A hundred years ago this August, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act that established the National Park Service as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The 411 areas that have since been designated for preservation and public enjoyment are deemed—most visibly in a Ken Burns miniseries of that title—“America’s best idea,” a grand public heritage to be shared in by all. Looked at another way, they are also memorials of our continent’s history, cultural and geologic: three days of battle or 3 billion years of a river carving its way through rock.
Activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams’ imperfect but necessary new book, The Hour of Land, pays tribute to these protected landscapes, taking a personal path through 12 parks and national monuments, the forces that threaten them, and the relationships they forge and sustain between humans, animals, and the natural world. Of herself and the more than 300 million other annual visitors to America’s wild lands, Williams wonders, “What are we searching for and what do we find?”
Williams, who grew up in a Mormon family in Utah, now locates her own spiritual life in the wild. “Wilderness is not my leisure or my recreation,” she writes. “It is my sanity.” It follows that the environmental crisis is, for her, also an emotional and spiritual one. Years of fighting for the preservation of wild places, against, in particular, threats from big oil and gas—the very industries that employ the men in her own family—reveal her love’s transformation, as she puts it, into a kind of “sacred rage.” The individual essays vary in focus and tone, from a memoir of a family trip to the Tetons on her father’s 80th birthday, to an impressionistic diary of the West Texas desert, to an impassioned reportage on the BP oil spill disaster, but the motion of the book overall might be described as what Williams calls a “poetic crossing,” defined by Edward Hirsch as that “which follows the arc from physical motion to spiritual action.” Her stories may be personal, but they are fired by the fierce passions of the activist, part of her purpose being to remind us that, as Rachel Carson wrote, a war against nature is a war against ourselves.
Mapping these emotional and political landscapes, Williams shows just how necessary the national parks are to this country’s psyche. They are, in her experience, among the only places where Americans, cynics that we are, will allow ourselves to feel the land instead of trying to come up with a way to put it to use. They are “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” It’s a truism that’s almost a cliché, but convincingly Williams shows how national parks can be both symbols of and actual catalysts for the things that are best about America, offering a montage of grandeur that can not only make one tear up in gratitude and an embarrassing sort of patriotic pride but also demonstrate the real value of these “wholesome” feelings to human emotional life, spurring one to engage differently with the world.
National parks, of course, do not sit outside of time, nor can they be disentangled from social or historical contexts. Nor, however much we may revere them as emblems of natural purity, are they invulnerable to change. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, 42 national parks are currently threatened by oil and gas development, including Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier (just last month, a major oil refinery was proposed only three miles outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park to serve the Bakken shale oil boom). That energy extracted from public lands accounts for 24 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions reveals the error in John Muir’s idea of a possible compromise between preservation and development: Even the remotest park is affected by climate change, and so development affects them all regardless. This year’s armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon—the fourth such confrontation on public land in the past two years—represents a different, more ideological threat. The Bundys might not recall that their actions have precedent: In the early 1940s as Grand Teton National Park was being formed, a group of libertarian-minded ranchers, led by a man named Cliff Hansen, stampeded 550 cattle across protected federal lands in protest. (“I’m glad I lost,” Hansen, who became Wyoming’s governor, would later say. “Grand Teton National Park is one of the greatest natural heritages of Wyoming and the nation.”)
But Williams shows that even, and perhaps especially, in the midst of political and environmental threats like these, the parks stand as examples of resilience and peace. As she beautifully and truthfully writes, in a kind of haiku, even “on dark days, when everywhere we turn war is waging and violence around the world seems to be rising, a dozen trumpeter swans fly in formation over snow-covered peaks.” In preserving these places—which will not be resilient forever—she argues that we are not only preserving habitat for other species, we are also preserving habitat for a form of authentic emotional experience that has grown endangered in a climate of egoism, conflict, and fear that leaves human beings psychically wounded. An Iraq war veteran whom Williams meets tells her that he comes to the parks because “wild places can unwind a mind.” Williams quotes Wallace Stegner, from This Is Dinosaur: “In the decades to come, it will not be only the buffalo and the trumpeter swan who need sanctuaries. Our own species is going to need them too.”
Williams spends some time on the complexities of what the parks system calls “interpretation,” meaning what story, and whose, is being told about the land. Landscape holds cultural value (not least for this country’s indigenous peoples), and the same piece of land can mean vastly different things to different populations over time. Changing the official name of Mount McKinley to Denali, as President Obama recently did, changes our understanding of the land, recognizing 11,000 years of Athabaskan history over a gold miner’s very large plug for his favored presidential candidate.* Mistakes and oversights become part of the story too: It wasn’t until 1998 that the National Park Service moved beyond military strategy in its interpretation of Gettysburg and began looking at the causes and contexts of the civil war, including slavery. It wasn’t until 1991 that Custer Battlefield National Monument was renamed the Little Bighorn, in recognition that there was another side to that war (not incidentally, the victorious one). And we have yet to publically acknowledge, as Williams ruefully notes, that “we took the place most sacred to the Lakota, their axis mundi, and carved our presidents’ faces all over it.”
“Most of the issues confronting our national parks today are political,” Williams writes. “Should Devils Tower National Monument be respected as a sacred site to Kiowa people or managed as a recreational site for climbers?” Are wheelchair ramps built near sacred native mounds and grave sites a boon to the disabled or a desecration? Do John D. Rockefeller’s carriage roads at Acadia provide, as he saw it, a “democracy of experience,” or do they spoil the view? Williams admits that there is a sort of schizophrenia at work in the management of the parks, and despite what the original act intended, there is always a conflict between protection and preservation on the one hand, and management for people’s enjoyment on the other.
By her own admission, Williams—who is not a historian or policy expert—writes out of her own ignorance here, allowing her questions to guide her. Perhaps as a result, there is at times something tentative, even provisional, about her prose, which can dart between platitude and rhapsodic abstraction. Koans and gnomic phrasing give way to passages so loose that Williams can be seen feeling around for a handhold: “Inside. Outside. Freedom and constraint. Earthbound. Airborne. What we see and what is reflected back can imprison us. Refraction. Do we ever see anything clearly without our own reflection getting in the way?” Yet there’s something honest and affectless about this, surely, as a poet’s way-making into a subject that’s a mass of contradiction itself. Certainly, when she does come to earth, she is a true poet-naturalist: In lyrical mode she can be as clear and incisive as the peal of a bell.
Williams’ is only one voice in the polyphonic story of the American landscape. But it is an especially valuable one in addressing how land, even that which is nominally preserved in a state of Edenic purity, shifts with this country’s social history as much as it does through geology and time. Reflecting cultural and racial divides, immigration, politics, economics, and religion, these are places that are unpredictable, that resist control, including that of narrative. Inevitably, Williams writes, the American landscape “becomes us.” What she means is that the land is both witness to and the best—and sometimes only—repository of a shared history, human and non, a record of our mistakes and failings as much as of what we have achieved or have yet to. Williams’ suggestion, on the parks’ centennial, is that we try to let the land tell its own story now, to let this be the “hour of land.” Far from confining the meaning of public lands to a single, imposed story, we can, through our holistic engagement with what they have to say to us, discover an appreciation of shared experience and the interdependence of all our stories. “I no longer see America’s national parks as ‘our best idea,’ ” Williams admits. “I see our national parks as our ongoing struggle.”
Correction, June 9, 2016: This review misstated that President Obama changed the official name of Mount McKinley National Park to Denali. That change was made in 1980; Obama changed the name of the mountain, not the park. (Return.)
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams. Sarah Crichton Books.
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