It has been way too long since I’ve given myself the gift of a quality road trip out West. Yellowstone. Colorado. New Mexico. Big Bend. Those wide open, mysterious and treasured landscapes have framed indelible encounters with earth and sky over the last four decades or so.
Fourteen years ago, I led an odd post-modern trek along the Lewis and Clark Trail. After a rough-water encounter in the middle of the Missouri River in Montana, I lived to tell about it in a newspaper series. That two-week journey went from Missouri to the Oregon coast and back. On the trip home, I convinced my traveling companions to go along on a brief detour so I could take a look at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. For me it was a pilgrimage, paying a debt I owed. Terry Tempest Williams first introduced me to Bear River by way of the written word. The refuge plays a prominent role in her deeply moving and provocative memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). In the book, Terry wove together three threads – an intimate account of her mother’s death by cancer; the troubling parallel story of the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake and the precarious fate of the Bear River refuge and the millions of birds that rely on its place along their seasonal flyways; and, third, the disturbing theme that questioned how American nuclear bomb tests in the desert in the 1950s very likely affected the health and lives of downwinders, especially of women in her devoutly Mormon extended family. There’s the chilling moment when she learns that one of those enormous flashes went off as her father drove in the desert and her mother sat in the passenger seat pregnant with the future writer and activist.
I heard Terry read that aching essay, fresh out of the typewriter, in 1989 at a writer’s workshopin Ranchos de Taos, N.M. Later, I reviewed her book, and followed her travels and her work over the next quarter of a century. Whenever my own travels take me to wilderness, to natural landscapes, or even when I’m only a spectator flying over those brown and rolling deserts of the west, I always feel I am carrying Terry’s spirit of openness, awe, and love for the wild. A sense of native identity and energy also imbues her regard for those lands, as well it should.
In recent years I’m mostly the armchair schlub who reads about wilderness more than he enters it. From time to time I make a winter excursion into the desert of New Mexico, to the Jemez Pueblo, where the annual Three King’s feast day Buffalo Dance undulates for hours in a ritual of patterned motion and spirit sounds. The dance and its continual drumming amount to an expression of identity as authentically American as anything one could think of. (See my column of football, healing and the Buffalo Dance.)
Well, the point of all this is that Terry came to Kansas City last week for a library talk about the making of her most recent book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. Originally imagined as a “love letter” to our wild lands on the 100th anniversary (in 2016) of the National Park Service, the project became far more challenging, she confessed. At first it seemed somewhat beyond her grasp. She had to figure out which of the 59 parks to write about and then how to do it. In the end, Terry being Terry, the book she turned in was far more political than her editors had expected. As she hikes the contours of, say, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota or Acadia in Maine, she is never far away from vital and threatening issues such as fracking, land use, and encroaching development. She confronts controversy head on, including a scandal a few years ago over construction and desecration at the Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa, which prompted a period of distrust among numerous tribes.
Also that night at the Woodneath Library Center she expressed the deep disappointment brought about by the fossil-fuel priorities of the current administration. Currently under way is a plan to erase or severely diminish the Bears Ears National Monument in her native Utah. The 1.3-million-acre expanse had gained federal protection in the last months of the Obama administration, and, like almost everything passed by the 44th president, it swiftly became a candidate for repeal. Terry had been a vocal advocate for the Bears Ears designation, siding with the five Indian tribes – Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian – who sought to forestall looming energy production on what they consider to be sacred space. In the long debate over Bears Ears, Terry said, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the crusty Republican, once declared the indigenous people did not know what they were talking about. “That’s not patronizing,” she told the 100 or so people in the audience. “It’s racism.”
She also brought us up to date on the oddly ironic legal case the federal government brought against her and her husband, because they had the audacity to purchase two oil and gas leases covering about 1,000 acres in Utah without any intention of drilling. The Bureau of Land Management rejected the purchase, and their appeal is pending.
Terry mission is to be a storyteller, and she closed the evening with two compelling anecdotes. One, which she recounts in the book, involved a harrowing afternoon at Glacier National Park when three forest fires converged and blew past the inn where she and three dozen others huddled inside. The other was a sight she witnessed with her husband, Brooke, at Yellowstone. Coyotes were feeding on a bison carcass in the near distance. A white wolf emerged from the trees and took control of the blood-soaked remains. Soon, after the wolf left, a procession of bison lumbered into view and encircled the fallen creature in what felt like a miraculous ritual of animal spirit. “We are not,” she said, “the only species that loves and grieves.” To Terry Tempest Williams, the large-hearted naturalist, evocative writer and fiercely active defender of nature, the spirits were sending a message: “Hold the ground. Hold the ground. Hold the ground.”