Book review: Book explores history, future of national parks
“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.”