I rarely read a book that fills me with envy. In her latest, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams, one of the most beloved and lyrical writers of the West, manages to make me envious in two ways. First, in order to write this collection of essays, Williams travelled to the corners of the United States visiting national parks—in some cases, multiple times. That’s something I would love to do. Furthermore, she doesn’t just visit the typical parks most of us know. Among the dozen she writes about, there are a few big-names: Glacier, Canyonlands, Acadia. But what about Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa? Or Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi? Alcatraz Island? Who knew?
Park aficionados and history buffs know, of course, but for most of us, particularly those only vaguely familiar with the regions they inhabit, these more obscure parks hold some mystery. Williams visits them for us, and we should all travel with someone so thoughtful. Through her writing, we learn the history and landscape of the parks—though The Hour of Land is no guidebook. These are parks that, for various reasons, have a personal connection for Williams.
“Our national parks are memory palaces where our personal histories reside,” Williams writes about Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. This is the park where the author essentially grew up, her “Mother Park,” as she calls it—a favorite of her entire family. She tells of how her grandfather would go there, then her father and finally herself. (“Not a year of my life has passed without the Tetons’ jagged presence, not one,” she writes). She writes of how her favorite, what she believed was the Grand Teton, turned out to be Mount Moran and how that realization became an important moment for her. “I did not want to be told where to look for power,” she says, after being corrected by her father. “I no longer believed in the names of things. I knew where the power was held for me.”
I enjoy both these personal anecdotes and learning about the political wrangling it took for these places to become national parks. Our wild spaces have always been threatened, and their protection has usually fallen on a devoted few to rise up and defend them. Those issues continue to echo today, as privatization of public lands looms, “Drill, baby, drill!” continues to be chanted, and so on. Williams frames her points clearly and passionately, making the case that we need these places, culturally and spiritually—the wilder the better—and that it is critical we continue to protect them.
That leads me to the second area of envy for me: the beauty of Williams’ writing. Describing a walk through Gettysburg National Military Park with her husband, Brooke, and writer Rick Bass, Williams writes, “We flush a meadowlark. I didn’t know they were here. Their yellow breasts are a song before they even open their beaks.” I can’t imagine looking at a meadowlark the same again. The description crushes me.
That’s one example; gorgeous sentences are found on every page, holding up against anything else Williams has ever written (including her acclaimed 1991 memoir, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
). Perhaps you are someone who doesn’t hike. You never spend hours climbing steep series of switchbacks just to gain a beloved vista. If you are such a reader, Williams’ writing becomes that vista. She provides the kind of images that will make you want to return to them time and again, even if it’s just from your favorite reading chair.
Some books, on the beauty of their packaging alone, deserve to sit on a bookshelf in pristine condition. The Hour of Land is one of them. The hardcover first edition is lovely, with a turquoise title sleeve that wraps around a gorgeous black and white photograph of the iconic cliff face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. Other books cry out to be battered, as they are read, re-read and shared among friends. This book is one of those, too. I expect mine to be scuffed and beat up over the next couple years, the corners bent, even more pages than now dog-eared for reference. Coffee splashes in places, maybe even a few Cheetos stains on others. Some would argue such treatment is a crime against books. I call it a tribute to a book that deserves praise in every possible way.
Terry Tempest Williams reads from The Hour of Land at the University Center Ballroom tonight, Thu., July 21, at 7 PM.
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks
Terry Tempest Williams
hardcover, Sarah Crichton Books
416 pages, $27