In a provocative, heartfelt collection of essays, author and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams makes a passionate argument in favor of America’s national parks—“breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.”
By Jeffrey Zuckerman
Crested Pool hot spring in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park on May 14, 2016. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Last month, to close its budget gap, the National Park Service decided to begin accepting (and soliciting) corporate sponsorships. The parks need all the help they can get as park rangers and staff brace for a long summer: This year, Yellowstone National Park will likely see more than four million tourists, shattering last year’s record. Station wagons and minivans will likewise crowd every other national park across the country, including Rocky Mountain National Park, where I still remember spending many summers with my own family, sleeping in cabins and trying to catch butterflies.
These national parks are widely regarded as family destinations. They are also a family affair in a grander sense, thanks to the philanthropy of the Rockefeller family. After John D. Rockefeller Jr. toured the Grand Tetons in the 1920s, he began steadily acquiring parcels of land and donating them to the American government; his son, Laurance S. Rockefeller, eventually donated the last of the Rockefellers’ Jackson Hole properties to the government in 2001. The extended family’s efforts have been instrumental in creating or expanding at least 20 of the national parks in the United States, effectively making the Rockefellers the “first family of national parks.”
President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into existence with the Organic Act of 1916; at the time, only 37 sites existed; now, on the centennial, 59 national parks are manifest throughout the U.S. and even its territories, from the National Park of American Samoa to Virgin Islands National Park.
Tempest Williams argues that parks are “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath,” and her book emerges as a succession of arguments for the value of these parks, and of the Rockefeller family’s original vision.
This interplay between the public and the personal is at the heart of Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, a volume of interconnected essays about America’s national parks that she has written specifically for this centennial. Tempest Williams is known to her ardent fans as an outspoken advocate for environmentalism and the poetic author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, a memoir of her mother’s death that now stands as a modern classic of mother-daughter relationships, religion, and mourning. As Tempest Williams turns her attention to 12 different parks, from Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska to Acadia National Park in Maine, she considers both the large-scale forces — economical, ecological, political — bearing upon these landscapes, and the smaller scope of her personal relationships with these individual parks.
By sheer acreage, America’s national parks cover 2.3 percent of the country’s land. Rather than visit every corner, Tempest Williams’ selection of parks is thoroughly subjective. She focuses on the places where she has spent time with her family, where she has found stories that demand to be re-told. The essays range in style and tone from the memoiristic opening essay on Grand Teton National Park to the stream-of-consciousness style of her chapter on Big Bend National Park, where Tempest Williams prefaces each section with meditations on the various shades of her colored notebooks from the trip.
Another chapter is composed almost entirely of emails and letters written to various figures, while another feels like journalistic reportage on crimes committed against Native American mounds. Readers may find themselves brought up short by a chapter that reads as poetry, each line of text surrounded by white space that is as mysterious as it is unsatisfying. Later, among telegraphic descriptions of Arctic landscapes, the line “I had just signed a restraining order against my brother, not because of him, but because of me” nearly goes unnoticed, so flat is the affect of the chapter’s prose. The sheer tonal variety suggests a book of essays meant to be read at random, but to do so would be to miss the larger themes and issues that Tempest Williams explores at length.
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. (Photo: Sarah Crichton Books)
Among other fixations, climate change recurs: “In Big Bend National Park, the Rio Grande is so low because of drought, locals are calling it the Rio Sand,” Tempest Williams tells us, before diving into an investigation of the drought’s effects on the park and the Southwest more broadly. She draws a wrenching contrast between a Texas town where a waitress will only bring a glass of water if the patron promises to drink the whole thing, and a Manhattan buried under torrential snow — even if her declaration that “climate-change deniers will soon disappear like the zealots who proclaimed the Earth was flat and the center of the universe” rings hopelessly optimistic.
In some of Tempest Williams’ most powerful essays, she excoriates oil and gas companies for their refusal to take responsibility for their crimes against the environment. The chapter on Gulf Islands National Seashore is less about the park itself than it is about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its horrific fallout over a series of months. The essay (which draws heavily on a lengthy 2010 feature she wrote for Orion) describes disturbing scenarios of ravaged landscapes and ruined ecosystems. Most chillingly, the piece ends on the strange experience of being forced to go through “decontamination” after being exposed to chemical dispersants that the government had claimed were non-toxic. “Should tropical storm Bonnie materialize,” one of the decontamination workers assures her, “the whole island would be evacuated because it would turn into ‘a hot zone.’” The target of Tempest Williams’ ire is evident, and she repeatedly hammers home the point that this is an accident that was mismanaged by BP’s managers and executives from start to finish.
“When you walk onto an oil patch, instead of a night sky of stars, oil derricks are lit up like marquees in Las Vegas.”
Land rights are central to the existence, and survival, of natural parks, and some of the book’s most unnerving chapters chronicle how oil and gas companies are fighting tooth and nail for lands surrounding and encroaching upon national parks. “When you walk onto an oil patch, instead of a night sky of stars, oil derricks are lit up like marquees in Las Vegas,” Tempest Williams tells her readers, “and you can forget you are in Boulder, Wyoming, or Vernal, Utah, or Rifle, Colorado.” These companies are not pure antagonists — the author’s father, who appears in several chapters, made his career in the industry — but Tempest Williams is clearly frustrated and angered by their heedless exploitation and the damage that results.
Tim DeChristopher appears and re-appears throughout the volume’s essays as an ally and a personal hero. “If Tim was a pastor, I would go to his church,” Tempest Williams writes in a later chapter, and a small pleasure of reading The Hour of Land is in the author’s oblique rendition of DeChristopher’s biography. His story begins in the Canyonlands National Park, when, as a young economics student, he came unannounced to a land auction in Utah and registered as Bidder 70 against several oil and gas companies. DeChristopher emerged as the highest bidder on 14 parcels of land, even though he knew that he would never pay — and so he was jailed while the Department of the Interior was forced to “shelve” most of the auction, eventually deeming the whole thing illegal. Later in the book, DeChristopher is released from prison, comes to speak to Tempest Williams’ class, and establishes a redoubtable career of environmental activism.
Tempest Williams argues again and again that parks are “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath,” and her book emerges as a succession of arguments for the value of these parks, and of the Rockefeller family’s original vision: “a way of life … [protecting] the peace that comes when time slows down and we venture into an aesthetic where nature and culture exist in harmony, not one without the other.”
The essays are punctuated by encounters with nature, from the terrifying (a ring of fire that narrowly misses the author’s entire family one summer; a grizzly bear rearing on its hind legs) to the sublime (a desert blooming shortly after a rare rainfall; the unchanging peaks of the Teton mountain range). But we are reminded that the parks are preserved only by the grace of people, and Tempest Williams insists, in the end, that “the history of our national parks and monuments is a history of subversion, shaped by individuals.” She focuses much of The Hour of Land on these individuals, from Rockefeller to DeChristopher, but, in the end, there is no denying the constant, meditative presence of Tempest Williams herself, who muses aloud: “Could a national park be seen as a place of poetry?” This year, as parks from Gettysburg National Battlefield to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ring in the centennial, millions of visitors will come to decide that question for themselves.