The longtime advocate for the environment celebrates the centennial of the National Park Service with a meditative report on her tour of a dozen parks across the country.
Williams (When Women Were Birds, 2012), an ardent, often rhapsodic, always scrupulous witness to the living world and advocate for the protection of public lands, celebrates the centennial of the National Park Service in this enrapturing and encompassing chronicle of her deeply inquisitive, meditative, and dramatic sojourns in a dozen national parks.
Guided by a finely calibrated moral compass and acute attunement to the spirit of the land, Williams approaches these protected places with curiosity about the past and concern for the future, matching ravishing and knowledgeable descriptions of land and wildlife with personal stories, swaths of history and reportage, profiles of remarkable individuals dedicated to preserving the wild, and evocative commentary. She begins with the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which she and her family have hiked for decades. Family lore brackets Williams’ stirring account of the vision and generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who, steered by Horace Albright, the second director of the National Park Service, quietly bought up land in order to donate it to the federal government so that the original park would be extended to include the entire Snake River Valley. This grand philanthropic act ignited a “political firestorm” and an “epic fight” in Congress, though it is now appreciated as a magnificent gift to all humankind. An evolution in perception to keep in mind as we face our own environmental battles.
In all, 42 national parks are threatened
by oil and gas development.
Not all her adventures are so affirming. North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park is under siege as the natural-gas boom encroaches on its borders with clanking rigs, pollution, “scraped land, trucks in traffic, dust.” In all, 42 national parks are threatened by oil and gas development. This dire predicament inspires Williams to ponder the ongoing “conflict between protection and use” of public lands. What she finds on her trip to Gulf Islands National Seashore, one of eight national parks damaged by the BP oil disaster in 2010, is even more distressing. Her time in Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande along the border between Texas and Mexico engenders penetrating musings about need, fear, and drought. As for the wall politicians tout, Williams testifies to the grievous harm such an edifice would inflict on wildlife as well as people. Questions of justice and sacredness arise in her dispatch from Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, while her probing explorations of the Gettysburg National Military Park summon thoughts about the unending echoes of the Civil War.
Illustrated with exquisite photographs by such masters as Lois Conner, Lee Friedlander, Sally Mann, and Sebastião Salgado, this is a uniquely evocative, illuminating, profound, poignant, beautiful, courageous, and clarion book about the true significance of our national parks. These sanctuaries, Williams muses, are not only about preservation and recreation, but also about education and remembrance. She envisions them as “places of recognition,” vital centers of awe and unity, inspiration and transformation. Williams writes, “If we can learn to listen to the land, we can learn to listen to each other.” And the time is now: “We have arrived at the Hour of Land.”
This review first appeared in the April 1, 2016 issue of Booklist.