Book Review: Terry Tempest Williams' The Hour of Land

The Hour of Land, by Terry Tempest Williams

Reviewed by Ellie Scott

As the centennial of the National Park Service nears, I have been inspired to read up on some of the wild places Congress sagely sought to preserve a century ago. On August 25th, Explore Booksellers will celebrate the Park Service’s hundredth birthday with a daylong party. You may notice an array of titles on our shelves chronicling the history and natural landscapes of our national parks; titles that celebrate the prudence, wisdom and environmental responsibility exercised 100 years ago to benefit the 300 million visitors the National Parks host annually today. My favorite book this season has been The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams.

As in both Refuge, which has become an environmental classic, and her memoir When Women Were Birds, Tempest Williams exquisitely navigates both emotional and natural landscapes, reconciling her inner sense of family and place with the larger characteristic spirit of each environment she records: the relationships forged inside America’s national parks, the complicated bonds that are formed and severed within federal lands, the ecologies and histories that hold together our public lands like connective tissue.

In The Hour of Land, Tempest Williams captures the history and ethos of twelve different national parks, some you’ve probably been to—Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park— and others you may have yet to visit: Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, for example. Throughout the book, she weaves her own family’s history of laying pipe for gas lines, which fueled the expansion of the American West, into the more intricate natural history of our shared experience. And though she comes to worship at the temple of the wild, though she is inspired, humbled and mystified by land wisely secured for the future, she does not glamorize the Park Service by ignoring its historical cruelties.

As a young child, Tempest Williams’s passion and wonder were ignited when she became locked in the Timpanogos Cave during a school trip to the national monument, alone in the darkness with the sound of drips, held in place by the cave’s stalagmite and stalactite teeth. She grew up scaling national parks and believed in the mythologies that were created to support a government that wanted these pristine lands to be preserved forever, and wished to protect its visitors from an encounter with predators or Indians. As a result, many grizzlies and wolves were removed—either trapped or hunted, and tribal people living there were displaced and marginalized as well.

Tempest Williams neither condemns nor condones the narrative that shaped our history, but views the parks as a “hologram for an America born of shadow and light”; our hopes, dreams and generosities are counteracted by our crimes and cruelties. In The Hour of Land, she strives to emerge a more honest, continually evolving narrative: one of inter-dependence rather than independence, where a diverse people are able to collectively share in an experience of reverence.

Through her exploration of a dozen public lands, she creates portraits of unexpected beauty: not only with lyrical meditations of praise for the bio-diverse ecologies found there, but also through portraits of people she meets along the way—park rangers and instrumental historical figures; people that heighten her already sacred experience. She asks the question on page 11: “What is the relevance of the National Parks in the 21st century, and how might they bring us back to a state of humility?”

Who among us in the Roaring Fork Valley has not been humbled by nature, been opened by our natural landscape, and compelled to stay curious in a world that often closes us down with fear? Tempest Williams quotes her mentor Wallace Stegner: “In the decades to come, it will not only be the buffalo and the trumpeter swan who need sanctuaries. Our own species is going to need them too. It needs them now.”

Join Explore Booksellers on August 25th in celebrating the hundredth birthday of our beloved National Park Service with a showing of the Ken Burns documentary Our Best Idea (which features Terry Tempest Williams), a discussion with Sloan Shoemaker of the Wilderness Workshop, and a reading by naturalist T.A. Barron, who collaborated with John Fielder in writing To Walk in Wilderness.