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Writer calls for more respect, dissent

Terry Tempest Williams speaks at Spokane Community College Monday as an interpreter signs in the foreground for the hearing impaired. 
 (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Terry Tempest Williams speaks at Spokane Community College Monday as an interpreter signs in the foreground for the hearing impaired. (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)

Americans need a rejuvenated democracy that includes respect for the natural world and a wide range of dissent and difference, naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams told a crowd at Spokane Community College on Monday night.

“I do not believe we can look for leadership beyond ourselves,” Williams told a crowd of more than 200 in the SCC Lair-Student Center. “We are in need of a reflective activism, born of humility and not arrogance.”

Williams, a well-known naturalist, essayist and author, spoke as part of SCC’s annual President’s Speaker Series. Perhaps best known as the author of “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” Williams has written several books and served in a wide range of environmental organizations.

In an hourlong speech that blended personal reminiscences, poetry and an environmental call-to-arms, Williams repeatedly returned to the themes of restoration, rejuvenation and reconnection – both in terms of the natural world and the political environment.

“At this time, I believe it is crucial for each of us to question, stand, speak and act,” she said. “If we can reconnect and engage … then I believe the world will not be a place of despair, but a place of tremendous transformation and happiness.”

The title of Williams’ latest book, “The Open Space of Democracy,” formed the basis for many of her comments. That open space should include, she said, room for dissent, difference, environmental health and a community focus. It also favors cooperation over competition and recognizes that the beauty of the natural world is essential to the human spirit.

“If we listen to the land, we will know what to do,” she said, noting that the energy devoted to environmental action has been dwarfed by the energy applied to industrial aims.

Williams said Americans are “addicted to speed and superficiality,” and noted several political changes under the Bush administration that have scaled back environmental regulation and inquiry.

“At what point do we finally lay our bodies down and say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is not acceptable?” she asked.

Williams discussed an urban renewal project in South Philadelphia that turned vacant lots into gardens, sculpture parks and other public spaces. She told of attending the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and retold – to applause – the recent news story of the discovery that the ivory-billed woodpecker isn’t extinct, as long believed.

In response to an inquiry from an SCC student, Williams also read from an essay about the reasons she is a writer. Repeating the refrain, “I write …,” Williams offered a litany of reasons that included: “because I believe I can create a path in the darkness,” “as ritual,” “because I am not employable,” “because it is dangerous,” and “as though I were whispering in the ear of the one I love.”

Earlier in the day, Williams met with students who had been reading from her book “Refuge,” which tells the story of her mother’s battle with cancer and the destruction of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.

During the discussion, she said, one man who has served in the military asked her about the characterizations in the book of “beer gut over belt buckle” men.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m those men. Did you mean that?’ ” she said. “I realized I had to be accountable for a stereotype.”

Only by learning one another’s stories can people begin to get beyond the anger and shallowness of much political debate these days, Williams said.

“It’s easy to hate people when they’re abstractions,” she said.

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