“If we listen to the land, we will know what to do.” These are the words that stay with me throughout the day after hearing Terry Tempest Williams speak on “The Open Space of Democracy.” Her gentle, reassuring voice and poetic beauty remind me of the importance of remaining positive despite the ominous circumstances in which we live. But in remaining hopeful we must not become complacent; for without our outrage and without our voices we are only contributing to the perpetuation of the status-quo. In explaining why she writes, Williams asserted that words always fail, yet words are all that we have. Language—that amazing ability to compose our experiences and realities into symbolic arrangements of sounds, and thereby understand one another and express our inner worlds—is only a feeble attempt at comprehending this enigmatic existence that we all share. But words, despite their inadequacies, are our most useful asset in changing the world around us. As Williams stated, she writes to imagine things differently, and perhaps in doing so, things will change. I am reminded of a book I read a few years ago by John Perkins, entitled "The World is as You Dream It: Shamanistic Teachings from the Amazon and Andes", in which he is taught by a Shuar shaman that by changing our dream of the world, we can change the past, present and future. Our thoughts, our voices, and our actions on an individual level do affect the whole, for nothing occurs in isolation.
A major theme running through Williams’ speech was the idea of “ground truthing,” or seeing the ground or landscape for oneself in order to verify the accuracy of statements made about that land. Her own experience in ground truthing took her to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is on the verge of being opened to the oil industry for drilling, and which has been described by Interior Secretary Gale Norton as “flat, white nothingness” (Peskus). Ostensibly, it is easy for someone in Washington to imagine a desolate, dreary, snow-covered landscape with little life and little value—except for the subsurface extractable resources, like oil and gas. But Williams paints a picture of the refuge that is anything but worthless. In her book, The Open Space of Democracy, she states that “in the open space of democracy, beauty is not optional, but essential to the survival of our species” (41). Wildness, open spaces, untouched landscapes—as much as these are intrinsically valuable, they have value for us as well—unspoiled and pristine, they offer us beauty and solitude, necessities of the soul.
How long will we continue to compromise the open spaces that are left? When will enough be enough? How poisoned will our land become before we make a change? How many people and animals have to suffer before we open our eyes? “Where is our outrage? Where is our love?,” asked Terry of the students. I am left with more questions than answers after hearing Terry Tempest Williams speak, but also I am left with an overriding sense of the increasing need for understanding, openness, hope, and love in addressing the shortcomings of our species, and the healing of Mother Earth.