I brought my copy of Terry Tempest Williams' The Hour of Land with me camping in the Pecos Wilderness of the Santa Fe National Forest. At our campsite in a valley at 9,000 feet, storms swirled over the basin and then broke over the peaks of the Sangre De Cristos. While a full moon rose in the east, casting shadows through the spruce trees, I trained my ears to listen for owls over the crackle of the fire.
I deposited Williams’ collection of essays—her 15th book—in the dirt outside my tent when I finally crawled inside and snuggled into my mummy bag, a dog curled to my chest. The air had a gentle bite at that elevation, even in mid-July. It rained overnight and in the morning I arose to find my book sopping. I set it in the bear grass to be dried by the morning sun and couldn't help but think that this was a nice fate for the paperback, which is a personal, historical and cultural exploration of our national parks. In fact, I suspected Williams might be pleased that her words were laid bare to the mountain rains.
Williams is one of the United States' preeminent nature writers, as well as a conservationist, activist and educator. Firmly rooted in her native Utah, her love of natural landscapes surfaces powerfully in her work—poetic odes to places that possess real magic, as if Williams has channeled ancient spells written in the dust of the land. In her most recent work, she very poignantly unpacks the multitude of histories that are embedded in 12 national parks and monuments, conjuring a sense of place through many diverse means—through art, through narratives both broad and particular, through cultural and political discovery.
“If there was a guardian presence over this book,” Williams told me over the phone from Concord, Mass., where she had just that morning celebrated Thoreau's 200th birthday at Walden Pond, “it was the red-tailed hawk. No matter where I was, it seemed that every time I looked up there they were.” Resilient, and evolving astride their diverse environs to survive, the broad-bodied bird of prey seemed to be the perfect shepherd of the project, a book which elucidates the emerging significances of our public lands, as well as the narratives of natural history we might expect. In The Hour of Land, we have essays that look into the heart of big landscapes like Canyonlands and Glacier National Park, but also illumine evolving ideas of what these spaces mean through chapters on figures like César E. Chávez, whose own national monument was recently designated in California “by another community organizer,” Williams reminds us, “Barack Obama.”
There is the fierceness of the hawk here, too. “In many ways,” Williams said, “The Hour of Land is a book of resistance.” That conviction is evidenced in the stories Williams tells and what she recognizes to be at stake, and by whose hand. To be a reader of Williams' work is to be reading on many levels simultaneously, to understand the physical source, as well as the muted suggestion—the subtleties and quiet interconnectedness. When she writes in her chapter on Big Bend, “Desert strategies are useful: In times of drought, pull your resources inward; when water is scarce, find moisture in seeds; to stay strong and supple, send a taproot deep down; run when required, hide when necessary; when hot go underground; do not fear darkness, it's where one comes alive,” one suspects that she is not speaking only of physical survival.
In 2016, in an act of civil disobedience, Williams purchased land leases 14 miles from her Utah home intended to be sold for development of oil and gas. “If you would have told me that morning that I would have ended up buying two leases with 1,120 acres of land with a debit card, I would not have believed you,” she recalled, “but I was there with these oil and gas people and I am watching these lands go up for sale, and there was this anger that rose up—call it sacred rage—and you do what you need to do at the moment at hand … and you hope you have the courage to take the next step.” When asked what kind of energy she intended to develop there, Williams famously answered, “You can’t define energy for us. Our energy development is fueling a movement to keep it in the ground.”
That Williams doesn't just wax poetic about these principles, but lives them is powerful tonic for a world that requires action of us. When I asked her what wisdom she might share with others who long to act in their own small way, in her soft but unequivocal voice she shared, “For each of us, we must look at our gifts and ask, how can I take my gift and offer it up in the name of community? On behalf of public lands? On behalf of the open space of democracy so that it can remain open? … I believe that each of us can enter into this space in powerful and creative ways, and act in a way that has meaning to us.”
What is at stake if we don't act is more than a park or a monument. That thought is ever implicit as Williams explores the thousand different grounds that are the United States. “I thought this would finally be an easy book,” Williams said, “but this book almost killed me.” The loss of so much, the destruction left by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (and the lies that shroud it), the shameful legacy of racism still evidenced at Gettysburg, the oil rigs and the loss of animals, these things surface and they wound reader and writer alike. “But coming out the other side,” Williams said, “it was a transformative book.” In the final chapter, Williams quotes poet James L. Dickey from “For the Last Wolverine”: “Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion/Of being the last, but none of how much/Your unnoticed going will mean,” he writes. Again, there are a thousand meanings here, and they inspire awe and sadness and hope.
Of that final chapter, Williams said, “I really believe love is the way through grief. And we're at a really hard time now, and we don't know what the outcome is going to be, but what I do believe is that if we rise, if we resist, if we act with love, that we will be able to sustain this kind of beauty that distinguishes us as Americans. That's not something I say very often, because I think we are a global world and global citizens, but national parks were an American idea, and they've been adopted all over the world.” An interval passed before she added, “We are nothing without our landscapes.”
Hear Terry Tempest Williams expand on the many powerful ideas contained within The Hour of the Land this Saturday, July 22, at 4pm at Bosque School (4000 Bosque School NW). More information is available at bkwrks.com/