I’ve been on book tour this past week, the beginning of a 4-week stint of travel hither and thither across these United States of America. And thus far, with July 4th approaching (and when you read this, it will be here of course), I have seen this country in all her glory decked out to welcome the day we celebrate Independence, and if nothing else underlines that freedom, the young woman I saw in Houston, Texas wearing skintight leggings and matching T-shirt emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes certainly had a good try!
“Oh say can you see …” took on a completely new meaning!
At one bookstore I was asked a question that comes up occasionally at these events – “What do you do about writer’s block?” I answered, “I try not to get it.” Then, more seriously I explained my reason for having little patience with myself if I feel myself headed in the direction of “block” (and you’ve heard it here on Naked Authors before):
“This might sound harsh,” I said. “But here’s the bottom line – I was born in a free country – Britain – where I was given leave to express myself without fear. For the past 24 years I have called America home – another country where we are given leave to express ourselves. And even if sometimes we think that’s not true, every day when I sit down to write, whether to tell a story, to express an opinion or to report an event, I do not fear that someone will break down my door and haul me off to chain me up in a cell. Or worse. As a fourteen year old I could write whatever I wanted and not fear a gunman in the street taking aim at me, a man representing other men who didn’t like what women were saying (referring to Malala Yousafzai). How dare I have writer’s block when there are millions who would risk their lives to have my freedoms.”
In her book, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “Democracy demands we speak and act outrageously.” With that in mind, here’s a potted account of an event described in Tempest Williams’ book – and it serves as a reminder that each and every one of us has a voice – and when we come together with like-minded souls, there is much we can achieve.
In 1995 more than 70% of people in Utah wanted more wilderness. They advocated the Citizens’ Proposal which effectively protected 5.7 million acres of wilderness in the state. Having been promised that the citizenry would be heard and respected, one month after several hearings (when it seemed the interests of big business, or at least the money trail, was also heard and respected), Congressman Jim Hansen and Senator Orrin Hatch presented the 1995 Utah Public Lands Management Act, which proposed protection of only 1.8 million acres out of 22 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Says Tempest Williams, “It was a slap in the face of democracy, a betrayal of public trust in the name of our public commons.”
When it looked as if the fight was lost, Tempest Williams met with fellow writer, Stephen Trimble, and over coffee they planned a last-ditch attempt to stop the wholesome ravaging of a beloved place. They petitioned a cadre of writers, all familiar with the Red Rock Wilderness, to pen an essay with the intention creating a compilation. Within three weeks they had twenty original pieces. They pulled in a designer who worked for free, and received money to go to print from a local foundation - $6000. A copy of the resulting anthology – TESTIMONY: Writers Of The West Speak On Behalf Of The Utah Wilderness – was placed in the hands of every member of Congress. A press conference was held. A reporter from the Washington Post called the book “A waste of time.” Said Stephen Trimble, “Writing is always an act of faith.”
In 1996 The Utah Public Lands Management Act of 1995 found its way to the Senate. The Senate went into filibuster. Senator Bill Bradley rose to his feet. “With all due respect … these wildlands belong to all Americans, not just those living in Utah.” He proceeded to read out one of the essays from beginning to end. One after the other, senators came to their feet, their voices echoing around the Senate Chamber until every single essay had been read aloud. The Act died on the Senate floor. Six months later, President Clinton designated the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, protecting nearly two million acres of wilderness in Utah. He said, “This little book made a difference.”
Of the outcome, Tempest Williams wrote, “One never knows the tangible effects of literature, but on that particular day … one could believe in the collective power of a chorus of voices.”
When I was doing my homework in preparation for my citizenship exam, there were three elements I held dear, perhaps before everything else.
One was the promise held in the opening of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
To me, that's poetry.
From the Constitution the words, “We The People” sent shivers down my spine. It’s not “We The Few Over Here With The Greenbacks” or “We The Bankers In Wall Street” or “We The Property Developers With Porsches.” It’s “We The People.” You and I, and we have a voice, and we should remember that, because (bringing me to number 3) …
The First Amendment to the Constitution giving us the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. And even when all seems lost, as Tempest Williams proved, the collective voice can count for something. The right to freedom of speech is a right with muscle, and like all muscles, it will atrophy if it is not used. Living in a democracy demands nothing less than we raise our voices to express our truth, individually and collectively and without fear – with the written word, with song, with a camera, paints and brushes, whatever is our chosen medium.
Wishing you a fabulous July Fourth. Now how about this: