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Terry Tempest Williams finds her way home — park by park by park

First Published      Last Updated Apr 19 2017 05:35 pm

‘A dance with big ideas’ » Parks are “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath,” Utah author writes in a new book.

In the grandeur of America's national parks, Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams found her life's work. It seems the writer's 15 earlier books were preparing her to tackle her most epic story ever: America itself.

Her genre-crossing "The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks," published to mark the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, lands in the middle of a divisive political campaign in a divided country. The book is particularly resonant in the middle of Utah's arguments over the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.

"In this book, there's no place to hide," Williams told me during a brief touchdown at her Castle Valley home before heading to Yosemite's Mariposa Grove for a parks centennial celebration Thursday. "I didn't hide behind metaphors. It's not about lyrical language, although I hope the language is beautiful. I wanted each essay to be as distinctive as each national park."

The subject of the artfully designed book might suggest a National Geographic takeout. Instead, the Utah writer delivers a passionate collection of experimental essays, deepened and broadened by contemporary black-and-white photographs that reinvent clichéd depictions of landscapes.

"There really is nothing quite like this: personal memoir, political statement and spiritual guidance about the national parks," says Frish Brandt, president of San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery, who helped Williams select the photographs.

The release of her new book continues a particularly tumultuous phase of the 60-year-old writer's life.

In February, she and her husband, Brooke Williams, earned national headlines for bidding on Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases, part of a climate change protest. Their winning bids on hundreds of acres of southeastern Utah land around Arches National Park prompted them to incorporate their own energy company, Tempest Explorations LLC. "You cannot define our definition of energy," the writer said at the time.

In May, Williams resigned her teaching position at the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities program, which she helped found, after she says she was pressured to take a pay cut and take on more administrative oversight of off-campus classes. Some speculate the way Williams urged students beyond advocacy to activism fueled the controversy.

"I think I made University of Utah powers-that-be uncomfortable," she says now. "Early on in my career, I thought about whether I was an artist or an activist. I don't think about that anymore. I can't separate the two."

"Hour" has earned rapturous and thoughtful acclaim. And on her national book tour, the writer handed a copy to President Barack Obama as he toured Yosemite in June, the first sitting president to visit the park in 50 years.

Dennis Drabelle's review in the Washington Post was more prickly, labeling Williams a "force of nature" who "writes as she damn well pleases."

"It's been a wild year, to say the least," Williams understates.


A lyrical trickster • Williams knows her writing isn't for everybody. Some of my friends and colleagues are turned off by her emotional leaps and lyrical jaunts. Her attention to birds and prairie dogs and landscape descriptions and the wisdom of dreams tries the patience of others. Her blend of nature writing and politics makes her more of a national treasure in cities far away from the everyday realities of Utah's contentious public-lands debates.

Friends and former students, like me, admire her deep-seated generosity, evident even in the biographies of the photographers at the back of "Hour."

At writing conferences, she's likely to leave a scarf or notebook behind because she's so focused on the work in front of her. In public speeches, her Mormon roots are on display when she thanks everybody who invited her to the party. For all her attention to lyricism, her work is also deeply laced with ironic humor, her stories likely to subvert conventions with a wink, like the metaphor of the trickster Coyote, which she loves.

She's a serious writer who's likely to cry at the drop of a bird feather. And if you spend any time outdoors with Terry Tempest Williams, you're guaranteed to see a natural phenomenon of some kind.

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‘The Hour of Land: A personal topography of American’s National Parks’

Author » Terry Tempest Williams

Publisher » Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pages » 396

Cost » $27