Terry Tempest Williams believes if we can learn to listen to the land, we might learn to listen to each other.
by Jennifer White (www.good.is)
We go—307 million of us each year—into our national parks, representing all races, religions, political affiliations, and nationalities. And for a short while, we share a common experience. We may think we go for the scenery, but there’s more to it than that.
Award winning author Terry Tempest Williams says we need these places more than ever—for our mental health but also to find common ground.
As the U.S. Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, Williams, a writer, naturalist, and activist hailing from Utah, has released her newest book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks. Williams herself admits it isn’t the exuberant ode to national parks she first envisioned. Instead, The Hour of Land delivers a complex web of stories as varied as the parks themselves. And yet, her gift in this book is her insistence that despite the darker stories and despite the clear tension dividing America today—there is hope in our public lands. As she says, we need them—for our sanity and to understand who we are as a country.
Williams is the author of 15 books, including the environmental literature classicRefuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. We caught up with her in the middle of her book tour, just north of Yellowstone National Park, in Livingston, Montana.
You thought this was going to be an easy enjoyable book to write. But it wasn’t?
The Hour of Land asked everything and more of me. I am not a historian. I am not a scientist. I am a storyteller. And the stories within the history of the National Park Service are not all about goodness and light. When you really look at the shadowed history we have with our national parks, when you look at how we have mistreated native people and mismanaged wildlife, it’s a very complex story. …
Early on with one of the early drafts, my editor said, “You know, this is not a feel-good book.” But our history in the United States of America is often not a feel-good history. Given that, I still found a strand—what I would call a subversive strand—where brave and courageous men and women meant well by wanting to protect these magnificent landscapes for the greater good—people like John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the Grand Tetons and Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the Everglades.
When I say that there’s a shadow side to our national parks, there’s a shadow side to us as human beings. I didn’t want to turn away from that; I did not want to avert my gaze from the very hard issues that we’re still facing as Americans. The joy for me was to be able to go into those deeper recesses of the hour of land and come out into an open meadow, appreciating the ecotones of the landscape and the ideas surrounding our public lands.
You say that our parks are an evolving idea?
I think the most important idea for me, as a writer, in this book was when Wallace Stegner, who was a mentor of mine, said “America’s National Parks are our best idea.” I would argue that our national parks are an evolving idea and when you look at the history of displaced people, in Yosemite, for example, and you now look at the state of Utah, where we have the Bears Ears National Monument on the table—supported by the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute tribes, alongside 25 other tribes in the American Southwest, who are asking to have their native lands protected—it’s so moving. And I think a new land ethic is now evolving in Utah, of all places, as a result of the leadership of the tribes.
Your book talks about the direct challenges—oil drilling, climate change, land management—the parks face today. But there’s also this sense that being in those parks is a reflection of some of the more complicated conflicts we face as a nation—war, violence, race, political divides.
I think the most poignant part for me—and I kept going back and back to wrap arms around it—was Gettysburg National Military Park. As a westerner, in my ignorance, I thought that’s the South’s war, that’s the North’s war, the Confederacy and the Union. What became so clear is that it’s America’s war, and it’s not over. We are still a divided nation. When I was talking to the reenactors, who were artillery men for the Confederacy, I asked, with all sincerity, what were the causes of the Civil War. He said, “If you think I’m going to tell you slavery, forget it. It’s states’ rights. It’s the federal government getting in our way.” And as he spoke I thought, I know this rhetoric. This is the rhetoric I’m hearing in Utah, the rhetoric that was behind the Bundy separatists at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. And the most chilling thing, which I wrote in the book, was in the end, he said, “Slaves. Guns. It’s the same issue, just different items.” That’s chilling. So there are issues of race and violence and gun control, and oppression, right here, right now, as both part of our history and where we find ourselves now.
One of the things that I admire about the Obama Administration and Secretary Jewel, is that I think they’ve really made an effort to focus on diversity in our national parks, both in race and class. Every fourth grader now gets a family pass and can go to the national parks for free. I think President Obama's choices of the new national monuments and parks that he’s created illustrate this: Certainly, the César Chavez National Monument, honoring Latino rights and the struggles and successes of the United Farm Workers, or the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument or the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument that honors women's equality—all of these new monuments speak to an evolving consciousness of a more inclusive history.
I was in Yosemite National Park last month when President Obama spoke. … And it was so moving. He spoke about coming to the mainland from Hawaii, with his mother, as an 11-year-old boy. And one of the first places they visited was Yellowstone National Park. There, he said, was, “the first time I saw a moose in a lake, the first time we drove over a hill and saw a field of deer, the first time I saw a bear and her cub.” And he said, “That changes you. You're not the same after that experience." And that’s when he said, I want to make sure every kid has the opportunity to feel that. … At the end of his speech, he just said, you know these national parks remind us that there’s something so much bigger than ourselves.
What has it been like to go on a book tour promoting this book in the context of recent current events—with so much violence and political divide?
It’s been really powerful. Because I think all of the things that we’re seeing played out nationally, internationally—whether it’s racism or violence, or the dominance of one story that demands to be told when other stories are crying out to be held—this is all part of the conversation of the hour of land. I gave a reading just last week in Grand Teton National Park, and the first question was: What do we do about the GOP platform, where the first issue in the natural resources platform is “to dispose of all federal lands,” to get rid of our national parks and monuments? And I asked, just out of curiosity, “How many of you are Democrats, and how many of you are Republicans?” It was completely split down the middle, and everyone agreed our public lands are our inheritance as American citizens. And granted they were in the national park. But I think this is an incredibly unifying topic.
We were talking to some gentlemen not long ago and both of them were adamantly opposed to climate change: doesn’t exist. They were all voting for Donald Trump. I am not. I thought okay, where are we going to find some common ground here? … And I finally asked the gentleman from Alabama, “So what are you in Utah for?” And he said, “My wife and I and children have just traversed 3,000 miles looking at National Parks.” And the rest of our conversation was about love. I have this friend in Turkey, she’s a Turkish naturalist and educator … And every day she posts a flower, or an insect, a bird, or a tree. Something beautiful. And when the Turkish coup took place just a few days ago, she posted a dead katydid, and she said “This is the only image I will give credence to regarding the death of our country.” And then the next day, a wildflower, a wild rose, a feather. And I just think there’s something about the embrace of beauty that keeps us whole.
I just finished reading an extraordinary book called The Battle for Home, by a Syrian architect, Marwan Al-Sabouni. She refused to live in a country ravaged with gore. … And she said, “My personal act of defiance is to reject ugliness; it is to embrace beauty, to protect beauty, to create beauty.” And I feel that way about our national parks in this country; it’s a stay against violence.
During this book tour, you’re visiting a lot of national parks very briefly. Yesterday you were at the visitors’ center at Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Does that change your experience or your lens through which you see the parks?
… Hanging out in Old Faithful between eruptions for four hours is anything but a calm experience. But I still found it miraculous. I still stood in awe each time Old Faithful erupted. And I stood with two of the rangers. One of them was a woman, Joanne, who’s been there for 22 years, and had tears in her eyes still. … And they spoke of how earlier that morning they’d seen a grizzly at the Old Faithful Overlook, watching. How can you not be moved by that? … I don’t care how many people are there, I’m still in awe, standing right there with them.
These are processions, pilgrimages, and it’s the closest thing we have in this country to sacred sites. And I love that people are coming. Visitation in our national parks has never been higher, and that says to me they are filling a need and a void. Each time I enter a national park, I meet the miraculous. We were just in Grand Teton, and this summer thunderstorm draped over the Grand with bolts of lightning flashing throughout the range. How many times have I watched that? But you still just want to fall to your knees. Thousands of people experienced this, as well. It becomes a moment of humility.
You talk about the idea of land being sacred, that these parks are important for the soul of America …
… Just as the national parks are an evolving idea, I think as human beings are evolving, seeing the land as part of us, not apart from us … How many thousands of people we saw in Yellowstone yesterday … people were encountering awe. People were encountering wonder. People were talking to each other. I saw one gentleman and he said, “My blood pressure has just dropped ten points.” In today’s world everyone is so distracted and “busy” (a word I have removed from my vocabulary), we forget what is essential. Land is essential. Solitude is essential. And that state of reverence is crucial if we are going to become our highest and deepest self. So I think that when we enter a national park, we enter a state of listening that has become uncommon to us. Stillness, solitude. The sound of rushing water. Wind. Bird song. And the quality of our listening changes. That, to me, all circles around the notion of sacred.
Despite the difficulty of some of the things you encountered as you wrote this book, do you feel, in the end, more hopeful?
I’ve always been hopeful. I mean, what is hope? Hope is the belief we will be able to move forward with dignity. And we are moving forward, and I think with a proposal before us like Bears Ears National Monument—that I do believe will become a reality and a peace offering between the United States government and the tribes—how can we not be hopeful? President Obama has taken this evolving idea of our national parks and moved it forward. In the aftermath of the Orlando murders, we saw the establishment of the Stonewall National Monument in New York, an honoring of the struggle and triumphs of the LGBT community. This, too, is the legacy of America within our national parks. They house our histories, both human and wild. As Wallace Stegner said, our public lands are "our geography of hope."
Interview has been edited and condensed for length.