Terry Tempest Williams on Her National Parks "Love Letter," Trump-Era Activism

Writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, author of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks.
Kwaku Alston
Writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, author of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks.
Terry Tempest Williams's latest book, The Hour of Land, was seeded in the red-rock splendor and expansive salt flats of Utah, where her family's roots stretch back five generations. The renowned environmental writer, activist and teacher's deep affection for the national parks and monuments of her home state prompted her self-described "love letter" in celebration of the National Park Service's 2016 centennial.

In The Hour of Land, Tempest Williams chronicles, through varied narrative forms, the past and her present experience of twelve national parks with reverence and a vivid clarity. Tempest Williams says the book's ultimate scope surprised her: "What I thought I was writing was about our national parks and our public commons. What I think I ended up writing was a history of America and falling deeply in love with the country we call home."

In advance of her July 25 visit to Denver, where she will discuss The Hour of Land at the Tattered Cover's Colfax location, Westword spoke with her about the natural world, weaving poetry into non-fiction and the current political climate.

Westword: In the Canyonlands section of The Hour of Land, there’s a moment where one of your friends answers a student’s question of what it means to be an environmentalist. I’m turning that question to you: What does it mean to you to be an environmentalist?

Terry Tempest Williams: I think it means to care about where one lives. I think it means to consider a broader definition of community to include all species, not just our own. I think it means to consider every act and how it’s complicit in the wider world in terms of an ethics of place, and I think it means to walk in wildness, so we don’t forget where the source of what it means to be human can be found.

I think this direct assault demands direct action, and that’s also what it means to be an environmentalist: to dare to speak truth to power.

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In the book, which was published in 2016, you write, “Our national park management plans tend to blow with the political winds from one administration to another.” Obviously, we’ve seen that happening, with pulling out of the Paris agreement, climate change skepticism, Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt in key environmental positions. Has this book changed for you in light of the political climate?

Last year, when it came out, it was celebratory. We were excited; we were honoring the centennial of the National Park Service. There was the ad campaign that we all experienced of Find Your Park. Fourth-graders were given free passes for their families. It was anticipatory of, would President Obama establish new national monuments, like Bears Ears, like Papahanaumokuakea, like Gold Butte? And in fact, he did. Four months later, Donald Trump, our current president, signed an executive order to review any national park or any national monument over 100,000 acres that was established from 1996 to 2016, beginning and ending in Utah.

Most worrisome and most focused on was Bears Ears, one of the first times that five tribes have put forward a vision of cooperative management, collaborative management with federal agencies and the United States government. [Utah Senator] Orrin Hatch saying that the tribes don’t know what they’re doing— not only was it patronizing, but racist. It was Orrin Hatch that Donald Trump handed the pen to after he wrote the executive order that Secretary of the Interior Zinke is now carrying out.

So I think it’s extremely problematic...A year later, it’s really looking at the direct assault on our national parks and monuments, from budget cuts to reviews of legal statutes and regulations. I think this direct assault demands direct action, and that’s also what it means to be an environmentalist: to dare to speak truth to power.

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Beneath the Great Arch near Monticello, Utah, 6.21.16
Mark Klett
What is the future of environmental activism — or, as you put it in a recent interview, being an environmentally engaged citizen — under the Trump administration?

It’s multi-faceted and multi-layered. I think it’s everything from calling our senators and representatives to acting locally in very deep ways in terms of our own communities — both human and wild — to really looking at our personal gifts and asking, “How might I give up my gift in the name of community?” each in our own way, each in our own time. I think that really, really matters, especially now.

The only thing I know how to do is write, so if you asked me, what have I written in the past year, I would say close to a dozen opinion pieces, in everything from the Salt Lake Tribune to the Durango Herald to the Los Angeles Times to the Bangor Daily News to the New York Times with Bears Ears. It’s biologists speaking on behalf of science. It’s journalists digging harder, deeper into stories they’re pursuing. For teachers, it’s how can they bring in issues of civics and natural history. For those in public service, it’s how do we keep the open space of democracy open. Each of us in our own way can add to the depth of our engagement as citizens. Democracy requires participation, so I think we have to be participating in the arena we’re both comfortable in and not comfortable in.

Are there any particular pieces of legislation you’d like to call attention to?

The comment period is over now for the monuments; you can still comment on the marine reserves in the oceans. But what I love is that when I called the Department of the Interior, close to three million citizens responded, saying, “Keep your hands off our national monuments. We want them protected. We do not want them reduced or rescinded." Now, that’s powerful. It’s all interconnected, interrelated. It’s also immigration...and Planned Parenthood and female reproductive freedom. I think it’s across the board — again, engagement, engagement, engagement, using the gifts that are ours in a multifaceted way.

I can tell you most recently, this morning, I woke up, read the paper, and Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook requested that he go visit Glacier National Park because he’s concerned about and interested in climate change and wanted to see the effects on the glaciers. Two of the most important scientists and leaders — Jeff Mow among them, who’s the superintendent, truly one of the most impressive leaders I’ve ever met in any organization or federal agency... — were cut out of that tour. So can you imagine someone of Zuckerberg’s ilk being denied access to the very superintendent who is taking the story of climate change and broadening it to: "What does it mean to live with uncertainty?" I find that absolutely appalling. And I have to ask, where is our democracy? Where is our freedom of speech? Where do we allow citizens to make their own opinions based on a variety of information? That’s what I’m concerned about. The clamping down of science, the stifling of freedom of speech and the cutting out of real leaders speaking to people of influence.

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Alcatraz, which Tempest Williams writes about in The Hour of Land.
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To transition to talking about a slightly less frustrating subject — craft — I’ve long admired how you incorporate history, science and other facts into your work, whether that’s the intricacies of mosaic-making or, in this book, civil war cycloramas or Laurance Rockefeller’s involvement in conservation in Teton National Park. What principles guide you on what to include as opposed to what to cull?

I’m just so curious, and I love the patterns of things. I love the idea of an ecological mind. And an ecological mind is a patterned mind, a mind that looks at relationships, associations. I think it was Emerson who said “a bundle of relationships.” If we choose to see the world with everything interrelated and interconnected, then there really is a mycelium that connects a cyclorama with Laurance Rockefeller, with César Chávez, with [activist] Tim DeChristopher, with a superintendent like Valerie Naylor, to peccary under a full moon in Big Bend. In so many ways, this book is about subversion, and those visionaries and dissidents, whether it’s John D. Rockefeller or Lady Bird Johnson. She said, “I’ll never forgive Lyndon and his boys for calling my environmental agenda a beautification project.” But then she said, “I realize if people start caring about bluebonnets, they’ll eventually care about the soil that grows them.”

I just don’t know how to be in the world without being in love with everything that’s part of the world and figuring out how it’s all interconnected, aboveground or underground, whether it’s symbolic metaphor or holding sand in hand.

Whether it’s in our personal relationships, whether it’s in our relationships to place, whether it’s in our relationships to democracy, we lose nothing by loving.

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My previous question also extends to working with memory in nonfiction. So many of your scenes are written with such vivid first person. What’s your process like, both in the moment and then during the writing? How do you navigate memory and emotional truth?

I don’t record, in terms of technology. When I worked on a Navajo reservation, it was bad manners. I would just have never used a tape recorder. What I learned, early on, was to be able to take really quick notes and remember. Part of remembering conversation is to really be you’re listening.

I think my most important tool is my journal, whether it was transcribing almost minute-by-minute what happened in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with my father and Valerie Naylor or whether it was taking twelve notebooks, each a different color, in Big Bend, and recording what I was seeing, thinking, contemplating, researching, filling a notebook a day. I’m an obsessive note-taker. For me, it’s not only a sketchbook, but it’s where one remembers the intensity of that moment as you write down key words or the quality of life or the birds that are singing or the colors that are being registered.

Like you, with each chapter, after I wrote it, I sent it to the people that were part of that. My father, Valerie Naylor: “Did I get it right? What didn’t I get right?” I think that’s really important, so that the people you’re talking with know that you’re not only listening but that you’re going to find out, “Was this what you said? Is this what you meant? Am I representing you fairly?” And that’s hard, because sometimes they say, "No, it’s not." Or maybe I got something wrong, and then that’s corrected. I find that’s part of the integrity of being a writer.

In the case of the brother, that was the most difficult of all in that piece on Gates of the Arctic; how would my brother feel? Would he be offended? Would he say, “I don’t want you using that?” And am I okay with that? It’s tender, and it’s always difficult, especially with family and the people that you love the most. I remember being really nervous with Tim DeChristopher and what we shared in Alcatraz. He’s a very private person in some respects, even though he’s a public person. Did he feel that I was representing him correctly? It’s also a generosity of soul of the people that you’re with, knowing that this may become part of the conversation. But I think the most moving thing to me was that my brother said, “Not only is it okay, but it’s a healing between us.” Those are the unexpected moments that loom large in a book like The Hour of Land, but they’re largely unspoken in private, unless you have a perceptive reporter.

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Grand Teton National Park.
Wikimedia Commons
I was so excited to see poetry interlaced throughout the book; the line “Could a national park be seen as a place of poetry?” really struck me. What poets or poems have inspired you lately?

In so many ways, this is a book of poetry, the poetics of place. The entire structure is really predicated on Jorie Graham’s poem “WE” that was published in the London Review of Books. I grabbed it out of the house at the last minute when I was going to Martha's on a writing retreat. One night, when I couldn’t work, I thought, "I'm lost, I have no idea where I’m going, this is too big, I’m not prepared, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a historian, I’m not a law attorney that understands public law policy, I don’t work for the National Park Service: By what authority do I write?” And I just put everything aside and read the London Review of Books, and there was Jorie’s poem.

I remember saying, "This. This is what I’m doing." My authority of a writer is out of love; my authority as a writer is out of concern; my authority as a writer is that I’m a storyteller. Really it’s love, and what I love is the poetics of place that gives birth to not only a sense of place but the ethics of place. Jorie Graham gave me the way in, and taking thirteen lines out of that poem that created its own sense of structure and guidance was really the chiropractic shift that brought The Hour of Land into being.

And then the absolute terror of having to write Jorie a letter, following up with a phone call asking permission to use those lines of poetry when she hadn’t even published this in a book yet. The ink was still wet. Again, the generosity of friendships; Jorie said yes. We had a long talk about what that meant and not using the entire poem but being satisfied with those lines and getting them exactly right in the table of contents and being able to honor her in a way that was worthy of her extraordinary gesture.

I think it’s the poetry of the land that allows us to look at each other and ask, “So this is what it means to be an American, with this both shadowed and illuminated history as well as inclusive histories.”

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All those pieces, [poet W.S.] Merwin in there talking about a forgotten language after [I'm] looking at what words have been pulled out of the Junior Oxford Dictionary. There’s poetry throughout the book, even embedded inside a lyrical approach to our national parks alongside cold, hard facts that illuminate where we find ourselves now, or a historical story, such as the fact that Yosemite was born out of war and a war-torn president like Abraham Lincoln, who knew he would never see Yosemite but thought having these lands protected for all people and all time might heal a divided nation.

We’re still a divided nation. I think it’s the poetry of the land that allows us to look at each other and ask, “So this is what it means to be an American, with this both shadowed and illuminated history as well as inclusive histories.”

Are there any particular poems or poets you’ve been reading lately?

You know who I love? I read Life of Poetry, which is just glorious, and it’s gotten me through a rough year with our current administration: Muriel Rukeyser. I can’t read enough of her. And also Denise Levertov. Certainly Emily Dickinson. And always Merwin, [Gary] Snyder. I could go on and on. I read more poetry than anything else. I read Bei Dao. I’ve been reading ancient Chinese poets. That’s what fuels my spirit and brings me back to an economy of language and image that transcends words.

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Big Bend National Park in Texas.
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I hope you enjoy your visit to Denver! Do you have any hikes planned?

I'm so excited; I'm coming with my cousin, and we will be there with her daughter. Last time we were there, we were one of what, 100,000 people, largely women, in the Women’s March. We came to Denver; we wanted to be part of the West. And it was a glory. And I’ll never forget, you know, wildness comes in all forms and all places.... It was so packed that I heard they were expecting 40,000 people, and here it was 100,000 people....

I looked up, and here was this red-tailed hawk circling above us, and with each rotation, the circle got wider, and wider and wider and wider. And you realized this was our circumference, because the hawk was looking for prey and open ground. I just loved that that was the orientation of knowing how many people we were in this powerful moment. So I’m excited to return to Denver, and I, of course, love the Tattered Cover.

Terry Tempest Williams will discuss and sign The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) at the Tattered Cover on Colfax on Tuesday, July 25, at 7 p.m. For more information on her work, visit her website.