Terry Tempest Williams is to Florida Gulf Coast University as …
1. Presidential adviser Karl Rove is to the University of Utah’s Law School,
2. Dan Rather is to CBS,
3. Michael Moore is to Utah Valley State College,
4. Jayson Blair is to The New York Times.
Few students taking literary journalism at the University of Utah missed question No. 7 on a mid-October current events quiz.
Terry Tempest Williams—one of the state’s most celebrated authors—is a beloved U alumna. When news broke that the president of Florida Gulf Coast University had led the charge to postpone a speech by Williams until after the Nov. 2 election, astute observers couldn’t resist drawing parallels to a similar incident unfolding in their own back yard.
Beehive state conservatives cried foul when student body officers at Utah Valley State College invited Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore to speak as part of his 30-day, 60-city “Slacker Uprising” tour. But the desert soil kicked up by Moore’s visit did little but add street credibility to his already questionable hygiene. Moore came, spoke and left. He threw underwear and ramen noodles at the mostly student audience, but that was it.
Williams’ Florida situation was different. Her most recent book, The Open Space of Democracy, was selected as one of two books the university’s 1,050 entering freshmen would read as part of a mandatory composition class. The university, located in sprawling Fort Meyers, Fla., also invited Williams to speak at freshman convocation for a $5,000 honorarium.
Then the drama unfolded.
The university’s board of trustees, nearly half of whom were appointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, voted to postpone the speech until after Jeb’s presidential brother cleared the Nov. 2 election. Florida was a heavily guarded swing state, after all. FGCU President William Merwin explained his stance in a letter to The Fort Meyers News-Press: “I in good conscience cannot permit an unbalanced political commentary. …We cannot use public funds to pay for something that is so blatantly political.”
Prior to the announcement, Williams was given the choice to sign an agreement that she would not represent a political point of view and refrain from criticizing President George W. Bush. She refused.
Instead, Williams picked up the phone to speak with Merwin. He told her he had “survived 20 years as a university president by not doing stupid things.” Williams learned that, unlike most state universities, FGCU doesn’t have a board of regents to check or balance the actions of its board of trustees. Instead, the board of trustees at each Florida college and university retains complete control to hire or fire the university president, or complete control to cancel Williams’ speech.
Less than 24 hours later, The Associated Press had documents showing Merwin contributed $2,000 to the Bush/Cheney campaign and had given other GOP candidates a combined $1,750 since 2002. Other school trustees had made similar Republican contributions.
Williams wrote a letter to Merwin. “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,” she wrote. “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.” For a naturalist and author adept at drawing connections between nature, politics and personal life, the moment was vintage Terry Tempest Williams—even if her statement to Merwin needed nothing in the way of naturalist subtext to back it up. For anyone who believes in free speech, Williams’ stand is probably best described as good old American common sense.
She returned the $5,000 check with the request that it be used to create a forum for freedom of speech on campus.
Catching up with Williams in an Avenues’ neighborhood coffee shop, it’s clear that she carefully calculates everything she does—every move, every word she writes, everything she says.
Williams was on her way home to Castle Valley, Utah, for the first time in 30 days. The book tour she started this fall took her to 10 states and, somewhere in mid-tour, left her pining for the red dirt, rocks and sun of southern Utah.
“I know as soon as I get home I will feel OK,” she said. But that didn’t stop her head from pounding. “ ... It’s just been too much.”
“I’m riding on the back of a moth through clouds.”
The words are Williams’, and they all but open the second section of The Open Space of Democracy. Like all good writers, Williams knows that each sentence she puts on paper should accomplish many aims simultaneously. The sentence above describes both the experience of flying in a small plane, and the purely magical feeling of looking down on the Arctic for the first time when Williams wanted to view firsthand the pristine wilderness in which the Bush administration proposes drilling for oil.
When Williams read that sentence to a crowd of 500 gathered in the auditorium of Rowland Hall St. Mark’s School, it was clear that she still felt just as vulnerable onstage as she did gliding over the ice and rock of the Arctic in a small, single-engine plane.
The crowd, vaguely aware of Williams’ battle with FGCU up to that point, greeted the author with a standing ovation that left Williams’ searching her jeans’ pocket for a tissue. Giving up, she used her hands to wipe away the tears. “It’s true,” she said, pausing to collect herself. “There is no place like home.”
On her Web diary, Williams would later describe the homecoming with yet another allusion to The Wizard of Oz. “I feel like I am wearing ruby slippers,” she wrote. In reality, she wore black cowboy boots and jeans, one of many lifelong habits she picked up from her father, John Tempest, now 71.
With a voice as deep and honest as Johnny Cash’s, John Tempest still admits his disappointment that his first child was born a girl. “As a result, I raised her [Terry] just like I would a boy,” he said.
When Terry Tempest was young, her father would sling a heavy pack across her shoulders, and the two would set out for the Uinta Mountains. She spent days on end with her father, laying pipe, chatting with the hardworking men who operated the heavy machinery. At 16, she worked a job in Idaho at a fly-fishing ranch.
“Raising her like I would a son made her very independent,” John Tempest said.
That independent spirit shaped Williams into the activist and writer she is today. She’s been classified as a Western writer, a conservationist, a naturalist and, at times, a downright political pain in the ass. In 1988, in an act of civil disobedience, she was arrested as one part of a group of women who trespassed onto the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons. She did it for a group of her family she knighted “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Every grown female in her family has had breast cancer, a disease she believes stems from nuclear fallout spread across Utah by the prevailing westerly winds.
She has written books advocating a more hands-on-the-earth approach to living, the first of which was Refuge. Her most recent title is Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. She’s been known to stick her hands in the dirt, but she does it to know what it feels like, not to stir. As a result, her calm and collected political activism rejects comparisons to liberal clowns like Michael Moore. Long before that filmmaker gained international acclaim, Utne magazine praised her as “a visionary.”
Even in the blanching stage lights of Rowland Hall’s auditorium, Williams, 49, retains an individual physical allure. A small streak of black graces her silver hair. In the past, Williams has described environmental activism as a dance, and in front of the hometown crowd she poses behind the podium, digging the toe of her left cowboy boot into the floor behind her. The action was purely functional. She wasn’t prepping to pirouette, or even do-si-do. She toed the stage to help control her emotions. At times it worked. At other times, tears formed at her relief over being home after her brush with Florida-style controversy.
During a Q& session that night, a woman shouted from the balcony, “Will you tell the story about the students at Florida’s Gulf Coast University?”
Williams looked up and unsuccessfully tried to shield the stage lights from her eyes. Giving up, she said, “Greta, is that you?”
Indeed it was.
“It’s amazing how you can distinguish the voice of friend without seeing a face,” Williams said.
A bit of an activist herself, Greta Belanger deJong, along with her husband John deJong, publish Catalyst, one of Salt Lake City’s few liberal publications. During Williams’ days as naturalist in residence at The Utah Museum of Natural History, she arranged the deJongs’ wedding to take place under the nose of the museum’s musk ox. It never happened, not because the museum wouldn’t let anyone marry under one of its exhibits, but because alcohol could not be served on its premises. Instead, they were married in the Hansen Planetarium.
At the request of her longtime friend, Williams told the Rowland Hall crowd how FGCU students went against the school administration and organized another opportunity for her to speak before the Nov. 2 election. Even if the university president and administration didn’t approve, the student body could act on its own and invite Williams independent of the powers that be. In a letter to students, Williams wrote she would “not need compensation, only a good bed to sleep in and a shared meal with students.”
She told the crowd she was upset that FGCU postponed her speech, but that disappointment turned to anger when she learned that Vice President Dick Cheney would speak at the same school one week before the November election. And university administrators charged that her speech would be too politically biased. The audience laughed at the hypocrisy.
“It’s not funny,” Williams said, correcting the crowd. “It’s sad.”
When Terry Tempest Williams at last walked through a FGCU classroom door for the first time, the room was dead silent; the mood, dead serious.
Students Graham Bearden and Brandon Hollingshead, both student-body representatives at the university, sat side by side. A window in the small room overlooked the swampy habitat of alligators and herons. Tables and chairs had been pushed into a crude circle where Bearden and Hollingshead joined 20 of their peers. Together they stared at the woman who walked through the door.
“I’m Terry,” Williams said. And the students busted up laughing. To think that a woman of such humble and quiet demeanor could present such a threat. Perhaps it wasn’t funny, but the students needed to release weeks of pent-up emotion. It was a collective, comic sigh of relief. Finally, Williams was on campus, the guest of students after her invitation to freshman convocation was put on the rocks.
Bearden and Hollingshead played an integral role. Ditching class the day after the university’s trustees voted to rescind Williams’ speaking invitation, Bearden met with Hollingshead and the two set out to build a coalition of student groups willing to sponsor another opportunity for Williams to speak to students. By 4 p.m., Bearden and Hollingshead were sitting in the computer lab cranking out an e-mail inviting Williams to speak on campus under the terms of her original agreement—before the Nov. 2 election. Of course, the students had no money to pay her, and Williams had already, on principle, returned the $5,000 honorarium she received before the university canceled her freshman convocation speech.
That evening, Bearden and Hollingshead manned a booth at a concert outside the student union building. As the bands set up, they took the microphone and told students what had happened, and how they felt about it.
“We were trying to create an open space. A space where dialogue could take place, where people who were upset with what had happened could be heard,” Bearden said.
In the classroom overlooking that swamp, the dialogue had indeed now been opened, as students told Williams about their concerns, dreams and frustrations. The next day, Oct. 24, Williams would speak to a crowd of 450 gathered in the union’s ballroom.
William’s father went to Florida for what he called, “security purposes.”
“She sure had everyone riled up,” John Tempest said.
In the past, Williams had received other protective gifts from dad, including a gun and, later on, a cell phone.
During Williams’ Sunday afternoon speech, John Tempest sat next to President Merwin, a move planned by students to make the president a bit uncomfortable. Mr. Tempest has little to say about Merwin, who caused his daughter a lot of emotional ups and downs. “He came. For that, I’ll give him credit, but that’s it,” he said.
The speech went smoothly. After a standing ovation, Williams took the podium. “To gather together. To call together. The act of convening. The body, the student body convened,” she said. “Thank you for not simply reading The Open Space of Democracy, but embodying it.” She quoted John Stuart Mill. She talked about the fragility of democracy. She told a few inspirational stories. And she summed it all up by emphasizing the strength of “the singular beauty of the naked voice.” She never once mentioned the Bush administration, and security guards did little but hold the doors open for the crowd to enter and leave. In the end, her words were more about healing and openness than partisan politics.
At the conclusion of her speech, a Fox reporter interviewed Williams: “Why didn’t you bash Bush? … How did it feel to be rejected by the president [of FGCU]?”
“His questions had nothing to do with the issues,” she said. “I simply told him that the students had participated in the highest possible manner. They brought us all together and they created an open space.”
The reporter threw his microphone on the ground, pulled his cell phone out and called his editor. “There is no story here,” he said.
FGCU professor Jim Wohlpart disagreed. As a member of the selection committee that chose Williams’ book for the first-year class, Wohlpart was along for the whole ride. He met with President Merwin and tried unsuccessfully to calm his fears that Williams would be a rabble-rouser. He met with students during their quest to reinvite the author, and he spent significant time with Williams when she made it to the university campus.
In hindsight, Wohlpart said he wouldn’t change a thing, and that the uproar over Williams’ appearance gave the 8-year-old university a quick lesson in growing up. “This process helped our university mature,” Wohlpart said. “She came here and healed us.”
President Merwin still defends his decision to postpone the speech on the grounds that public money should not be spent bringing a partisan speaker to campus where students, in this case, freshman, were required to attend as part of the class curriculum. However, Merwin did tell the faculty senate that he wished he had done things differently, less unilaterally.
For Williams, it was an experience she wouldn’t want to go through again. “But in hindsight, it was great to watch students rise to the occasion,” she said.
Rise they did. Bearden and Hollingshead are just two of dozens of FGCU students who say their lives have changed because of the experience. Hollingshead plans on protecting the Florida Everglades while continuing his environmental studies education so he can teach at a college level. Bearden is working to save a small farm in his hometown threatened by development.
“The situation with Terry has been quite a ride, but I know it is just the beignning of quite a journey. She pointed us in the right direction, and now it is up to us,” Bearden said.
Williams decided to write The Open Space of Democracy after giving a May 2003 commencement speech at the University of Utah.
Midway through that speech, Williams defined the phrase that would become the title of her book: “In the open space of democracy, there is room for dissent … there is room for differences. In the open space of democracy, the health of the environment is seen as the wealth of our communities. Cooperation is valued more than competition; prosperity becomes the caretaker of poverty. … And technology is not rendered at the expense of life, but developed out of reverence for life.”
Similar themes are found in everything Williams has ever penned. But somehow the U commencement speech was different. It was, perhaps, more pointed. Instead of presenting issues through the struggle of the desert tortoise, Williams spoke about the failures of the Bush administration. Without naming the president, she slammed his policies. “How do we engage in conversation at a time when the definition of what it means to be a patriot is being narrowly construed? You are either with us or against us,” she said. Some in the crowd booed. Others cheered.
Back at the Avenues cafÃ©, Williams sips on jasmine tea and refuses to describe her experience at FGCU as a milestone. Instead, true to her careful nature, Williams searches for the right word. “It’s a continuum,” she said.
With all of its notes and scribbles, the personal copy of Open Space she brought with her looks more like a high school journal than a typeset publication. She reads from a letter she wrote to Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, her old neighbor and former Mormon bishop. Bennett, in attendance during Williams’ commencement speech, had written her a letter voicing his problems with her speech. He asked her what she was willing to die for. Williams responded months later, when she realized the question wasn’t what she was willing to die for, but what she was willing to live for.
“After much thought, what I would be willing to die for, and give my life to, is the freedom of speech,” she wrote back to him. “It is the open door to all other freedoms.”
At that time, Williams had no way of knowing that freedom would be tested 11 months later on a university campus on the other side of the country.
“See, that is what I am talking about,” she said. “It—everything—is never about one moment. It is never about me. It is a continuum.”
Three weeks earlier at Rowland Hall, a man in the crowd asked Williams to elaborate on what she meant when she wrote, “We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism.”
Williams’ explanation was a while in coming. That’s because one statement by Williams takes on many different levels. Once again, her writing was 11 months ahead of her life.
When she wrote that statement she had no way of knowing FGCU’s board of trustees would admit they feared decreased funding if they allowed someone critical of the Bush administration to speak on campus. This fear, born of capitalism, compromised our nations’ democratic principles, Williams said as the beginning of her reply.
The war in Iraq, Williams pointed out, is another example of such confusion. “Just wait until the first golden arches opens in Baghdad,” she said. “Drilling for oil in the Arctic would be another. Compromising the integrity of such a sacred land for fuel?” she asked.
But while society may have blurred the difference between democracy and capitalism, Williams has not.
She approached her longtime publisher, Random House, with the idea of putting together a politically aimed book—what would later become The Open Space of Democracy. They told her they couldn’t do it, not in an election year. She tried another major publishing house and got a similar response.
Then she got a call from Laurie Lane-Zucker, executive director of the Orion Society, who proposed Williams write a book about democracy. The book, written in three parts, would be published first in Orion magazine and then as a book. She would also tour the country just prior to the presidential election.
She got a $1,500 bonus from Orion to write the book. For her work with Random House, Williams normally received a five, sometimes even six-figure, advance. “This was truly a labor of love,” Williams said. Of her dozens of speeches across the country, she was paid for only two. For her Salt Lake City speech, Williams donated the proceeds to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“This confusion between democracy and capitalism happens everywhere,” Williams said, speaking at Rowland Hall. She was referring to the threats to stop donations and spark litigation at Utah Valley State College because Michael Moore was invited to campus.
“It’s sad, the power of money,” Williams said. “That’s what I mean.”
At the cafÃ©, Williams’ husband, Brooke, left the table to fix a tire. It’s the last task they need to finish before heading home for the first time in a month.
Eight years ago the Williamses moved from the mouth of Emigration Canyon to Castle Valley, Utah, population 350. She wrote about the town’s location in Open Space saying, “the Colorado River creates its northern boundary; the LaSal Mountains rise to the south; Castleton Tower stands to the east …; and Porcupine Rim runs to the west.”
Put frankly, Castle Valley is in middle of nowhere, which for Williams happens to be the center of solitude. That’s why she chose to live there. She claims the lack of community allows her to write about building community. “It’s a paradox,” she admits, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether she is talking about her life, her writing, or both.
She’s taken up the title of teacher one more time, this time at her alma mater, the University of Utah. Williams is the first Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in Environmental Humanities, an experimental program that tries to combine science and literature in one degree. This summer she’ll teach a seminar to graduate and undergraduate students in Castle Valley.
Other than that, Williams is going to take it easy. “I’m going underground,” she said. Her body language made it clear she wasn’t talking about any clandestine movement. She wants to keep a low profile—a profile that will let her stay connected to the earth, while keeping her name off university pop quizzes on current events.