich opportunity for compassionate understanding and empathy. Censorship betrays the students’ intelligence, individual power of discernment, and their own passionate exploration of ideas as they prepare to vote. I believe your action has stopped the dialogue around Convocation at a time when we need it most. Consequently, the student body of Florida Gulf Coast University is being robbed of the experience of emancipatory education, the gift of being able to participate in critical thinking, meaningful dialogue, and debate, the very process inherent in an open society.

In a letter to writer Umberto Eco regarding the nature of democracy, Carlo Maria Martini, a member of the College of Cardinals at the Vatican, wrote, “The delicate game of democracy provides for a dialectic between opinions and beliefs in the hope that such exchange will expand the collective moral conscience that is the basis of orderly cohabitation.”

The students of Florida Gulf Coast University have a copy of The Open Space of Democracy in hand. Perhaps this is what matters most. It is my sincere hope that the students will create their own terrain of dialogue and dissent, creativity and conversation. Democracy invites us to take risks. It asks that we vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act, ultimately, on behalf of the common good. Democracy’s only agenda is that we participate …

I look forward to full participation in this ongoing discussion, President Merwin, and await a future invitation to speak at Florida Gulf Coast University.

You will find my honorarium for $5,000 returned to you with a request that it be given to students at The Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education with the idea that it could be used to create a forum for freedom of speech, whereby this discussion in the name of “the open space of democracy” can continue.


Terry Tempest Williams

School House Rock

Thursday, 7 Oct 2004


Slept very little. I am on pins and needles waiting to hear what has happened, wondering if the students and faculty know of President Merwin’s decision, wondering what their response will be. I realize it is out of my control now.

This morning, I received a call from some students who were organizing a coalition of student groups to protest the postponement of their Convocation. They are drafting a letter asking him to rescind his decision. They are looking for “a bipartisan and inclusive voice” that they can carry to his office.

Their enthusiasm and energy brings back mine. Everyone is talking at once. I am outside my brother and sister-in-law’s house, pacing their backyard as we talk, gesturing wildly. It is a gorgeous fall day in Salt Lake City.

Then they asked if they could ask me some questions. “Some of them might be difficult,” one of the students said. “We want them to be fair and balanced.”

“I’ll do my best,” I said.

“Why did you refuse to send in your talk two weeks before the Convocation so ‘a respondent’ could review your remarks? The president called for this a few weeks ago before he made his decision to postpone the lecture.”

I told the students I refused to send in my talk on two counts. First, that is not how I work. I like to come to a school a few days before and get a feel for the students and the university’s culture. I like to listen and talk with the students, find out about the community and incorporate these stories and ideas into my talk to make it more personal and relevant to the student body. I do not have “a canned speech.”

Secondly, I told them on principle, I was not going to turn in my talk. It was an issue of free speech under the contract I signed with the university to deliver this Convocation.

Next question:

“How does this make you feel as a writer?”

I shared with them my deep sadness that we were denied the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue, that I was not able to share with them ideas central to the notion of an open space of democracy that they had taken the time to read and reflect on with their professors in the spirit of critical thinking and discussion.

I told them I found it deeply frightening that the atmosphere of fear in this country has created craven acts such as this one to postpone the Convocation and I expressed my own fears that when our universities and colleges, our institutions of higher education, are no longer the champions and protectors of freedom of speech, then no voice in America is safe.

We talked about the ironies of this situation, how at the core of this little book is an inquiry and call for open dialogue and respectful listening, to create conversation and bypass the political rhetoric that has diminished all of us.

“You are the ones who stand to lose the most by this decision,” I said. “This is in your hands now and you have tremendous power to change the outcome of this situation.”

“We are on it, Mrs. Williams,” one of the young women said. “We are jazzed. We are stoked. This is our time!”

Can I tell you, dear readers, how I wept as these vibrant students voiced their joyous indignation, their pure, innocent, and radical belief that they truly could make a difference? I heard their young wisdom, their hopes to include all manner of students in their protest. And I believed them.

I believe in them.

Before we hung up, all our voices were shaking.

A part of me worries for the president. A small part of me.

That evening, I received this letter from Brandon Hollingshead, a student representative from the coalition.

Dear Terry Tempest Williams,

The students of Florida Gulf Coast University overwhelmingly and enthusiastically invite you to address the student body on campus Oct. 24, 2004. A growing list of clubs and student organizations, including Eagle-News student newspaper, Eagle Radio, National Communication Association Honor Society, Model United Nations club, Young Democrats club, Art Club, Race of Women club, Newman Club, and a number of unconfirmed organizations wish to cosponsor this speaking event.

President Merwin and the Board of Trustees’ decision to postpone the FGCU Convocation and the decision to disinvite you from speaking at the Rachel Carson Distinguished Lectures is deeply embarrassing to students and faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University. I, for one, am appalled to be an FGCU student right now. Many others feel as I do; they are outraged and infuriated. Faculty members are ashamed of the University, some to the point of drafting letters of resignation. A professor openly wept in class today as she read the local newspaper’s article on President Merwin’s decision to postpone. We are a campus community deeply troubled that President Merwin wishes to block you from opening the space of democracy at Florida Gulf Coast University.

This decision flies in the face of what it means to be a university, particularly a university that places its emphasis on interdisciplinary studies and active engagement on campus and in the community. The goal of our university is to teach students not how to earn a living, but how to make a life. To this end, the University Guiding Principles places student success at the center of all University endeavors, stating, “Learner needs, rather than institutional preferences, determine priorities for academic planning, policies and programs.” We feel, as students, that the decision to postpone Convocation and to cancel the Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture events does NOT place our needs above institutional preferences.

Florida Gulf Coast University is committed to nine learning goals and educational outcomes, believing they provide a foundation for lifelong learning and effective citizenship … that are at the core of all classes and curriculum at FGCU, at the core of what it means to be a Florida Gulf Coast University student.

We wish to invite you to campus — not as a speaker at Convocation and not as a Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecturer — but as a speaker committed to the values of our Learning Goals and Educational Outcomes: culturally diverse perspectives, ecological literacy, ethical responsibility, and most importantly, civic engagement.

The Florida Gulf Coast University Guiding Principles closes by stating, “Tradition is challenged; the status quo is questioned; change is implemented.” Please join us in challenging tradition, questioning the status quo, and implementing change.

On behalf of the students of Florida Gulf Coast University, I remain sincerely yours,

Brandon Hollingshead

Eagle News
Eagle Radio
National Communication Association Honor Society
Model United Nations club
Young Democrats
Art Club
Race of Women club
Newman Club

Here is my response:

Dearest Brandon:

Thank you for your beautiful and courageous letter. I cannot tell you how much your words of support meant to me. You fill me with great hope. Thank you for the strength of your vision and all that is magnificent about a university dedicated to growth and intellectual curiosity. Your coalition of students that are challenging President Merwin’s decision to postpone the Convocation and Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture carries great power. You are modeling what an open space of democracy looks like in times of terror. You are asking the administration of Florida Gulf Coast University to trade in their fear for trust, their control for collaboration, and to move forward with creativity and imagination. This is deeply moving to all of us who care about freedom of speech and the right to gather in the name of mutual respect.

It would be my great pleasure and privilege to accept your invitation to join you in assembly on Sunday, Oct. 24, on the campus of the Florida Gulf Coast University. Please know I do not need any compensation, only a good bed to sleep in and a shared meal with students.

Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to honor all that binds us together, rather than what tears us apart. Your gesture to create this open space for me on your campus is a collective call for healing at a time when so much is broken in this country.

It is my sincere hope that President Merwin will join us that evening, as well, in the name of understanding. “We can only attain harmony and stability by consulting ensemble,” writes Walt Whitman. This is my definition of community, and community interaction is the white-hot center of a democracy that burns bright. I am inspired by your leadership as a coalition of students. This gesture looms large at a time when fearful actions appear small.

Know of my deepest respect and gratitude for your joyous indignation and reflective activism on behalf of democracy.

Respectfully yours,

Terry Tempest Williams

Tour of Beauty

Friday, 8 Oct 2004


My father bought me a cell phone last night. He said that I need “to get with the rest of America, instead of being in no-man’s-land,” which means I am unreachable.

“You need to be able to call Brooke or me if you get into trouble. It’s about safety.”

We’ve come a long way, my father and I. When Refuge was published in 1991, he gave me a Lady Wesson, a .38 Special, so I could defend myself on the road. So you could say we have evolved from violence to communication, which is a hopeful sign.

I had a cell phone once before which lasted about three weeks and then I happily lost it after attending a reading of a friend when the phone started playing a John Phillip Sousa song in my pocket. I was too embarrassed to admit it was me. Unable to turn it off, I think I left it behind some book at Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle.

I am in Salt Lake because my brother Steve is very sick, lymphoma, diagnosed last October. These are difficult days. These are tender days. He awaits a stem-cell transplant.


What is the disease we are facing in this nation of ours? The disease of fear. Fear creates an atmosphere where craven acts occur, even in our institutions of higher education. When we can no longer count on our colleges and universities to champion and protect free speech, no voice in America is safe.


It is easy to become depressed, complacent, wondering what to believe and whom. I have to trust what my body knows. There is no greater disappointment than the diagnosis of a lie. Listening to the body, the body politic.

“As anger, desire, and ignorance are dying, we are becoming purer and purer. The whole process becomes a development of the state of luminosity.”
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

* * *

The phone rings. Wangari Maathai has won the Nobel Peace Prize. I burst into tears. The first African woman, the first environmentalist, to be recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. It had been their intention to widen the scope of the prize. The committee’s statement reads: “Peace on Earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment.”

Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement of Kenya have planted 30 million trees since its inception in 1977 — 30 million trees that have helped to prevent erosion and provide firewood for cooking fires. For decades, Wangari has said over and over to anyone who would listen, “The women of Africa are carrying the environmental crisis on their backs as they spend eight to 10 hours a day in search of firewood to be able to cook dinner for their children.”

Together, the women of the Green Belt Movement literally gathered seeds in the folds of their skirts and planted them in their villages. They watered them, nurtured them, and when they were tall enough to transplant, they took them to the elementary schools where the children became the caretakers of trees. Thousands of schools have responded. Millions of children have participated. Green Belt forests were planted, while educating the next generation about the perils of deforestation.

She is a beacon of passionate engagement in the name of environmental justice. Throughout President Moi’s presidency, Wangari Maathai participated in respectful dissent and was an outspoken critic of his policies. She was arrested in 1991, freed, and arrested again in 1999 after sustaining injuries to her head when attacked by police while planting trees in the Karura Public Forest, part of a protest against deforestation. This was another response to Moi’s backing the development of a high-end housing project that resulted in the clearing of hundreds of acres of forest.

In 2002, at the end of Moi’s reign, Wangari Maathai ran for the Parliament and won. She was named the deputy minister of the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife.

Wangari has literally sought peace for the planet through the collecting of seeds. Kenyan women have planted these seeds in the soils of their own communities.

I met Wangari Maathai in July 1985, during the U.N. Decade for Women Conference and Forum held in Nairobi. She changed my life. I had never seen such a passionate, intelligent, relentless voice for the earth. She spoke in stories, she held seeds in hand, and she invited anyone who was interested to come with her and visit one of the children’s forests. I followed her into the villages. She showed me the seedlings, the nurseries, the women who were leading the Green Belt Movement. I was so inspired that when I returned home, a small group of us who had attended the conference started the Green Belt Movement of Utah. For $10, you could plant a tree in Kenya. We made up little certificates, we gave talks in women’s groups and literary clubs, Mormon relief societies, schools, and churches, and along the way, we not only educated ourselves, but educated our community about deforestation, not just in Africa, but Utah as well. We sent modest amounts of money to the Green Belt Movement. It was our own gesture of solidarity with the Kenyan women.

When I met her, she was 44 years old. I was 29. Today she is 64 years old. I am 49. You could see deep changes, not so much in her face, but her eyes, sobered by all she has witnessed, the full end of the spectrum, violence as well as regeneration.

Twenty years later, I had the privilege of welcoming Wangari and her son into our home in Castle Valley. [My husband] Brooke was away, which saddened me. I had talked about her for years. When I saw her step out of the car and stand against the redrock cliffs, her beautiful African self — I wept. We held each other close. I heard her low, calm voice once again and was reassured that goodness and greatness do exist in the world. For 20 years, her photograph has stood on my desk as a reminder of what is possible, as a reminder of the sacrifices necessary to do good work, but also the joy. Wangari has the widest, brightest smile of any human being I know.

At dinner, I asked her what she had learned in these 20 years. She did not hesitate. “Patience. Patience.” And then she talked about how often those working on the margins to create the open space of justice and democracy are not the ones who end up inhabiting that space.

“We have to step inside that space we have created for political engagement and claim it for ourselves,” she said.

This is what she has done. “Deputy minister,” she said smiling. “Not the minister. Not yet.”

She spoke of her regrets of being away from her children while she was in jail. Her son spoke of what that was like for him, when he realized who his mother was not just for him but for millions of Kenyans. He has his own ethical vision in place and it is evolving through the lens of science. He just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

I dedicated The Open Space of Democracy to my teachers. Professor Wangari Maathai is one of them.



Brenda Porter, the education director of the Colorado Mountain Club, picks me up at the Denver airport. She is a vibrant presence, a naturalist who loves the Front Range. As we drive to Boulder, she tells me about her work as an educator. They have programs for all ages, such as “The Science of Mountains,” a class that allows children to understand how mountains are created, what they are made from, and geologic principles like uplift and erosion. The children not only learn about mountains intellectually, but they experience it in their own bodies as they learn to climb. She speaks of a local program called “Mesas 2 Mountains” that introduces children and adults to their own landscape in Golden, taking advantage of local trails along Clear Creek. We talk about the importance of biological literacy.

The Colorado Mountain Club has such a distinguished history. It was established in 1912 by Enos Mills, along with artists, scientists, explorers, and climbers passionate about wild Colorado. They have been champions of the Citizen’s Wilderness Proposal that has now been incorporated into legislation by [Rep.] Diana DeGette [D-Colo.], one of America’s great wilderness advocates. It is known as the Colorado Wilderness Act and would protect 1.6 million acres.

Later, I meet Vera Smith, the conservation director; she is stealth, so smart and savvy about Colorado environmental politics. She talks about her fears for Colorado given the spotlight it is under by the Bush administration. In May, the Bureau of Land Management sold 27 leases in three proposed wilderness areas (Cow Ridge and Hunter Canyon near Grand Junction). In August, the BLM sold 12 leases in 3 proposed wilderness areas (Dolores River Canyons, Maverick Canyon, and Sagebrush Pillows). And in November, the BLM is slated to offer for sale leases in at least five more proposed wilderness areas and in a wild herd area.

The BLM leased in May and August over 200,000 acres. They are slated to lease an additional 63,400 acres in November.

Ninety percent of Colorado’s BLM lands are open for oil and gas development. Thirty-eight million acres of public lands in America are now open up for business. Our public lands are our public commons.

“The more land they lock up, the less land a subsequent administration can propose for protection,” Vera says.

I tell her this is similar to the story we are telling in Utah. On Sept. 8, 2004, the state of Utah auctioned off 360,000 acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry. A quick $28 million dollars was made. The nearly 40,000 acres sold were wildlands proposed for protection in America’s Redrock Wilderness Act.

I spoke with Suzanne Jones of The Wilderness Society. She said, “Places like Desolation Canyon are national treasures and should be protected for our children, not handed over to the oil and gas industry … It simply doesn’t make sense for the Bush administration to target our last top-notch natural areas, places that are important for recreation, wildlife, and clean water.”

Eighty-three members of Congress recently asked the BLM not to offer leases to the oil and gas companies in areas that are proposed for wilderness in Utah and Colorado. No one in the White House seems to be listening, nor, for that matter, in the Department of Interior.

* * *

One day last June I met [Interior] Secretary Gale Norton in a restroom of the Denver airport. We were both at the wash basin. I looked to my left.

“Secretary Norton?” I heard myself say. She smiled and said, “Yes.” I introduced myself and extended my hand. She chose not to shake it. It was true, we were at our designated sinks. I began to laugh and said, “I recognize this is an inopportune moment, but …” And so our conversation began.

What I remember is saying how weary we all are in the American West, that we feel we have no say, that public process has been thwarted in the name of oil and gas priorities. She spoke of their community collaboration projects and how we had to find ways to balance the various demands on the land. She promised to send me a copy of their brochure (which she did). We were both on edge. I fear I went into a mad rant, but have to trust some part of me held back my wild frustration in an attempt to be gracious and respectful of the office she holds. The space between us was vast and tense and palpable. We were both women of the west, from the west, Colorado and Utah. Neighbors. What shaped our different views of landscape? What would we agree on? And at what point in our development did we forge such contrary allegiances? This is the conversation I wish we could have had, that maybe one day we can have. I would be curious to know what we would agree on. Instead, the awkward silences exposed both of our ideologies, our beliefs, our hopes. The difference was one of power. She didn’t have to talk to me. I was desperate to talk to her.

In the end, we did shake hands. But on my flight home, every fiber of my being was trembling.

* * *

On Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004, there was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful gathering of spirited people working within their communities on the conversation between culture and wildness and how both inform the other.

Howard Zahnhiser, one of the architects of the act and its author, wrote, “For the wilderness is essential to us, as human beings, for a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, our place in all nature.”

Forty years later, the National Wilderness Preservation System is 11 times the size it originally was. Congress has designated wilderness in 44 states — from 13 million acres in Alaska to a five-acre wilderness island in Florida — totaling some 106 million acres in all, with 9 million acres awaiting protection in Utah and 1.6 million acres in Colorado. State wilderness bills are pending in Nevada and Washington. Montana is working on its own bill as well.

Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, now 84 years old, who served under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, spoke that day.

We like to think — and politicians too often think — that all leadership comes from the top down. But the leadership and the passing of laws like civil rights (and the Wilderness Act) came from the streets. It came from the people.

He said that what people of his generation knew within public service was that you had to mindful of three things: 1) the capacity to grow; 2) the ability to change; and 3) the importance of facing your adversary with mutual respect.

I realized in that moment how we have all been diminished by the nastiness of the debates within public policy and politics, in general. We have lost our civility and respect. Do we have the capacity to grow and, heaven forbid, change?

We can only attain harmony and stability by consulting ensemble, writes Walt Whitman in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.”

* * *

My cell phone rings. I am in Brenda’s car, driving from Boulder to Golden, past the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. I think about my brother Steve, how their next-door neighbor, Stuart Clark, died from lymphoma in 2002. Their neighbor a few doors down, also with lymphoma, passed away a few years before that. And another neighbor had lymphoma and is disease-free. There are others. As we pass another military installation in the Atomic West, I have to believe this epidemic of cancers, particularly in Utah, is environmental. What do we do?

It is a reporter from the Naples paper in Florida: “The students are organizing. The Young Republicans have just joined with the New Democrats and are standing with the Model United Nations club shoulder-to-shoulder with nine other student organizations to protest the president’s decision to postpone your visit to Florida Gulf Coast University. Do you have a comment you would like to make?”

I am absolutely thrilled. This has been the story of students all along. They are embodying the open space of democracy and showing us what is possible.

We gather at the Colorado Mountain Club in Golden at 7:30 p.m. I am aware that the second presidential debates are underway. Some friends are taping it. I am amazed and grateful for those who chose to come to the reading. This is the first stop on our “Open Space of Democracy Tour.”

I am emotionally weary because of the day, the week, this intense convergence of family and work, but look into the eyes of friends. I stop to gather my center and breathe.

The dialogue that followed was heartening. Never have I seen or felt such engagement in this country. Citizens are informed, active. Of course, there are those who are not. But that has always been the case. Sixty-two million Americans watched the first presidential debate on Sept. 30. There is so much at stake. We are at war in Iraq. We are fighting for public process on public lands. I am not one to use these kinds of words, but it is true. These are contentious times, confusing times, all the more reason and need for deep listening and the creation of open dialogue. One gentleman wanted to know why not “The Democracy of Open Space” instead of “The Open Space of Democracy.” Many questions and discussion about how we bring this open space to our neighbors, how we bring this spirit of listening to the conflicts within our neighborhoods. This is not about answers, but inquiry, honest, soulful discussion. I remember my grandmother Mimi saying that first you must identify the question and then it begins to solve itself through your awareness.

A gentleman who has been a diplomat for more than 50 years said, “There are no solutions to problems, you just keep working on them because the problem keeps changing.”

The evening ends with a book signing and I have the privilege of listening to people’s stories. Many young people in the audience. The full spectrum. After it is over, Jacob Smith, head of the Center for Native Ecosystems, Vera Smith, and Josh (whose last name I cannot retrieve) go over to his house and watch the presidential debates.

We eat pizza and toast each other with wine, water, whatever, every time George W. Bush says, in that presidential drawl, “We’re working hard … it’s hard work … freedom will prevail.”

Cry Freedom of Speech

Sunday, 10 Oct 2004


5:30 a.m. Wake-up call. Eyes open. Rise. Stumble around the motel room. Turn on light. Walk to bathroom. Look in mirror. Frightening image. Turn on water. Brush teeth. Spit. Turn off water. I realize I have no comb, no brush, and that I have not even attempted to comb my hair since Friday morning in Salt Lake City. Run fingers through hair for some semblance of order. Thank heavens for elastic bands and pony tails. Look at watch. Thirty minutes to pack. Reorganize papers, which are scattered everywhere.

I look out the window. Still dark. I know the San Juan Mountains are out there. The crescent moon looks like a smile. Venus is poised near.

6:30 a.m. We were about to board the plane when the security guard says, “Ladies and gentlemen, someone has left their laptop computer at the security check. Does anyone recognize this?”

He holds up a silver Macintosh.

It looks just like mine. Suddenly, I realize it is mine.

I raise my hand, step out of line. The security guard hands me my computer. People around me are stupified. Quite frankly, so am I.

“Any reason we should keep it?” he says jokingly. I cannot help smiling.

Irony. All of this. Our lives. Here. Now. What makes sense? Nothing makes sense.

Last night, after talking with Brooke, I called to see how my family was doing. Called my father. I had warned him the night before that I mentioned to Mrs. Sykes, a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, that he would be accompanying me to Florida, that he was a Republican voting for Bush.

We caught up with news. He was watching the Cardinals/Dodgers game at his friend’s house.

I told him I hoped the news from Florida Gulf Coast University had not embarrassed him or caused him any problems. When I asked him if he had received any calls from friends, he said, “Only one from Jonie James,” a college friend of my mother’s, outraged that he was voting for George Bush.

Long pause.

“Well, Dad –,” I said, teasing him. “Are you?”

Longer pause.

“I don’t know.”

* * *

There are miracles in the world. Dawn. Light cresting over the Rocky Mountains. Convergences in our lives that we do not plan, could not have imagined. Synchronous moments when we wonder what is real, what is true, what do we fight for, and what do we simply accept. Where is there room for hope and when does hope collapse into denial.

I cannot stop thinking about my brother.

* * *

8:15 a.m. Denver airport. Sitting at a faux French restaurant. I have bought a Denver Post and a New York Times. I am reading a boxed editorial about Judith Miller and the possibility of her going to prison because she will not give up her sources.

What is happening to this country of ours? Does the First Amendment mean nothing?

My phone rings. It is Steven Barclay.

“Do you have a minute?” he asks. “I want to read you a letter.”

President William Merwin
Florida Gulf Coast University


Besides the concerns that have led friends of mine, including Terry Tempest Williams herself, Jane Hirshfield, and Robert Hass, to write to you about your recent decision to withdraw the invitation made last May to Ms. Williams to speak on your campus, I have another, and it would seem more personal, ground for doing so. Evidently we are more nearly related than I would have guessed, for we share a name which, as you must be aware, is not often encountered, and therefore, I must suppose, a common ancestor not long ago. Once in London I met Miles Merwin, the former governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, who was an impassioned devotee of the history of the family. I did not follow his researches very assiduously, I am afraid, nor, I believe, contribute much to them, but I have learned that there have been other writers, and indeed artists of various kinds who had the name I was given at birth, and I know that there have been differences of political and doctrinal persuasion, over the generations. Mine have differed increasingly from my father’s, since my early youth. He was a Presbyterian minister and a Republican. But at the age when the watershed between our beliefs was unmistakable he wished me, above all, “the courage of my convictions,” and his own opposition to racism and religious intolerance were reassuring examples to me for years. They confirmed something that I managed to believe was a long-evolved and hard-won achievement of humankind: the ideal of democracy which brave and visionary spirits from Jefferson to Martin Luther King had held up as something that we might claim and cherish.

My hope in that was not crucially threatened until these last four years. The recent menace to it is exemplified by the political climate of the past decade, the failure of the electoral process and the consistent, invasive campaign by those in power and their managers to silence, deny, and disparage public criticism and dissent, labeling it “unpatriotic,” to begin with. In a life more private than public, I have been unable to help noticing that those presently directing the country have come to discourage not only open consideration of such central issues as foreign relations, the environment, the role of government in the welfare of the people at large for whom the government exists, but that increasingly they do not want the issues to be raised at all. I can of course understand their reluctance to have their record examined too closely, but the historic precedents for all such suppression are dismal, and their predecessors bear names only too familiar in our time.

Your decision, and its confirmation by your trustees — or by all of them who had been appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush — is an unfortunate example of this present erosion of democracy itself at a time when the acting executive government has set out to force the forms, at least, of democracy upon peoples that cannot help but regard us with deepening distrust.

Though I am in little danger of having your decision ascribed to me, I write to you deploring this utter difference between us, and its appearance in a place — a university, somewhere that holds out an invitation to open learning — that is so important to what I have hoped for in imagining a democracy. Your first loyalty, apparently, is to those responsible for your present position, your party, your governor and his family, whatever their principles or their records may be. Mine, as your words and your decision make clear, would be of no interest or concern to you. I congratulate you, however, in having stirred students at your university to a realization that freedom of speech, and access to the views of others and to the records of those who, by whatever means, have put themselves in the position of owing public service, are important enough to be acted upon and to be claimed, in a democracy, as their right.

Sincerely yours,

William S. Merwin
Haiki, Hawaii

I cannot speak. Steven understands my silence and we hold it together.

This is the power and courage of the poet who recognizes the present moment as a microcosm of the larger condition and responds, passionately, eloquently, now.

I walk to Gate 23 to board Flight 6282 from Denver to Salt Lake City.

I see on the departure board, the flight has been delayed for an hour. I am relieved. I cannot move this fast in the world. And more to the point, I don’t want to. For one hour, I sit, close my eyes, and breathe.

* * *

Home in Utah. Family. I paid Brooke’s uncle, J.D. Williams, a visit. He has taught political science for over 50 years at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Utah. He is a fierce advocate of free speech. For over 25 years, he was the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. During the Nixon administration when Watergate was exposed, J.D. was one of the strongest voices calling for President Nixon’s impeachment. This did not play well in Utah. The Hinckley family was receiving a great deal of pressure to fire J.D. because of his stand. The board of directors met to discuss the issue. After several hours of discussion, mental anguish, and soul searching, Mr. Robert Hinckley telephoned J.D. who was anticipating the call and knew he very well may lose his job.

In a dramatic moment, Mr. Hinckley said, “The purpose of the Hinckley Institute is to inform and inspire students to become politically active and take a stand around the issues that affect their lives — which is exactly what you have done. Thank you for setting this example for our students.”

I knock on J.D. and Bea’s door. He opens it and hugs me hard.

“Let’s talk about the First Amendment. I’ve got all my materials ready for you.”

I follow him downstairs and take off my jacket.

“J.D., I’m in way over my head.” I said. “I need you to educate me on the basics of free speech.”

For the next two hours, our knees touch each other as he sits at his desk and I sit across from him. He tutors me in the principles and laws of the First Amendment. He gives me his lectures. I listen.

Freedom of Speech in a Current World

1. Epton v. NY: A demonstration in Harlem, 1964, where a black youth has been killed by police. Communist Epton takes to the soapbox: “We’re going to have a demonstration, and we don’t say that it is going to be peaceful because the cops have declared war on the people of Harlem and … no country or peoples in the world that have had war declared on them have not declared war on their enemy … and every time they kill one of us, damn it, we’ll kill one of them, and we should start thinking that way right now … We’re going to have to kill a lot of these cops, a lot of these judges, and we’ll have to go up against their army.”

Epton was found guilty by the New York courts.

2. 1983, a group of parents in the Alpine School District persuaded the school board to drop the Children’s Great Books course. One parental objection: Jack and the Beanstalk taught children to steal.

3. 1986 to 1990, the FBI succeeded in suppressing In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen by means of lawsuits for defamation of character. Book proved that the infamous COINTELPRO program of the FBI extended to the Sioux Reservation, long after the program was supposedly abandoned.

4. Book removal:

Davis County, Utah: Parents requested that John Gardner’s Grendel be removed from high school reading lists because there was “too much violence” in this modern version of Beowolf from the monster’s point of view.

Alabama: Efforts by some members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee to remove The Diary of Anne Frank because it is a “real downer.”

J.D. gives example after example of freedom of speech violations.

“Do you want a Kleenex now or after I read you this quote from Thomas Jefferson?” he asked, well-known for his sense of dramatic presentation.

“Now,” I said.

J.D. sets the stage. Jefferson is in Paris. Madison rushes the adopted draft of the Constitution to Jefferson by sea boat. It is Dec. 20, 1787.

He writes James Madison: “Let me add that a Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on Earth.”

Thomas Jefferson goes on to say, “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”

J.D. looks right at me. “Prior censorship. Prior restraint. This is what has happened to you. Defined as silencing someone before they have had a chance to speak. Consider the court case Near v. Minnesota, 1931.”

“Even if the president of Florida Gulf Coast University is not calling it censorship but ‘postponement’?” I ask.

He gets up from his desk, walks over to his bookcase, and pulls out a book and hands it to me. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.

“Your assignment is to read Chapter Two, ‘On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.'”

Cheney Reaction

Monday, 11 Oct 2004


Brooke and I are at the University of Puget Sound. Together. The students have been radiant. And to the reader, I can only say this: For the past hour and a half, I have been writing this dispatch sharing the students’ work, sharing impressions, images, hour by hour. And as I went to send my dispatch … it vanished. All my words written from 4:30 a.m to 6:00 a.m. this morning — poof — gone. A treatise on hope and hopelessness. Our dance with paradox. The students’ writing, the students’ wisdom. How Vaclav Havel says, “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”

But those words are gone. I must let them go. Again. Perhaps they were unnecessary. Perhaps they were meant to be private.

This is what is holding my attention now as a train roars through Tacoma.

Today’s news from Florida:

By Betty Parker
Published by on October 12, 2004

Vice President Dick Cheney will return to Southwest Florida on Thursday for a noon rally at the Alico Arena on the Florida Gulf Coast University campus. …

FGCU President William Merwin last week postponed an Oct. 24 appearance by Utah author Terry Tempest Williams at the school, citing fears that her talk would be too critical of President Bush, and too partisan on behalf of Democrats, for students who are required to attend the event.

But FGCU officials said Monday that Cheney’s appearance is different.

The National Republican Committee is renting the hall for Cheney, just as other groups can rent it for concerts or other types of events, said school spokeswoman Susan Evans. Williams was appearing at school facilities at no cost to her.

Students also were required to attend the series that included Williams, Evans said, while there is no such requirement for Cheney. …

“They’re just totally different kinds of events,” [Evans] said of the Cheney event at the school and the Williams event that the school postponed as too political.

Williams has since announced that she will speak at the school for free on Oct. 24.

Your One Beautiful Life

Tuesday, 12 Oct 2004


We say goodbye to Serni Solidarios, director of student programs at the University of Puget Sound, as we board the train from Tacoma to Portland. We find our seats and settle in.

I love trains. I love the slowness of trains and how civilized they feel compared to planes. They are quiet. Trains travel through the landscape at a scale my body can accommodate. Passing trees can be identified as maples, firs, and spruces. One can bird-watch and follow the countryside with a map.

Traveling by trains always feels like a romance, instead of an ordeal.

Brooke and I read through some of the students’ papers that they wrote yesterday in class. I asked them to respond to a line inspired by Mary Oliver, “What do you want to do with your one beautiful life?”

“I want to see every wild place in the state of Washington and then see them all over again.”

“I want family.”

“I want to have a connection with community.”

“I want to grow my own food and speak many languages.”

“I want to love fiercely and be a fine friend.”

“My life would be complete — in my eyes — if I were able to save the Hawaiian green sea turtles and stop the dangers and harms we put in their ways …”

“I want to create an indelible mark upon all that I interact with. If I could live on as scar tissue — that small reminder on someone’s hands of a mistake or foolishness or a good-natured nick — I would be happy …”

“I want to be an opera singer. I really do. I want to preserve an art that I deem superior to anything else. Opera has the ability to transport my soul to a place of ecstasy … The difference between my generation and your generation is superficiality. No one wants to be real anymore. A live performance isn’t valued nowadays as in the past. The beauty of a natural, live voice is overshadowed by the site of J. Lo’s ass.”

“I don’t want kids. I don’t want a wife. I want to be a trauma surgeon. I want to drive a cool car. I want to sleep with many beautiful women. I want to put a Bowflex in my office.”

“I want to eat 12 different kinds of lettuce …”

“I want to change the world. I want to be surrounded by music. I want to travel and learn. I want to pay my parents back my college tuition. I want to not want.”

“What do I want to do with my one beautiful life? I don’t know. I really don’t know. All I know is that I am searching for something — or maybe it will find me. A world of wondering, just living.”

The tenderness of these students gives me hope.

Hope. The discussion of the Environmental Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College organized by Anne Elizabeth Washburn, a graduating senior. She has asked Bud Moore, a forester from Montana, Derrick Jensen, a writer from northern California, and me to talk about hope.

Bud Moore embodies hope. He was born in 1917 and is a living example of how forest policy has evolved from cutting trees to sustaining ecosystems. He has run a trap line and a sawmill. He shares what he has learned from the Bitterroot Valley where he was born and raised. He is now writing an ecosystem-management plan for Coyote Forest, an 80-acre tract of private lands, that will serve as a template for private land owners, the next step after a conservation easement. His work partner, Betsy Spettigue, is helping him with this venture in Swan Valley. In his book, The Lochsa Story: Land Ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains, he writes, “We must take time now to deepen our understanding of the consequences of what we have done and are doing to the land … Hold close to nature.”

Derrick Jensen is, in his own words, “a possessed writer.” His books are manifestos of how to live more consciously on the planet. He writes, “We are members of the most destructive culture ever to exist. Our assault on the natural world, on indigenous and other cultures, on women, on children, on all of us through the possibility of nuclear suicide and other means — all these are unprecedented in their magnitude and ferocity.”

He is unafraid of his anger. His views can be militant and compassionate at once. Author of A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe, he unravels hope, asks us to liberate ourselves from these expectations. The students are completely riveted. Some are uncomfortable. “If you want to keep someone active, give them love, not hope …”

“Hope is acknowledging you have no agency in the matter.” He gives the example, “If we hope the salmon survive,” we acknowledge it is beyond our agency. He says instead of “simply hoping,” we can remove dams on rivers that salmon inhabit, work for better forest policies, uphold the Endangered Species Act.

I think of Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope again, like a mantra.

A lively discussion followed with the students. Some argued that we must hold on to hope, not let it go. Derrick stretched their assumptions. Someone asked us to define what a miracle is. Bud said, “It is a miracle that I am still alive.” The audience laughs. A student stands and says, “A miracle is something holy and unexpected.”

I am quiet, hoping for a miracle within my own family. Call it prayer.

Derrick said miracles are commonplace in nature — anywhere there is a leaf practicing photosynthesis.

* * *

7:30 p.m. We gather at the Agnes Flanagan Chapel for a discussion on The Open Space of Democracy. It is an evening of stories.

The story of Dud Hendrick and Elwood Cobb, two men who live on Deer Isle, Maine. Dud is a Vietnam vet who helped organize a Monday afternoon peace vigil that has been going on since Sept. 11, 2001. Elwood Cobb has a son, Joey, who is a petroleum specialist serving in Iraq. Elwood lives next door to the green where the peace activists meet. In August, Elwood was irritated by the vigil, the rainbow flags and banners of One Earth. He got in his truck and blasted the vigil with Toby Keith’s song, “American Soldier.” It became very uncomfortable. Dud approached Elwood only to learn that his son was away at war. They talked. Dud empathized and told him he had served in Vietnam. They agreed to talk further. Emails were exchanged. A relationship was forged. The next week, Elwood played his song again at the Monday night vigil. This time softer. A new sign appeared among the peace activists, “We support our troops.” After the vigil, people gathered in a circle as they always do to discuss what they are feeling, thinking, anything that has happened during the week that is pertinent to peace and this community. Elwood walked over from his house to the circle. The circle widened. Elwood apologized for his behavior, but not his feelings. He explained them. He shared his love for his son. And his fears. Hearts opened. Differences became less. A real conversation has begun to unfold. The peace group has sent food to Joey and his troops. They have helped raise money so he can come home to Deer Isle when he is on leave. Dud Hendrick stopped the cycle of violence because he had experienced violence in war. Elwood stopped the cycle of intolerance because his son’s life was at stake and he needed support.

Stories of exposure. Stories of hope. We need not look any farther than our own communities.

* * *

When love comes to rescue life, no one forgets.
— Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall

* * *

Midnight, Mallory Hotel.

Brooke and I sit down at the bar and order ham sandwiches. Brooke role-plays a conversation between President Merwin and Vice President Cheney. It feels good to laugh. It feels good to laugh so hard; other people in the bar start laughing too. We all raise a glass to the absurd, the dark, and the unknown.

A Phase of Rebuilding

Wednesday, 13 Oct 2004

in the air

Out of my plane window, I see Mount St. Helens. She is fuming, a plume of steam is rising. Rainier, Adams, Baker, Hood — all snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, that appear cold — against her heat.

Today in The Oregonian: “After 2 1/2 weeks of rock-bending, steam-spitting exertion, magma finally punched through a bulge in the crater of Mount St. Helens, leaving a finlike protrusion of pink-gray lava more than 60 feet tall and up to 165 feet long. It marks the first time the volcano erupted lava in 18 years and is tangible evidence the mountain has entered a phase of rebuilding.”


9:00 p.m. Mountain Time. Home.

Presidential debate. Not one word about the environment. Not one word from Kerry or Bush. What will it take for this conversation to enter our daily discourse?