The last time I read Terry Tempest Williams, other than some of her shorter works in Orion Magazine, was over 15 years ago in my undergraduate course, American Essays of Place. I was delighted to see that she recently published The Hour of Land, a memoir of her experiences at some of her favorite national parks and monuments. Each chapter focuses on a different park, and is written in a unique tone. In addition to sharing her own experiences, she infuses the history and founding of several of the parks, as well as discusses more recent political issues.
In describing her childhood experience falling and getting 136 stitches by venturing out into nature, Williams reflected, "We learned early on we live by wild mercy." She describes the national parks as our "public commons" that inspire humility.
Williams starts in describing Grand Teton National Park, a park she and her family has visited every single year of her life. She brings us to the scene of Civil War reenactments at Gettysburg National Military Park. She tours Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota with a ranger dedicated to keeping encroaching oil fields at bay. She interviews people affected by the BP oil spill along Gulf Islands National Seashore.
We are taken into a scene in which she and her family came very close to being swallowed up by a wildfire at Glacier National Park. Williams also describes the tension between the park system and the Native Americans who, in the case of Glacier, are demanding reinstatement of their treaty rights for access to the land to hunt, fish, and use cultural sites for spiritual practices. One interesting fact I learned is that 25% of all firefighters working today on wildfires in public lands are Native American.
We are invited along to Alcatraz, to experience Ai Weiwei's (a dissident artist and prisoner in his own country) exhibit and discusses the Native American occupation of the island. I learned that the prison was ultimately closed because it was too expensive to run and the structures were compromised by its location in the middle of the bay, in which wind, water, and salt corroded the buildings. I thought this line particularly interesting given my recent work with the Prisoners Literature Project - "To receive mail in prison means you have not been forgotten. A piece of your humanity is restored. Isolation is momentarily suspended."'
We learn about the "cultural ecotones" of Acadia National Park, which she defines as border areas where two different landscapes meet (civilization/wilderness, forest/ocean, meadow/woods), and discusses the tensions, but also the bountiful wildlife, that live on these edges. She discusses the convergence of lands around national parks (Native American, private, state owned, public, etc.), and how challenges can exist along these boundaries, by those fiercely wanting to protect the land, and by those who want to develop it.
In her chapter on Big Bend National Park, she states, "Perhaps that is the nature of deserts - to break us open, wear us down to bedrock." She also describes another one of my favorite writers, and a friend of hers, Edward Abbey, as "the ultimate misanthrope." She advises the reader, "What I know as a naturalist is that if you want to see wildlife, get up before dawn."
Williams is passionate about the parks and takes us into the intimate battles that environmental activists fight to protect our land, sometimes at great personal costs. Ultimately, my reading of this book ended with a feeling of hope, that despite threats to our beautiful national parks that have given me so much personal happiness over the last few years, that there are many people who care fiercely about the preservation of these majestic, humbling places.