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Engagement

The conclusion of the author's triptych on the open space of democracy

by Terry Tempest Williams

Published in the July/August 2004 issue of Orion magazine



<i>Messenger</i>
Messenger
Painting by Mary Frank, courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, NYC; used with permission

This is the third essay in a three-part series by the author. See also part one, “Commencement”; and part two, “Ground Truthing.”

IT IS UNUSUALLY STILL. I am standing in Mardy and Olaus Murie’s living room in Moose, Wyoming. It is the first time I have entered their home since Mardy passed away on October 19, 2003. She was 101 years old.

My eyes travel around the cabin. A Presidential Medal of Freedom is perched on the mantle of their stone fireplace. On the far wall is a piece of calligraphy, the words Mardy spoke at the Jackson Hole High School commencement in 1974: “Give yourself the adventure of doing what you can do, with what you have, even if you have nothing but the adventure of trying. How much better than standing in a corner with your back to the wall.”

I am standing in the corner with my back to the wall. Never have I felt such dismay over the leadership and public policies of our nation. Never have I felt such determination and faith in our ability to change our country’s current direction. How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory emotions in an election year when we appear to be anything but united states?

Snow is banked against the windows, melting. Last night, there was a conversation between great gray owls on the ranch. I think of all the conversations that took place in the warmth of this log home in the middle of the Tetons; imagine the stories told, the secrets shared, and the strategies developed to safeguard wildlands in this country. I recall the cups of tea poured and the plates of cookies passed at my own visits and how I always left believing what was possible, never doubting what was not.

The Muries and their circle of friends challenged the ethical structure of the United States government and institutions such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Olaus and his brother, Adolph, changed the public’s perception of predators through their research on coyotes in Yellowstone and wolves in Denali. Olaus supported his colleague Rachel Carson when she was under fire from the Department of Agriculture following the publication of Silent Spring. Mardy campaigned endlessly for the protection of wild Alaska; they changed laws and made new ones, even the Wilderness Act of 1964.

What I wish I could ask Mardy now is, how do we engage in the open space of democracy in times of terror?

I believe she would send me home.

CASTLE VALLEY IS A SMALL desert community in southeastern Utah. Large cottonwood trees shadow the creeks that flow from the high country down through the juniper, piƱon, and sage. The Colorado River creates its northern boundary; the LaSal Mountains rise to the south; Castleton Tower stands to the east, next to a geologic formation locals call “The Priest and Nuns”; and Porcupine Rim runs due west. The town is surrounded by 9,000 acres of Utah School Institutional Trust Lands, the blue squares that appear on state maps across the American West like a checkerboard. These school trust lands were created at statehood by the U.S. Congress with the understanding that they could be sold to generate income for education. And beyond the trust lands, three wilderness study areas frame the valley: Morning Glory, Mary Jane, and Fisher Towers. The valley now supports around three hundred residents. If you drive in for a visit you will be greeted by a sign that says, “caution: falling sky.”

Brooke and I moved to Castle Valley from Salt Lake City in the fall of 1998. The silence was both welcome and unsettling. The wind was a constant reminder that this erosional landscape is still in motion. The only thing we found we could count on was changing weather—the extreme heat of summer and extreme cold in winter. Fall and spring were seasons aligned with heaven. The daily tides of deer became our cue to when we awoke and when we retired. Our neighbors were both warm and solitary. We all shared a love of quiet and a sense of community, within reason—people largely left each other alone.

In the spring of 1999, the Utah School Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) sold eighty acres at the base of Parriott Mesa at a public auction to a developer in Aspen with a partner in Moab, without proper notice to the community of Castle Valley. The developers assured the town that the land was bought for a dwelling for one of their daughters. But within a matter of weeks, a large for sale sign was placed on wooden stilts and hammered into the red desert, the price of the land tripling. Parriott Mesa was now slated for a subdivision.

Castle Valley is not an affluent community. Most incomes fall below the national average. There was concern about what a high-end development would do to taxes and everyone knew water was a serious issue, with the Castle Valley aquifer dropping due to drought. The community panicked, and within days a meeting was called. The small adobe home belonging to Susan Ulery was packed with people: Mormons, non-Mormons, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, attorneys, carpenters, climbers, artists, teachers, and old hippies—the full range was in attendance.

We recognized Castleton Tower as the flame of America’s Redrock Wilderness. We talked about how the ecological integrity of the Colorado River Corridor was at stake if the SITLA lands were to be developed; we acknowledged the hundreds of oil and gas leases that could be activated. We believed there had to be viable alternatives. Out of our shock, anger, and affection for each other, the Castle Rock Collaboration (CRC) was formed. We had no money. We had no power. We had only our shared love of home and a desire for dialogue with the open spaces that defined our town.

Meanwhile, under the cover of darkness, the large for sale sign disappeared—only to reappear the next morning beneath Turret Arch inside Arches National Park, complete with telephone number. Shortly after dawn, both the developer and the Park Service received calls from numerous tourists enthusiastically interested in purchasing the arch. The developer was delighted, having thought he had missed something spectacular at the base of Parriott Mesa. The park rangers were baffled until they took a drive and saw the sign for themselves. Photographs were taken. The point was made. These developers would sell anything if they could, even our national parks.

The story rocked Castle Valley. Panic was replaced by humor. Nobody knew who did it; Coyote had entered town. This is, after all, Abbey’s Country.

A few weeks later we learned that the developers were going to strip the land on Monday, May 24, 1999. But an anonymous donor came forward literally the day before the bulldozers were set to roll and wrote CRC a check. With the help of Utah Open Lands, we were able to make the developers an offer and buy back the eighty acres as our first act in the name of community trust.

Suddenly, the Castle Rock Collaboration was taken seriously.

Suddenly, we did not feel so powerless.

After arduous conversations, SITLA agreed not to auction off any new parcels of land until the planning process was complete. Together, we hired a planning firm from Boulder, Colorado, to help lay out a strategy for responsible land use. With the help of companies like Petzl, Patagonia, and Black Diamond, and through the support of The Access Fund, the Castle Rock Collaboration was able to raise the money necessary to purchase the wide sweep of land at the base of Castleton Tower.

In the five years that we have been engaged in this process with SITLA, the Castle Rock Collaboration and its partners have protected over three thousand acres and raised nearly four million dollars. But perhaps the most important outcome has been the creation of an atmosphere of engagement with other committed individuals who live along the Colorado River Corridor. We are learning that a community engaged is a community empowered.

If we listen to the land, we will know what to do.

IN THE OPEN SPACE OF DEMOCRACY we are listening—ears alert—we are watching—eyes open—registering the patterns and possibilities for engagement. Some acts are private; some are public. Our oscillations between local, national, and global gestures map the full range of our movement. Our strength lies in our imagination, and paying attention to what sustains life, rather than what destroys it.

And I know that what is popularly called politics is only
a tiny part of what causes history to move.

                —W.H. Auden
                  The Prolific and the Devourer

IN THE FALL OF 2002, I was living in Italy. There was a growing fear that America was going to wage war in Iraq. There was also a growing resistance throughout Europe to the militant Bush-Blair partnership. An estimated one million people gathered in Florence; they walked the streets of Firenze, creating a body politic seven kilometers long.

This news was not being reported in America.

I wrote a letter home in the form of an op-ed piece for the Salt Lake Tribune. I wanted my community to know about this calm manifestation of willful resolve demonstrating a simple fact: Even if our political leaders cannot read the pulse of a changing world, the people do. The European Social Forum had just held its meetings in Florence, where issues ranging from health and the environment to international trade to the possibility of a war in Iraq were discussed. It ended with this gesture of movement, much of it along the banks of the Arno River, creating a river of another sort, a river of humans engaged in a diverse dialogue of peace.

Train after train stopped and emptied itself of the working middle class. Men, women, and children from Italian towns and villages gathered to participate with citizens from all over Europe. Massimo Sottani, a former mayor of Regello whom I had met in the village where I was staying, had invited me to join him with his family and friends. “It is not only our right and obligation to participate in civic life, it is in our best interest,” he said as we stood outside the station waiting for more of his friends.

Lorenzo Becawtini, a businessman in Florence, joined us. “Antiglobalization is not a slogan,” he said, “it is a rigorous reconfiguration of democracy that places power and creativity back into the hands of villagers and townspeople, providing them with as many choices as possible.”

With antiglobalization in Europe often tied to anti-Americanism, there were the inevitable placards of George W. Bush disguised as Hitler next to banners that read “drop bush not bombs” and a Big Mac being driven on top of a hearse. But for the most part, the focal point of this massive demonstration remained on positive changes for a changing world.

At one point, an elderly Florentine man who held memories of Mussolini stepped out on his balcony above the wave of people and draped a white bedsheet over the railing in support of peace. As participants waved to the old man, the crowd spontaneously began singing “Ciao, Bella, Ciao,” the song of the partigianos, the Italian resistance against the fascists in World War II. Neighbor after neighbor repeated the gesture, draping white sheets and pillow cases over their balconies until the apartment walls that lined the streets appeared as great sails billowing in the breeze.

Albertina Pisano, a twenty-five-year-old student from the University of Milan, said, “My generation in Europe doesn’t know what it means to be at war. I came to the forum to listen and participate.” When I asked her if she thought this would make any difference, she answered, “It is making a difference to me.”

Looking over my shoulder from the rise on the bridge, all I could see was an endless river of people walking, many hand in hand, all side by side, peacefully, united in place with a will for social change. Michelangelo was among them, as art students from Florence raised replicas of his Prigioni above their heads, the unfinished sculptures of prisoners trying to break free from the confines of stone. Machiavelli was among them, as philosophy students from Rome carried his words: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Leonardo da Vinci was among them, his words carrying a particularly contemporary sting: “And by reason of their boundless pride… there shall be nothing remaining on the earth or under the earth or in the waters that shall not be pursued and molested or destroyed.”

The hundreds of thousands of individuals who walked together in the name of social change could be seen as the dignified, radical center walking boldly toward the future. As an American in Florence, I wondered, how do we walk with the rest of the world when our foreign policies seem to run counter to the rising global awareness of a world hungry for honest diplomacy?

AS I LOOK BACK OVER the story we have been living in Castle Valley, it does not begin to convey the power and empowering nature of the process. It is through the process of defining what we want as a town that we are becoming a real community. It is through the act of participation that we change.

This is not simply a story of not-in-my-backyard. It is the unfolding tale of how a small community in the desert is rising to its own defense, saying, we believe we have a stake in the future of our own community, which we choose to define beyond our own boundaries of time and space and species.

A crisis woke us up. A shared love of place opened a dialogue with neighbors. We asked for help. We found partners. We used our collective intelligence to formulate a plan. And then we had to search within ourselves to find what each of us had to give.

In my private moments of despair, I am aware of the limits of my own imagination. I am learning in Castle Valley that imaginations shared invite collaboration and collaboration creates community. A life in association, not a life independent, is the democratic ideal. We participate in the vitality of the struggle.

Social change takes time. Communities are built on the practice of patience and imagination—the belief that we are here for the duration and will take care of our relations in times of both drought and abundance. These are the blood and flesh gestures of commitment.

In thousands of local narratives being written around America, enlivened citizenship is activated each time we knock on our neighbors’ doors, each time we sit down together and share a meal.

IN OUR INCREASINGLY fundamentalist country, we have to remember what is fundamental: gravity—what draws us to a place and keeps us there, like love, like kinship. When we commit to a particular place, a certain element of choice is removed. We begin to see the world whole instead of fractured. Long-term strategies replace short-term gains. We inform one another and become an educated public that responds.

Here in the redrock desert, which now carries the weight of more leases for oil and gas than its fragile red skin can support, due to the aggressive energy policy of the Bush administration, the open space of democracy appears to be closing. The Rocky Mountain states are feeling this same press of energy extraction with scant thought being given to energy alternatives. A domestic imperialism has crept into our country with the same assured arrogance and ideology-of-might that seem evident in Iraq.

It is easy to believe we the people have no say; that the powers in Washington will roll over our local concerns with their corporate energy ties and thumper trucks. 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.

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?

The heart is the house of empathy whose door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives, where we find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainty with strength, not fear, understanding this is all there is. The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power. Our power lies in our love of our homelands.

The heart embodies faith because it leads us to charity. It is the muscle behind hope that brings confidence to those who despair.

Democracy depends on engagement, a firsthand accounting of what one sees, what one feels, and what one thinks, followed by the artful practice of expressing the truth of our times through our own talents, gifts, and vocations.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.

We have a history of bravery in this nation and we must call it forward now. Our future is guaranteed only by the degree of our personal involvement and commitment to an inclusive justice.

In the open space of democracy, we engage the qualities of inquiry, intuition, and love as we become a dynamic citizenry, unafraid to exercise our shared knowledge and power. We can dissent. We can vote. We can step forward in times of terror with a confounding calm that will shatter fear and complacency.

It is time to ask, when will our national culture of self-interest stop cutting the bonds of community to shore up individual gain and instead begin to nourish communal life through acts of giving, not taking? It is time to acknowledge the violence rendered to our souls each time a mountaintop is removed to expose a coal vein in Appalachia or when a wetland is drained, dredged, and filled for a strip mall. And the time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms, as we witness the repeated breaking of laws, and the relaxing of laws, in the sole name of growth and greed.

We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt. It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical, and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few.

“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government,” said Edward Abbey. To not be engaged in the democratic process, to sit back and let others do the work for us, is to fall prey to bitterness and cynicism. It is the passivity of cynicism that has broken the back of our collective outrage. We succumb to our own depression believing there is nothing we can do.

I do not believe we can look for leadership beyond ourselves. I do not believe we can wait for someone or something to save us from our global predicaments and obligations. I need to look in the mirror and ask this of myself: If I am committed to seeing the direction of our country change, how must I change myself?

We are a people addicted to speed and superficiality, and a nation that prides itself on moral superiority. But our folly lies in not seeing what we base our superiority on. Wealth and freedom? What is wealth if we cannot share it? What is freedom if we cannot offer it as a vision of compassion and restraint, rather than force and aggression? Without an acknowledgement of complexity in a society of sound bites, we will not find the true source of our anger or an authentic passion that will propel us forward to the place of personal engagement.

We are in need of a reflective activism born out of humility, not arrogance. Reflection, with deep time spent in the consideration of others, opens the door to becoming a compassionate participant in the world.

“To care is neither conservative nor radical,” writes John Ralston Saul. “It is a form of consciousness.” To be in the service of something beyond ourselves—to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together—this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry.

This is the third essay in a three-part series by the author. See also part one, “Commencent”; and part two, “Ground Truthing.”

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This article has been significantly abridged for the web.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS lives in Castle Valley, Utah, with her husband Brooke. Her publications Leap and Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, continue her exploration of people in place.

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