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Book of the Month | August 2016

Longitude Book of the Month
Longitude's Book of the Month focuses on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Terry Tempest Williams' The Hour of Land. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.

The Hour of Land

By Terry Tempest Williams

America's national parks –– celebrating a centennial anniversary this month –– draw over 300 million visitors a year. "What are we searching for," Terry Tempest Williams wonders at the beginning of her new collection of essays The Hour of Land, "and what do we find?" Williams counts herself among those millions of travelers as she explores her relationship to twelve national parks and monuments across the United States, from Effigy Mounds in Iowa to Gates of the Arctic. With each visit, her questions deepen: "What is the relevance of our national parks in the twenty-first century?" she asks, "and how might these public commons bring us back home to a united states of humility?"

As a naturalist Williams is deeply concerned with what threatens our nation's protected lands, from the booming oil fields outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota to a changing climate that threatens to dry up the limited resources of the Southwest United States. But rather than seeming didactic, her book transmits the feelings of joy and discovery travelers can experience in each unique landscape. As she puts it, "perhaps it is not so much what we learn that matters in these moments of awe and wonder, but what we feel in relationship to a world beyond ourselves, even beyond our own species."

From Theodore Roosevelt to the Rockefellers, Williams honors the legacies of the leaders who fought to establish and protect the parks, but she also profiles several contemporary conservationists, rangers, superintendents and the visitors she encounters. "This is a book about relationships inside America's national parks," she observes, "and as always the case with relations, the bonds formed, severed and renewed within these federal lands are complicated. They are also fundamental to who we are as a country."

The parks are foundational to Williams' identity as a writer and naturalist. "Our national parks are memory palaces," she writes, "where our personal histories reside." In one of the most affecting essays, Williams highlights her family's connection to Grand Teton National Park, stretching back generations.

"I no longer see America's national parks as "our best idea," Williams writes, "but our evolving idea." While there are plenty of reasons to be disheartened about threats to our wild places, Williams remains hopeful, believing that "we are slowly returning to the hour of land where our human presence can take a side step and respect the integrity of the place itself." Threading through her various experiences in each park is a struggle to understand how a collective people might continue to protect spaces essential to a nation's identity –– a dilemma that, as any visitor to a national park understands, is at heart a personal one. After all, as Laurance S. Rockefeller once said, "How we treat our land, how we build upon it, how we act toward our air and water, in the long run, will tell what kind of people we really are."

A Longitude Interview

Equal parts memoir, natural history and ecology manifesto, Terry Tempest Williams' book The Hour of Land honors the centennial of our national parks by exploring why the protected, wild lands matter to the soul of America. In this interview, the ever-gracious Williams describes her favorite national park and defines the elusive "hour of land." Read the full interview on our blog.

LONGITUDE: At the beginning of The Hour of Land you ask the question "how might these public commons bring us back home to a united state of humility?" Did you come to any conclusions through your travels, or a deeper understanding of humility?

WILLIAMS: Each time I enter a national park, I meet the miraculous. I dare anyone to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and look into that chasm of deep time with the eroded layers of geologic history before you and not feel humbled as a human being. There is a landscape where rocks tell time differently. Or when we see the dignity and strength of a bison in Yellowstone with the backdrop of steam rising from the hot springs and geysers behind them, how can we not be moved by their presence? We are not the only species who lives and breathes and dreams on this planet. Politics, left, right or center, become irrelevant in the face of a flash flood in the narrow canyons of Zion National Park. Our national parks remind us that within the natural world, there is something much older and wiser than we are.

LONGITUDE: Grand Teton National Park seems to be one of your personal, as you put it, "memory palaces," a landscape rich in significance for you and your family, going back generations. What is the relationship between national parks and the idea of family, or collective experience?

WILLIAMS: Many of us in the 1950's and 60's set out on the Great American Road Trip with our families and visited the great Western national parks. In our family's case, we went north from Utah to Grand Teton National Park. Four generations would be present for family vacations: hiking trails, swimming in Leigh Lake or listening to the elk bugle in the fall. This tradition continues now into four more generations. We have stacks of photo albums to remind us of these experiences. Many families see a particular national park as a generational haunt, a place they return to year after year, whether it is in the Tetons or Yosemite or Acadia.

Our families grow and change, but these beloved landscapes hold true to their natural power and remain a constant in our lives when so much around us is in flux. If you come to love a place, you are inspired to protect that place. Our national parks are where American conservation was born and continues to be reborn with each generation.

LONGITUDE: A moving collection of black and white photographs is interspersed among your essays. Why did you choose to add a visual element to your words, and how did you select the images?

WILLIAMS: The image of wild places often leads to their protection, so I wanted to honor this collaboration between artistic acts and the acts of advocacy that followed. The 23 photographs in The Hour of Land are not illustrative of the national parks I chose to focus on, but rather evocative expressions of each place. Each photograph is in conversation with the text and deepens it. I believe collaboration is the way forward –– it has certainly been the way forward with our national parks.

LONGITUDE: You write that "America's national parks were a vision seen through the horrors of war," noting that Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant just after the Civil War. You talk to a war veteran volunteering in Big Bend and visit and revisit Gettysburg National Monument. What is at the heart of the relationship between war and the national parks?

WILLIAMS: America's national parks are places of peace. In the stillness and solitude of nature, we remember what we so often forget, "We are part of nature not apart from it," as the poet Robinson Jeffers said. When there is so much violence in the world, we can enter a national park like the Redwoods and stand before the big trees and find a renewed perspective among their standing grace rooted in thousands of years. A wild mercy emerges in our hearts. We find ourselves in a state of wholeness, rather than a place of fragmentation and despair, both qualities of war. Increasingly, our national parks are becoming parks of peace. But we have to fight for that peace. It is not something we can take for granted. The vet, Bill Summers, who I met in Big Bend, views his work within national parks as another way "to protect our homeland."

LONGITUDE: One of the reenactors you encounter at Gettysburg defends his representation of a Confederate soldier with the words: "'Look at it this way, the Feds can't just come in here and tell us what to do.'" He echoes the claim of the land owners in Wyoming who protested Rockefeller's gift of land to the federal government for the expansion of Grand Teton National Park. When it comes to land ownership and the parks, how do you measure collective good against an individual's rights?

WILLIAMS: Our public lands are our public commons. They belong to each of us. We are land rich. It is our beautiful inheritance as American citizens.

LONGITUDE: Near the end of your book you claim that we have "arrived at the Hour of Land." What is the hour of land, and what evidence did you find in your travels of having arrived?

WILLIAMS: "The Hour of Land" is the hour of our engagement with the land. It is very difficult to establish a national park or monument. In the future, it is going to become even harder to keep them. Right now, over 30 of our national parks are threatened by oil and gas development. Twelve of our national park units have oil and gas development within them. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a proposed oil refinery within two miles of its border. The time has come for each of us in the name of our own home ground with the gifts that are ours to rise up and act on behalf of America's public lands.

LONGITUDE: What advice would you give to a traveler who has yet to experience a national park?

WILLIAMS: Go! Pick a national park you've always wanted to visit. Locate that park on a map. Dream about it. Study its history, both human and wild. Block out some time, commit to this pilgrimage with people and children you love. Go! Wander in, listen, absorb the sounds, walk the trails, look for wildlife as they will meet you with their gaze –– and I promise you will be changed by each national park you visit.

LONGITUDE: You evoke the words of Ed Abbey, Aldo Leopold, John Muir and other writers throughout your essays. What books on America's protected lands do you recommend?

WILLIAMS: Certainly, the writers you mention: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey that celebrates Arches National Park in Utah; Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, especially, the last section of the book called "The Land Ethic," which I believe should be required reading; The River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas that speaks of the Everglades in Florida. Any and all work by Henry David Thoreau, including his essay, "On Civil Disobedience." John Muir's collected works that focus on Yosemite. And Louise Erdrich's novel, Tracks, contains some of the most powerful scenes as to why land matters to our very souls. Fleur, one of the primary characters in the story, protects the forest that matters most to her in a surprising act of ceremony. For me, Erdrich reminds us what is required of us.

LONGITUDE: What national park or monument is next on your list?

WILLIAMS: Great Smoky National Park. I want to be one of the ten million people who visit this park each year. I want to experience the rolling blue mountains like waves, one after the other, and then descend into its lush woods and waters for Southern refreshment.

For more recommended reading on America's national parks click here, then browse our site for books on your next destination!

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