Spirit of Place

In Democratic Vistas, Walt Whitman writes that the US is in need of a truly democratic culture. Works of art, social institutions, and the essence of Americans needs to be rooted in democratic values and ideals. The US had proved itself capable of winning wars, making people rich, and becoming an economic behemoth but could it produce art and a culture that citizens could identify with and be united under? Literature and the to-be-discovered culture “would give more compaction and more moral identity, to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences” (Whitman). While states and regions produced their own unique cultures, the only commonalities Americans had were in legal documents and laws. Whitman advises, “I would alarm and caution…against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions…determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success”. Laws and government are not indicative of democracy. Culture cannot be legislated, it must grow piece by piece, person by person, until suddenly it arrives.

Terry Tempest Williams rings a similar bell in her speech The Open Space of Democracy. Instead of an emerging culture, she talks about preserving, defending, and continuing to work towards the culture that Whitman imagined and hoped of for the United States. Williams refers to American culture as the ‘Open Space of Democracy’, a rewording of ‘Democratic Vistas’. Both evoke a sense of exploration and emptiness, but in the sense that it needs to be occupied rather than having once been full and is now depleted. This ethereal space is to be filled by anyone believing and trusting of democracy and wishing to participate. “In the open space of democracy there is room for dissent. In the open space of democracy there is room for difference” there is no pay-to-play, and fear cannot replace discussion(Williams). Her criticisms of the current time echo Whitman’s, “Corporations have more access to power than people…Business practices have taken precedence over public process” but remains hopeful as “there is still so much to be saved” (Williams). The ideal democratic culture of Whitman’s vista has not been realized, but great strides have been taken toward it.

Williams refers to her own work as energy exerted in making those great strides happen, “I wanted to write from the passion of my own orientation…to understand what stories we tell that evoke a sense of place. I realized we, too, can be part of a great tradition of a literature of hope”. Williams’ concern for the health of the environment is rooted in that sense of place because “Our character has been shaped by the diversity of America’s landscape and it is precisely that character that will protect it”. American literature, and by extension culture and individuals, have all been inspired and shaped by the natural world. It’s preservation serves much more than simple appreciation, for “the health of the environment is seen as the wealth of our communities”(Williams). Protecting our landscape allows future generations to experience the same natural world of the past, have the same thoughts, emotions, and experiences that will then be meditated on and written about, compounding with the culture of the past.

Cultural preservation extends past the landscape and encompasses words as well. Williams writes, “How do we engage in conversation at a time when the definition of what it means to be a patriot is being narrowly defined? You are either with us or against us”. Redefining patriot is more than appropriating a word; it is weaponizing a feeling, an emotion so inherent to American identity.  This redefined patriotism means weed out those who question or criticize the government and label them dissenters, the bad guys. To combat this Williams suggests we carry “a healthy sense of indignation within us that will shatter the complacency that has seeped into our society”. Patriotism in this context doesn’t differentiate between country and state, Immortal Technique once said “I love the place that I live, but I hate the people in charge”. It assumes that love for one’s country means disregard or hatred for another. It defines people as well, polarizing them into a pro-camp and a con-camp. It assumes that blind allegiance, nationalism, and government are part of American culture.

It is crucial to understand the importance of art and literature for a culture, especially in time periods where television did not exist or movies were still novel. Literature, or the written word, truly is the culmination of a cultural experience understood and appreciated most by those also in that culture. History, landscape, nature, and personal reflection all shape individuals who then go on to write or illustrate or visualize in some way their experience. For what else is art but expressing the human experience? Successive generations build on that culture whether they know it or not. Culture, like life, “lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day” (Emerson).

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