An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams

Equal parts memoir, natural history and ecology manifesto, Terry Tempest Williams' book The Hour of Land honors the centennial 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” for the nation.

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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 experiences, 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. As human beings, we are one species among many. We are not the center of the universe. All we have to do is look up at the night sky in the desert of Big Bend to be reminded of our small but very existence on planet Earth.

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. teton

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. You write that you no longer see the national parks as America’s “best idea,” but instead as an “evolving idea.” How has that idea evolved over time and in what ways do you see the parks changing to adapt to the unique challenges that face the next generation of caretakers?

Williams. We are witnessing the evolution of the National Park Service. If you look at the beginning of the National Park Service’s history, it was the era of establishing our big western landscape national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and the Grand Tetons.  In 1916, Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, hosted dinner parties and picnics in Great Smokey National Park with wealthy donors inviting them to help fund America’s national parks. Big donors were being matched with local advocates who needed their influence to help sway Congressional leaders to establish these national parks through legislation. When thinking about Yosemite National Park, Mr. Mather had concerns like whether or not Mrs. Astor would be comfortable camping there. She was not. Soon, the Ahwahnee Hotel was built to accommodate the privileged ones coming to visit the park, the hotel being named after the very people the national park displaced.  Fast forward one hundred years and the Ahwahnee Hotel is now called “The Majestic Hotel” as the name “Ahwahnee” is in a court battle over a trademark dispute.  This is one example of the ironies of change within our national parks. USW816

Here is another: In 2012, America has a black President, Barack Obama, who as a former community organizer chose to honor another community organizer and established the Cezar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California, to honor the efforts of the United Farm Workers. President Obama has gone on to establish new national monuments that honor a more diverse and inclusive history such as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, the Women’s Equality National Monument and the Stonewall National Monument, to celebrate the power of American stories that have largely been ignored.

The Bears Ears National Monument proposal in Utah, supported by the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Ute Nations, along with over 25 other tribes in the American Southwest, asks for 1.9 million acres in Utah to be protected. They are asking President Obama to recognize these desert lands as the burial grounds of the ancestors whose songs can still be heard on the wind.  It is where they perform their ceremonies and where their medicines are found. It is a landscape rich in archaeological history adjacent to Canyonlands National Park.  An evolving idea of our national parks means that in the 21st century the United States government in general and the National Park Service in particular, can now honor the very people so many of our national parks displaced. The establishment of Bears Ears National Monument would be a beautiful offering of peace extended to the tribes within the Colorado Plateau.

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? bandw

Williams. Photographs have always played a vibrant and important role within the establishment of our national parks from the early images of Carleton Watkins conveying the majesty of Yosemite to the power of the Snake River Overlook in Grand Teton National Park by Ansel Adams to the contemporary images of Utah’s red rock desert by Mark Klett and Lynn Davis. 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. When I went to Gettysburg National Military Park, I couldn’t get the photograph of a black man’s back by Sally Mann out of my mind. For decades, you could visit Gettysburg and never hear the word “slavery” mentioned. The story of Gettysburg was told through military strategies, generals and artillery. Slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War was not part of the story that the National Park Service chose to tell. Now, that has changed. I was so grateful when Sally Mann agreed to let that particular image be part of “The Hour of Land.” 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? getty

Williams. What a great question. 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 re-enactors 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. USA592

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.  One of the key tenants within the current GOP political platform reads, “….to dispose of all federal lands.” This statement should concern each and every American citizen. If we remove our national parks and monuments in this country, what are we left with?

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. DES02

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.   USW623For contemporary writers, I love Trace by Lauret Savoy that explores how our identity is tied to landscape which knows no hate, but sadly society does. Audrey Peterman has written a landmark book, Legacy On The Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care. 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.