Terry Tempest Williams offers an intimate portrait of national parks in her memoir The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. She guides readers on a reverential tour of parks based on the meanings that these places have etched in her memory and experience. Family, beauty, creativity, a care for land all rank highly in the values she finds in national parks.
The early chapters of Williams’ book connect parks to her personal story of family, a theme that weaves into later chapters as well. Her attachment to Grand Teton National Park as her Mother Park, “the birthplace of my wonder,” frames a story of familial affection punctuated by hints of disaffection in a sometimes troubled relationship. We get occasional glimpses of her struggles with the legacy of her family’s involvement in the oil and gas industry in Utah. At times Williams alludes to, but never quite confronts, how her own privilege to enjoy and revel in the national parks relies in part on her family’s prosperity gained from laying pipelines across the American west.
A Passionate Voice for the Hour of Land
Terry Tempest Williams has put her privilege to beneficial use. She brings a thoughtful, passionate, and concerned voice to debates about land resources and the relevance of national parks. Williams skillfully approaches these big issue concerns through intimate stories of personal relationships, sometimes hopeful, sometimes despairing, sometimes painful. At every turn she engages people she has known for decades as well as those she encounters momentarily. The reader enters her intimate world through beautiful prose set in a variety of genres that add a literary sense to her park explorations. The result is a personal topography that reveals a unique experience of national parks.
The topography revealed in The Hour of Land encompasses decades of reverence for American parklands. Terry Tempest Williams has traveled far from her childhood experience of wonder locked inside Timpanogos Cave in Utah. There in the darkness “so deep that my eyes seemed shut even though they were open,” the spirit of Timpanogos found the 8-year-old girl and seized her imagination. It was a formative moment, she explains: “To this day my spiritual life is found inside the heart of the wild.”
The Sacred Meanings of National Parks and Monuments
This spiritual orientation to wildness guides Terry Tempest Williams’ view of national parks and monuments. For her, the wild also includes places of cultural significance. She concludes The Hour of Land at the César E. Chávez National Monument in California. Entering the refuge where the activist formulated his plans to bring justice to farmworkers, Williams reflects on the rebellious element in the national park system: “The history of our national parks and monuments is a history of subversion.” She recognizes the rampant commercialism that has seized much of the national park experience, but she asks, “What if our national parks and monuments became places of conscience instead of places of consumption?”
Terry Tempest Williams then considers other meanings and purposes of national parks:
- Places of stillness that quiet the soul and inspire creative acts
- “Sites of transformation where the paradigm of domination and manipulation ends and a vision of unison begins”
- Places where we learn “what it means to offer our reverence and respect to the closest thing we as American citizens have to sacred lands”
- Places of poetry where “Line by line, step by step, we wander along a path unknown to us”
- Places of revelation that speak as “a burning bush of identities”
Subversion, revelation, transformation, creative engagement — our parks, in Terry Tempest Williams’s estimation, reflect the last best hope of America. She gives the final words to her friend Doug Peacock, the Vietnam war veteran who found solace and a renewed life in the company of grizzly bears: “We lose nothing by loving.”
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Books, 2016). ♨