Book Reviews – The Open Space of Democracy

by Joe Hyer

 Originally published in 2004, I have read this short collection of essays countless times.  While each essay is powerful, it is the opener, entitled Commencement, that is my favorite.  It is based on a speech given by the author in 2003, at the commencement ceremonies of the University of Utah.  Williams is a native of Utah, but always felt like ‘the other’, as her liberal politics and environmental ethic tended to raise the hackles of many in her home state.  It is that sense, of offering your most personal words and feelings to an audience most likely hostile to them, that I appreciate more than any other.

But Williams is able to bridge the gap, using Nature to provide images and metaphors and symbols to prove the point.  The ‘Open Space’ of Democracy is a physical environment, not just an unreachable ideal.  She describes it, tangibly, as something around us, among us, and with us all the time, if only we will listen.

Her speech was powerful, heartfelt, and stark- like the landscapes of Utah she was raised in.  Immediately after, Senator Bennett of Utah, one of the country’s most conservative Senators, approached her and shook her hand.  He said, “In the spirit of Democracy, I want to register my strong dissent to your talk.” but he added, “You’ve inspired me to write you a letter.”

Weeks later, his letter arrived – which culminated in a key question for the poet – What are you willing to fight and die for?  

After weeks of pondering, she began what became a series of letters, a dialogue, where among many other things she answered, “the freedom of speech.   It is the open door to all other freedoms.”

Terry Tempest Williams is a poet and naturalist, and the author of many books.  I’ve had the privilege of meeting her several times, and I know for certain she would share in this message — go buy some books, at your LOCAL bookstore.  ORCA Books always keeps her in stock.