By Doug Hare EBS Staff
Terry Tempest Williams is best known as the author of the environmental classic, “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Time and Place” and “When Woman Were Birds,” a Walt Whitman-esque memoir about the death of her mother and her Mormon upbringing.
Williams’ most recent book, “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks,” traces the contours of 12 of our country’s most celebrated places. Williams is a writer and not a painter, but the dozen essays in this collection are each impassioned literary portraits of our sacred spaces.
“The Hour of Land” is not a guidebook or travelogue. The book pays homage to our nation’s “best idea” while also channeling the rage of a lifelong activist who is all too aware of the continuing threats to our public lands.
The centennial of our National Park Service has passed, and even though Williams interweaves the unique history of each park she visits into her narrative, her outlook is forward-looking and asks hard questions about the fate of our sacred spaces in the next century.
Williams returns to her home turf—Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and Canyonlands National Park in Utah—recounting the ways in which her family found spiritual and physical renewal in the wilderness hiking through these vast expanses.
She takes the reader on pilgrimages to Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota and the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, en route to San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, Big Bend National Park in Texas, and Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Her writing style is as varied as the terrain she covers. Conversations with the people she meets along the way, poetry, letters, and photographs intersperse her essays and compliment her ode to the beauty and destruction of these “thresholds to wonder.”
Williams takes aim at polluters, politicians, and profiteers who threaten to damage the integrity of the ecology of our wilderness areas. But despite dark chapters, such as her visit to the Gulf Islands National Park during the 100th day of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, her tone always returns to notes of resiliency and optimism.
Perhaps the best chapter in “The Hour of Land” details her narrowly surviving a wildfire in Glacier National Park, which then pivots to discuss climate change and the mistreatment of the Blackfoot Nation by our federal government.
Williams is at her best when she moves from evocative descriptions of physical landscapes to sublime reflections about our relationship to nature. The parks she visits serve as microcosms of our collective relationship to time and place as well as our individual battles with our own psyches. Whether she is discussing rocks, trees, seashores, prisons, fire or ice, Williams has a unique talent for unveiling the spiritual dimension of our most treasured American vistas.
Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.