Monday, November 07, 2005

Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry

I want to talk to you this morning about two wonderful authors, and about how the books came into my hands, how most books come into my hands. Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry are two of the most inspirational authors and social critics around these days, and I think we are all lucky to inhabit the planet with them. Wendell Berry has been writing environmental/political essays, poems, and short stories for over fifty years now, and while I am not usually a reader of short stories (finding them tantalizing but somehow too quick), this set of five stories gathered together under the title of Fidelity is a wonderfully satisfying read. His writing is in so many ways simple and straightforward and yet so revealing of the human condition; his honesty and integrity show through as much in these stories as they do in his environmental essays. I’ll get back to the stories in a moment.

imageTerry Tempest Williams grew up in Mormon dominated southern Utah and is one of the first writers I know of who began to expose the horrible health problems brought about by the nuclear testing sites in Nevada (and, of course, denied by the government for many, many years). The book I want to talk about today is entitled The Open Space of Democracy, and includes among other things her Commencement speech at the University of Utah in 2003. I marvel at her bravery, reading a speech that was highly critical of the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq in front of a crowd that contained many super conservative Mormons, including the Republican Senator Robert F. Bennett, who had been both a neighbor of hers and her Mormon Bishop. I, too, am a graduate of the University of Utah, and a refugee from Mormonism, but one who escaped Zion long ago and am thankful simply for the escape. I admire Williams for remaining in Salt Lake, for staying in the fray, for teaching at the University of Utah, and even (as far as I can tell) remaining a Mormon in what I have to suppose is an attempt to do her best to reform from within.

The Terry Tempest Williams book came to me from an old friend from Utah (one of my oldest male friends), himself raised in a Mormon household even more devout than mine. I glanced at it, put it in my hundred or so to-read stack where it may have languished for months or even years. Fortunately, my partner spied it, read it up in a day or two, and insisted that I put it back on top of my pile. She has ‘resurrected’ a half dozen or so of the books I have reviewed in the last few years. So often books come to me via friends and colleagues, and that is one of the reasons I continue to do these reviews—to act as a resource, a list.

Let me read you a few paragraphs from the Terry Tempest Williams volume, hoping to whet your appetite for more.

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech. Rhetoric masquerading as thought. Dogma is dressed up like an idea. And we are told what to do, not asked what we think. Security is guaranteed. The lie begins to carry more power than the truth until the words of our own founding fathers are forgotten and the images of television replace history .... We are no longer citizens. We are media-engineered clones wondering who we are and why we feel alone. Lethargy trumps participation. We fall prey to the cynicism of our own resignation.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.
Patriots act—they are not handed a piece of paper called by that same name and asked to comply.
Williams reminds us that Thomas Jefferson believed in perilous liberty over quiet servitude, and she sees so clearly that those now in power would have us bound in quiet servitude.

She continues:

Since George W. Bush took the office of President of the United States I have been sick at heart, unable to stomach or abide by this administration’s aggressive policies directed against the environment, education, social services, healthcare, and our civil liberties—basically, the wholesale destruction of seemingly everything that contributes to a free society, except the special interests of big business.
What I admire about Williams even more than her heart and her vision is her willingness to act, to engage. After receiving a letter from Senator Bennett expressing his extreme disappointment with her commencement speech, she sent him a wonderful reply, agreeing to visit Baghdad with him if he would visit what had been wilderness areas in Utah opened by Bush and his business buddies for oil and gas exploration. He agreed to the bargain, and surprisingly, she seems to have won him over regarding the Utah wilderness. Williams worries that the Left too often is content to speak to the converted and simply to share with one another its anger and chagrin. In her words,

We are nothing but whiners if we are not willing to put our concerns and convictions on the line with a willingness to honestly listen and learn something beyond our assumptions. Something new might emerge through shared creativity. If we cannot do this, I fear that we will be left talking with only like-minded people, spending our days mumbling in the circles of the mad. I recall the words of William Faulkner, ‘What to we stand to lose? Everything.’ ... Politics may be a game of power and money to those who have it, but for those of us who don’t, politics is the public vehicle by which we exercise our voices within a democratic society.

Williams is more hopeful, more optimistic than I. Still, I think she is right to demand action and voices. She insists that,

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 .... 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.
Turning now to the Walter Berry book, were Berry beginning his central story, “Fidelity”, as a philosopher, he might have begun with the question, “What is fidelity? What is it to be faithful to someone?” Instead, because he is a storyteller, we are told a story of a man, Burley, “a man who was freely in love with freedom and with pleasures,” now so ill that his kinfolk feel they must put him in hospital. The gravity of his condition soon leads to his being connected to machines that keep him living, more or less a captive of the hospital. And then what does fidelity demand? That they get him out, of course.

The story is about how they get him out, and then how they, as a community, stand behind the rescue, presenting a usually cordial but very stony and unified wall to the official investigators. Some of the passages involving the good-meaning detective, who comes questioning the townspeople about just how Burley was rescued from the hospital, show so clearly Berry’s understanding of how the power of, and impersonality of, business (using law as its accomplice) simply bowl over individuals, towns, communities. But not this community, these people stand and fight together. In each of the stories in this volume, Berry’s love for what get called simple country folk, his compassion for all people, glows out. I suppose in some way each of the five stories elucidates a different aspect of fidelity.

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