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

Published August 29, 2016 9:04 am

'A dance with big ideas' • Parks are "breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath," Utah author writes in a new book.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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.

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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.

Loving the shadow sides of America • Brandt suggests a good metaphor for the ambitious aims of "Hour": The book is a dance with big ideas. "I brought the photographers to the parks, and she brought the parks to the photographers, and then there was a square dance," Brandt says of the one-of-a-kind project.

In some ways, "Hours" serves as a bookend to 1995's "Testimony: Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness," a compilation that Williams and writer Stephen Trimble distributed to every member of Congress. Then-President Bill Clinton held up a copy in September 1996 and declared it made a difference as he spoke at the inauguration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Local readers seem to be appreciating the book's weave of history and landscape; it's currently the best-selling book for adults at Salt Lake City's The King's English Bookshop. "I thought the totality of it was really brilliant, and I loved all the parts, too," says owner Betsy Burton.

Reviewers and early readers seemed "moved by the bigness of the project and the bigness of Terry's ideas and the richness of her language," says editor Sarah Crichton, head of the Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint.

Williams describes organizing the 12 essays the way she learned to host a dinner party from her beloved Mormon mother. At the heads of the table are stories about the parks she knows best: Grand Teton, which she calls her mother park, and Canyonlands, her home base.

At the center of the table are Maine's Acadia ("I don't know enough to have my heart broken in the East," she writes) and North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt. Seated nearby are the parks she had always wanted to meet, Alaska's Gates of the Arctic and Texas' winter-lonely Big Bend.

And then there are the bad boys and girls, the guests who are going to create disturbances but keep things lively. Those parks represent war, prison and oil: Pennsylvania's Gettysburg National Military Park, California's Alcatraz Island, and Florida and Mississippi's Gulf Islands.

Also at the party are the complicated guest who always defies expectations — Montana's Glacier, where her family found themselves trapped in the middle of a wildfire — and the surprise visitors, such as California's Cesar Chavez and Iowa's Effigy Mounds, which Williams describes as one of the most spiritual places she has ever been.

"I really left this dinner party in love with my country, for all its vulnerabilities, weaknesses, the savage nature of our politics, and the shadow sides of our history," Williams says.

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A sacred rant • Most readers aren't aware of how Williams has used her writing to call herself to action. Writing 1991's "Refuge," her memoir about her mother's death and the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake, prompted her to civil disobedience in protesting the nuclear testing that she believes led to her family's and Utah's cancer cells.

In writing 2000's "Leap," a deep consideration of Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights," she and her husband were inspired to move from urban Salt Lake City to rural Castle Valley.

And in writing 2008's "Finding Beauty in a Broken World," describing her work as a "barefoot" mosaic artist in Rwanda, the couple made perhaps the most deliberate decision of all: They adopted their 20-something interpreter, Louis Gakumba, and sponsored his American studies, beginning at Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah.

"There isn't a lot of patience for women with a political voice, I do know that," she says. "One of the major criticisms of this book is that my anger got away from me, or it's a rant in places, but I didn't care. Maybe that's a part of the gift of being older, or the gift of seeing what you love destroyed, or writing from a broken heart. I would call that a sacred rant."

For Utah readers, perhaps the greatest strength of "Hour" is Williams' portrayal of her rugged father, John Tempest, the head of a pipeline company. The way Williams writes about their lifelong conversations allows her to argue across her convictions with readers. And if her conservative, development-focused father has pivoted to embrace more of her ideas about conservation, anybody can make that leap, Williams says, adding that he has signed on as CEO of Tempest Explorations.

"Strange things happen when Terry is around," her father explains to a park superintendent in "Hour of the Land," when they see a rarely glimpsed redheaded woodpecker in North Dakota.

And maybe that's the way to leave any consideration of Williams and her work: "Strange things happen when Terry is around."

ellenf@sltrib.com

facebook.com/ellen.weist —

'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

 

 

 

 

 

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