Growing up in the spreading shadows of the Rocky Mountains, I saw Terry Tempest Williams as a literary godmother. My fingers traced over her quote on a sun-bleached sign in Mesa Verde National Park, and I sat on the floor of a crowded ballroom to hear her read. When my grandmother developed breast cancer, I found rage and hope by rereading her essay “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women.”
Williams is a teacher and an activist, but she is foremost a writer. Her prose is crisp and cutting like autumn in Acadia National Park, yet Williams never springs the rusty bear-trap of romanticism. Nature, Williams contends, isn’t exclusively hallowed ground, nor is it merely a backdrop to act in front of. Instead, nature is something to interact with. Nature is a battleground where we grapple bare-fisted with what exactly living on this planet means. Her newest book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, also comes to the fight, and this time it is in the ring of America’s public land.
The Hour of Land’s release coincides with the centennial of the National Park Service’s founding in 1916. The NPS now covers national seashores, historic battlefields, national parks, and others. The book discusses many of these sites as well as the complexities of the park system.
The Hour of Land is like the mustangs living amongst the sage on federal land; it is a hybrid, a rule breaker. It has a pedigree that is part U.S. history, part call to action, part lyric essay, and part travel writing.
The Hour of Land covers twelve places in the National Park System including heavy hitters like the Grand Tetons and Alcatraz, and some lesser-knowns, like the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.
While the book lacks the finesse of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family, Tempest’s book on her mother and the rising water levels of the Great Salt Lake, she makes up for it through her colossal understanding of the complex relationship between Americans and natural spaces.
In the first chapter, she interviews a U.S. veteran working as a Park Service volunteer. He finds solace from old demons in the open expanses. He also represents a legacy of military men and women who have been integral to the parks since Theodore Roosevelt sent cavalry men to Yellowstone.
Later, her portrait of Gettysburg shows us a less celebrated, but often powerful arm of the NPS, the national battlefields. Williams doesn’t hide behind the history of Gettysburg, but looks at what the space means today. The voices of re-enactors, immigrants, visitors, Northerners, and Southerners all gallop in, and the Pennsylvania hillsides become a patchwork of politics, identity, and history.
Williams’ The Hour of Land also blurs the boundaries between the natural and human, conservation and land use, family and individual. The dissonance these conflicting voices create shows us that a trip to the national parks is at one moment respite and the next a magnifier on our lives outside their gates.
In fact, it was public land near Arches National Park that once again found Williams speaking out. This February, Williams and other protestors disrupted an auction in which public land was leased to oil companies for as little as two dollars an acre. The 45,000 acres up for grabs contained an estimated 1.87 million tons of carbon emissions, and Williams stood on the battleground of public land. Williams didn’t come unarmed; she came with a paddle. As bidder nineteen, she bought leases for more than 1,750 acres and set them aside for conservation.
In a country vine-covered by the ethos of nature, Williams shows Americans both beauty and destruction, but she never lets us see it passively as an inevitable binary. Our public lands are ours, she argues, and it’s up to us to keep them safe. It is because of this sentiment, the well-researched history, and the unforgettable prose, The Hour of Land will join my bookshelf’s ranks of nature writers. But before that, it will travel in my daypack on train rides or a hike, its weight beside my water bottle, my smart phone, a trail map, and a blue book for the next election.
Gretchen Lida is a Colorado native and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Horse Collaborative, Mud Season Review, and others. She also rides horses and thinks about Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin.