The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks (Hardcover)

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“The Hour of Land” was conceived as a celebration for the National Park Service centennial. Terry Tempest Williams gives readers a collection of poignant ideas, with photos as cutting and unpredictable as her poems, letters, emails and essays.

Traveling through a dozen national parks, Williams pours her raw passion on the page. Her musings are social, cultural and environmental — and her concerns are acute.
The book opens with the voice of an Iraq war veteran who has wandered the national parks since 1991, as a volunteer seeking solace: “As the human population increases, the wild places not only become more valuable but more threatened. It’s another way for me to protect our homeland.”

He explains, “wild places can unwind a mind.”

Williams knows this, too. She unwinds her mind on America’s physical wilderness and the ground’s political landscape, exploring rough edges and mucky trails surrounding the most prized public lands.

“What is the relevance of our national parks in the twenty-first century — and how might these public commons bring us back home to a united state of humility?” she asks.
She reflects on unsavory truths: our parks reek of the “muscle of privilege,” by which Indians and predators were wiped away to contrive a “mythical landscape.” She re-brands national parks as “holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities.” She morphs the narrative from America’s “best idea” to “our evolving idea.”

The stories are deeply personal to both a proud nation and her nuclear family. In Grand Teton, Williams introduces the Rockefellers as the first family of America’s national parks, then unpacks the spiritual wealth her relatives have gleaned among those craggy peaks. Public lands make everyone land rich.

In Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Williams travels with her father, a man who laid gas pipe all his life. Together, they go beyond park boundaries to confront stark realities of being a preserve in the heart of the Bakken oil fracking boom. By the time Williams’ dad saunters through a man camp, their environmental concerns become mutual — a sincere lament for something grim infringing upon something glorious.

Williams’ voice remains distinctly Western. She acknowledged, upon entering Maine’s Acadia National Park, “I find sanctuary from the painful politics surrounding western wilderness. I don’t know enough to have my heart broken in the east.”

Yet she does not stray from her mission. Gulf Islands National Seashore helps relay the desperation of a post-BP-blowout landscape — an illustrative tale about what we are losing. During seasonal visits to Gettysburg National Military Park, she winds readers through a quagmire of moral contemplation. At the Gates of the Arctic National Park — a journey into Williams’ personal wilderness, as well as a trip to the sparse Frozen North — she observes, “Consumption is a progressive disease.”

She does not shy from controversy surrounding the potential designation of a Maine Woods National Park — and in her storytelling, readers taste the grandeur of what seems should become our next national park.

But in the end, she brings us back to Canyonlands, the space that lets Williams be Williams. This landscape makes her fierce as she delivers us to Utah’s magnificent Bear’s Ears. There, she lays bare the grassroots negotiations behind a looming conservation legacy that could help the National Park Service make good with Native Americans. Ultimately, Williams implores America to make our national parks “places of conscience instead of places of consumption.”

— From Book review: Book explores history, future of national parks

This powerful book is a “meditation and a manifesto” on public lands: what they mean to us, and how America has shaped and been shaped by these lands. Deeply personal, sometimes discerningly critical, twelve essays—stretching from Grand Teton National Park, to Gates of the Arctic National Park, and south to the Gulf Islands— reveal the beautifully complex natural histories of our public lands and why we must protect them.

-Recommended by Emily

— From December 2016 Staff Picks

June 2016 Indie Next List

“Terry Tempest Williams' latest book, published for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, is personal, political, and profound. Her examination of 12 national parks is much more than a guide to the history and landscape of those places. It is a guide to the heart and soul of the entire National Park system, whose depth is exceeded only by its beauty.”
— Chuck Robinson (M), Village Books, Bellingham, WA

Top Ten

“I cannot think of a better person to commemorate the National Park Service on its 100th birthday. When Terry Tempest Williams writes, the personal blends with the political, the public and private meet, and truth spreads into layers of beautiful, often troubling complexity. The same can be said for the National Park Service. By exploring 12 national parks and monuments throughout the country, Williams creates both an intimate elegy to the land and a plea to recognize it for all its history and connection.”
— Melinda Powers, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA


America’s national parks are breathing spaces in a world in which such spaces are steadily disappearing, which is why more than 300 million people visit the parks each year. Now Terry Tempest Williams, the author of the environmental classic Refuge and the beloved memoir When Women Were Birds, returns with The Hour of Land, a literary celebration of our national parks, an exploration of what they mean to us and what we mean to them.

From the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Acadia in Maine to Big Bend in Texas and more, Williams creates a series of lyrical portraits that illuminate the unique grandeur of each place while delving into what it means to shape a landscape with its own evolutionary history into something of our own making. Part memoir, part natural history, and part social critique, The Hour of Land is a meditation and a manifesto on why wild lands matter to the soul of America.

About the Author

Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks; Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; Finding Beauty in a Broken World; and When Women Were Birds, among other books. Her work is widely taught and anthologized around the world. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is currently the Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School and divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Castle Valley, Utah.

Praise For…

“A collection of essays that’s a personal journey as much as a meditation on the purpose and relevance of national parks in the 21st century . . . Williams’s language has its own visceral beauty . . . The Hour of Land is one of the best nature books I’ve read in years, filled with seductive prose . . . It’s impossible to do Williams’s thought-provoking insights and evocative images justice in a short review. My only advice is to read the book. And then read it again, with pen in hand. And then visit a national park, because as Williams reminds us, they are ‘portals and thresholds of wonder,’ the ‘breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.’” —Andrea Wulf, The New York Times Book Review

The Hour of Land is about National Parks as battlegrounds. What it means to hold land in trust, who defines its best uses, the tangibility of park boundaries, and whether and how we will reconcile our history with our present and future, are all tested on these lands . . . It's a heady book. But it is an important one, too, because the chronically underfunded National Park Service—and more broadly, all our public lands—are confronting a staggering list of stressors right now . . . The Hour of Land is part of a conversation to kick off the next 100 years.” —Outside Magazine

“It would have been easy for Terry Tempest Williams to fall back on ‘the best idea we ever had’—an interpretation articulated by Wallace Stegner in 1983 and popularized by Ken Burns in 2009. Instead, Williams asks hard questions about the current relevance and original goodness of America’s parks. She offers a poetic revision to the Organic Act of 1916, which mandated the conservation of scenery and wildlife for the enjoyment of the public in such a manner as to leave them unimpaired. In her 400-page mission statement, Williams updates ‘enjoyment’ to spiritual renewal, specifies that ‘the public’ means more than white people, and insists that ‘unimpaired’ means what it says . . . a sincerely disobedient book.” Jared Farmer, Science

“[A] necessary new book . . . 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 . . . 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.” — Jenny Hendrix, Slate

“Whether contemplating the spiritual life she finds ‘inside the heart of the wild’ or marveling at the peaks and monuments that comprise ‘our best idea’ – the National Parks system – Williams movingly urges us to remember that ‘heaven is here.’” —O Magazine

“Readers who like their prose ardent and their politics leaning left will take particular pleasure in The Hour of Land . . . Williams is frequently a lyrical writer and an intrepid thinker . . . Reading her is better than buying a commemorative postage stamp — she delivers us into a more thoughtful grove.” —Karen R. Long, Newsday

“A provocative, heartfelt collection of essays . . . As Tempest Williams turns her attention to 12 different parks, from Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska to Acadia National Park in Maine, she considers both the large-scale forces—economical, ecological, political—bearing upon these landscapes, and the smaller scope of her personal relationships with these individual parks . . . we are reminded that the parks are preserved only by the grace of people, and Tempest Williams insists, in the end, that ‘the history of our national parks and monuments is a history of subversion, shaped by individuals.’” —Jeffrey Zuckerman, Pacific Standard Magazine

“An impassioned call to preserve and protect our national park system, America’s network of natural splendor, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year . . . Repeatedly, [Williams] calls for us to listen to the land, to respect it, to behave more responsibly . . . [She] raises issues about movements to sell public lands, off-road vehicle damage and other ‘acts of greed,’ water use, toxic emissions from oil and gas development apparently causing increased infant mortality, and other problems. Williams awakens readers to present issues easily obscured by the National Park Service’s carefully cultivated, idyllic image . . . she hopes to shake us from our fondness for souvenir T-shirts.” Irene Wanner, The Seattle Times

“Williams (When Women Were Birds, 2012), an ardent, often rhapsodic, always scrupulous witness to the living world and advocate for the protection of public lands, celebrates the centennial of the National Park Service in this enrapturing and encompassing chronicle of her deeply inquisitive, meditative, and dramatic sojourns in a dozen national parks. Guided by a finely calibrated moral compass and acute attunement to the spirit of the land . . . this is a uniquely evocative, illuminating, profound, poignant, beautiful, courageous, and clarion book about the true significance of our national parks.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Williams (When Women Were Birds), a longtime environmental activist, adds a meditative element to memoir as she shares her abiding love for America’s open spaces . . . In passionate and insightful prose, Williams celebrates the beauty of the American landscape while reinforcing the necessity of responsible stewardship." —Publishers Weekly

“[Williams’s] writing is poetic, passionate and unexpected . . . By turns sad, despairing, and hopeful, even thrilled in the presence of natural beauty, The Hour of Land is emotive, intelligent and well-traveled. It is only right that Williams should celebrate the Park Service's centennial with such a remarkable collection of wisdom and scintillating lines." —Julia Jenkins, Shelf Awareness

"A broadly ambitious and deeply impassioned collection of essays . . . There are few nonfiction writers who can capture the essence of the American wilderness landscape as eloquently as Williams . . . her distinctive prose style is capable of conveying a deep spiritual dimension within the physical setting . . . An important, well-informed, and moving read for anyone interested in learning more about America’s national parks." —Kirkus Reviews

"Taking us through American national parks and monuments, their history, their present reality, the rocks and birds and trees of them, traveling through place, the memory of place, its history, somehow, whether through the spectrum of poetry or personal story, natural history, history, or science, The Hour of Land reveals the very bones and sinew of our land. A redheaded woodpecker, Theodore Roosevelt’s grief, Terry Tempest Williams’s straight-backed father, a horseback ride with her husband through the terrain of the Civil War--slowly, place by place, our country begins to emerge. The South’s Civil War outlook is linked to that of today’s Sagebrush Rebellion here in the West; a planned wall in Big Bend to the inevitable desecration of nature; fratricidal rage to the glorious indifference of the Arctic, righteous rage to the devastation of oil spills, of the earth; Alcatraz to injustice everywhere. The conflagration of Glacier National Park sets the pages on fire, and yet the monument to Cesar Chavez offers the possibility of change: the Hour of Land is at hand. Terry Tempest Williams has literally shown us our country, its physical body, the bones of its history, the urgent reality of our roles in its future. A manifesto that everyone must read and then act upon." --Betsy Burton, The King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah

Product Details
ISBN: 9780374280093
ISBN-10: 0374280096
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
Publication Date: May 31st, 2016
Pages: 416
Language: English