The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

In this phenomenal exploration of U.S. National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams turns her smart, poetic eye to place, history, ecology, the future and how we relate to one another.

hour of land

Celebrated conservationist Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge; When Women Were Birds) commemorates the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service with The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. In 12 chapters, she explores 12 parks, their histories and futures. Ecology forms a natural overarching theme, but Williams’s topics are variously personal, global and political. The places she visits range from Alaska to Maine to south Texas, while her subjects span still broader ground: biodiversity and water shortages; suicide and hopelessness; continuing unrest in U.S. relations with Native Americans; climate change; political prisoners from around the globe; and the legacy of the Civil War. Her writing is poetic, passionate and unexpected.

In each chapter, Williams describes a visit to a specific national park, and then investigates the place and her experience there, sometimes directly through narrative storytelling and sometimes metaphorically. She begins with Grand Teton National Park, where her family has often returned over the decades and generations. The history of that park’s founding and the establishment of the Parks system melds with her family story: “Our national parks are memory palaces where our personal histories reside.” With her father, who spent his career laying pipe for industry and development, and a park superintendent, she tours Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Together they birdwatch and debate the balance between fossil fuel extraction and conservation. In Acadia National Park, Williams muses that parks may be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” She finds Gettysburg National Battlefield representative of sustained resentments, pain and violence, and at Effigy Mounds National Monument, she encounters cultural heritage and controversy. To escape the pain of Gettysburg and Effigy Mounds, she heads into the desert, to Big Bend National Park.

Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska offers escape from a personal tragedy; Gulf Islands National Seashore, in Florida and Mississippi, reveals that the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill remain, stinking and stinging. Williams visits the exhibit by artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area; the recently established Cesar E. Chavez National Monument; and, of course, her home landscape of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. In Glacier National Park, where the Tempest family tries to celebrate a birthday by retracing old steps, they are instead nearly killed by in a forest fire that sweeps over the chalet where they lodge. In these travels, Williams finds beauty and distress over the future, and opines, “We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are.”

By turns sad, despairing, and hopeful, even thrilled in the presence of natural beauty, The Hour of Land is emotive, intelligent and well traveled. It is only right that Williams should celebrate the Park Service’s centennial with such a remarkable collection of wisdom and scintillating lines.


This review originally ran in the May 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 long views.

guest review: Great Bear Wild by Ian McAllister, from Pops

I reviewed this book very briefly, for a gift review several years back. Now, here’s Pops.

great bearMcAllister writes eloquently & sincerely about this amazing place, with confident familiarity from living there for decades; he was a wonderful guide & companion for the all-too-brief time of reading.

The region he describes is also subject of several other books worth mentioning – and reading.

The Fish in the Forest, with its detailed explication of salmon + forest ecosystem interdependence, is significantly based on the research of Tom Reimchen, which documented bears’ role in spreading nutrients from salmon into temperate rainforest. Reimchen’s extensive observation and data collection was based in the Great Bear wilderness.

The Last Great Sea by Terry Glavin (2000) is an exceptional survey of the geologic and human history of the North Pacific basin, from Japan to Bering Sea to California’s Bay Area. Learning of North America’s temperate rainforest in this context illuminates how literally unmatched it is on earth; Great Bear represents the best surviving enclave of this precious treasure.

The Golden Spruce includes both factual narrative and cultural backstory revolving around McAllister’s Great Bear region, with a stunning impact that lays bare the tragic contradictions implicit in human impacts and threats in such a place.

Threats to coastal waters from increased fossil fuel tanker traffic are a prominent theme in McAllister’s telling; beyond that, there were persistent threats from continued logging, hunting and general human expansion in the region.

However, there have been significant developments on these fronts even since the 2014 publication.

The Enbridge tar sands pipeline project was at first permitted by the conservative Harper government. Then in 2015 Justin Trudeau was elected PM, and this year his government quickly denied the permit. Such battles are never “won”; but depressed crude prices are driving tar sands closures, global pressures against further oil extraction are growing and Trudeau faces constant scrutiny to transition Canada away from Harper’s legacy to become an international clean energy leader.

At nearly the same time this year, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was finally signed after decades of maneuvering & negotiation between BC, Tribes, logging companies and non-profits like Sierra Club, Greenpeace & ForestEthics. The Agreement is broadly depicted as welcome preservation for the region.

Yet, even with that consensus some regrets are inevitably emerging, and McAllister is among those voices. Although the agreement protects 85% of the rainforest from logging, the 15% remaining is in coastal lowlands with remaining old-growth forest – the largest trees; these should be preserved. And although the Agreement “ends all bear hunting”, what it really does is grandfather bear hunting licenses so that hunts will continue at existing levels, at even greater value now, for the foreseeable future.

As with most such efforts since John Muir arrived in California in 1868, conservation has meant compromise; and when humans make concessions on behalf of natural resources, some of those resources are lost. After more than 150 years of this well-intentioned horse-trading, there is little left to bargain away.

Agreed; this is at least a 9.

(Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover is set in BC, as well.)

A different perspective, with background on the political situation. Let me just weigh in to say PICTURES! This is a collection of deeply gorgeous photographs, as well, and for that reason as well is not to be missed.

Thanks, Pops.

Teaser Tuesdays: Coyote America: A Natural & Supernatural History by Dan Flores

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Coyotes seem to make consistently interesting reading – for me at least – whether Native American mythology or the natural history that is handled here.

coyote america

I thought I’d share one of the fascinating tidbits I learned. Coyotes interbreed quite avidly with red wolves in the southern U.S.; not so the gray wolves of the West.

Mech also points out that killing coyotes, not mating with them, is intrinsic to gray wolf behavior. Julie Young of the Predator Research Facility even told me that in experiments there, coyotes inseminated with gray wolf sperm actually killed the puppies they bore.

They are quite clear on their preferences, it seems. That makes sense to me, considering the Trickster Coyote I knew as a child from books like Coyote &. Stay tuned…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Hill by Jean Giono, trans. by Paul Eprile

This slim French novel in a new translation pits humankind against the natural world in moody, lyrical prose.

hill

Hill, Jean Giono’s first novel, won the Prix Brentano in 1929 and has been newly translated into English by Paul Eprile. Focused on the conflict between humans and nature in a tiny French village, the story’s imagery and atmosphere offer a thrilling, disturbing, visceral experience in an unassuming package.

A small Provençal hamlet known as the Bastides Blanches (the White Houses), or simply the Bastides, has been for some time slouching back toward a state of nature. In these crumbling houses now live four families comprising a dozen residents–plus one, a mute vagabond they call Gagou, “who throws off the reckoning.” The eldest resident, an old man named Janet, falls ill, takes to his bed, and here the troubles begin: an ill omen is noted, the town’s water supply runs dry, and the surrounding landscape takes on a sinister cast. Janet begins to speak in tongues, and “in the old man’s talk there are chasms where untold powers rumble.” The men of the village meet to strategize as the natural world encircling the Bastides advances.

Hill runs just over 100 pages, but its impact is powerful. Giono sketches his characters sparingly. The character of Gagou presents ominous questions that are left unanswered: Are his differences malevolent, or merely another force of nature? The individualities of human characters are not the point; instead, this story is about the shape of the world, the breadth and agency of nature independent of humankind. Eprile’s translation emphasizes language and a brooding tone. The result is a curious, intriguing novel of wind, earth, water and fire, both threatening and luminous.


This review originally ran in the April 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 purple foams.

guest review: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant, from Pops

Some of you will recall that I enjoyed John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children. So I am of course interested in his creative nonfiction, as well. Here’s Pops to fill us in.

golden spruce

On its face, this is the true tale of a man who in 1997 secretly felled the genetically & culturally distinct Golden Spruce at the north end of Haida Gwaii – Queen Charlotte islands of British Columbia. But to disclose this shorthand version is not to spoil the narrative, for it only raises questions: Why was this such a compelling and violent act? Why did he do it? Can it be justified? Can we find wider meaning in the tragedy? And there are more.

Vaillant only gradually provides the tale’s factual skeleton, which reveals no satisfying answers in itself. More significantly, he offers us the chance to learn: about the Pacific northwest temperate rainforest that is so special on this earth; about the people who have inhabited the region for untold millennia, with an oral history linked to special places – and trees; about the waves of outsider “discoverers” that washed on meager shores to harvest the land’s natural riches; and about the logging sub-culture that, while professing its love of trees, is dependent on a timber economy that to this day acts to diminish the forest ecosystem while serving an insatiable global market.

It is only after five chapters of grounding that we first meet the disturbing – and disturbed – character, Grant Hadwin. Yet Vaillant continues to serve up nuance and insight as the narrative unfolds in bits and we wrestle with those questions. His tone suggests a colloquial & confident familiarity with facts – a reflection, no doubt, of both keen research and personal observation by this BC-based author. A fine storyteller, his voice is largely dispassionate and unsentimental, floating above temptations to judge or conclude. As literature is a human realm, one naturally expects telltales of an author’s values; here they are mere wisps – candid, balanced, welcome.

Where some details of Hadwin’s mystery are not known, Vaillant does not embellish or needlessly speculate. There are end notes, but few and spare. It is revealing that the story brings the author to mention Ted Kaczynski – but then also Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Scarlet Pimpernel and others. While citing some authority on obvious questions of Hadwin’s mental state, these are not hyper-analyzed. This is refreshing candor consistent with Vaillant’s approach to our limits of understanding.

Indeed, uncertainty of both man & nature is part of our landscape in this saga, as is myth. We are drawn in and encouraged to embrace it. Both natural & human elements of the story’s terrain are informed by the depths of Haida thought and oral history. Vaillant deftly wrestles with the challenges involved, e.g. western “rational” thought ill-equipped for such murkiness; and the tenuous continuity of oral history in a culture nearly extinguished by disease and genocide. He notes: “Time and events are clearly elastic in this version of the story… It is exactly this willingness to host the implausible that makes the islands and their surroundings so extraordinary.”

Logging is treated to a similar reflective treatment, involving our conflicted history of rich benefits, wanton destruction and tragic social dependence. For not the first time, we must glance in a mirror: “in this world, a certain tolerance for moral and cognitive dissonance is necessary.” This account reminds us that, like other chronicles of exhausted natural resources, logging created a culture that also produces human victims, “expendable canaries in the coal mine of resource extraction,” with collective social consequences.

Vaillant’s generous background-telling is no mere regional history or delivery of anecdotes; it can be a gift for those willing to receive – an unusual opportunity to crawl inside forest richness, stretch for cultural understanding, examine our own heritage in new ways and view events from the eyes of others. And the accumulating awareness is not always comfortable, in the way that keen perception often is not: sometimes painfully intimate, sometimes achingly universal, often irresolute and incomplete.

Each chapter opens with a quotation. One is from William Blake: “A fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees.”

In the end we must recognize this tale is about a tree, not a man. Our young civilization still has much to learn, in the limited time remaining to act; and it is often original cultures and nature’s wonder doing the teaching. In the context of deep time and an infinitely special place, this man’s story is brief and largely complete: he lived, he acted, and he is gone. But as both Haida cultural lore and our lauded science both suggest, the tree’s story reaches far back in time, is inescapably interwoven with the place, and stretches well into the future beyond our knowing.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Terry Tempest Williams is as wonderful as ever. As I explore her work, I keep returning to her lesser-known Pieces of White Shell as my personal preference, but The Hour of Land is a new favorite.
hour of land
In these essays, she applies her wise, poetic eye to place, history, ecology, the future, and how we relate to one another, resulting of course in phenomenal writing. Naturally I turn to her chapter on Big Bend for today’s teaser, a single line I loved.

Ocotillo is a green withheld in winter.

Keep your eyes open for this treasure to come in June.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

mink riverMy second Brian Doyle novel (following Martin Marten, which was one of the best I read in 2015) was also outstanding. Mink River shares much of the subject matter and setting: it takes place in a rather larger small town on the Oregon coast, with a cast of delightful people and animals, all of whom make up a web and community of life and values in which human and nonhuman creatures carry equal weight. It covers an enormous swath of life experiences, truly profound in that sense, but also humble in its small physical scale: a few families and friends form the core of this novel, which is both quaint and all-encompassing.

Centrally, Worried Man and Cedar are the two members of the Department of Public Works in the fictional town of Neawanaka. Worried Man has a wife, Maplehead; a daughter, No Horses; an son-in-law, Owen; and a grandson, Daniel, whose hair forms three braids, of red and black and brown. Cedar does not know his personal history. He remembers nothing before the day Worried Man and Maplehead pulled him out of the river where he was drowning. They make a motley family circle, of which Cedar and Owen are as much a part as the other, blood relations. There is also a mean old man who beats his children, now just the younger two boys, as the elder boy and girl are adults who fish for a living. A young couple learning about each other. An upstanding policeman and his wife, who struggle to express their feelings for one another. The doctor; the old nun; and of course Moses, the crow, who the nun taught to speak and who is capable of carrying on quite complex philosophical discussions with his human friends. (Crows are very smart, you know.)

The family at the center provides a lovely blend of cultures – the indigenous Salish people represented by Worried Man and Maplehead, and the Irish, by Owen. Worried Man and his son-in-law each speak some of their people’s respective dying tongues, and both pay homage to what that represents; both make efforts to pass their knowledge along. Both cultures also offer a legacy of love of stories, which Daniel inherits. As Owen relates, while telling of his grandfather who survived the Hunger in Ireland:

You can eat stories if you have to. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water, you’ll be all right, he would say…

Sometimes, he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red…

You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories.

A lovely quotation, and of course fitting for a novel about everything in life.

As well as these human cultures, like Martin Marten, this story addresses the bond between human and nonhuman cultures, as best embodied by Moses the philosopher-crow. Bears and birds and the river itself are given voices and agency, although not strictly personified: the bear is not a person at all, but a bear.

Doyle continues to exhibit spellbinding, lyrical language, and his sentences can flow and flow and flow on, as if they will eventually reach the sea. This book was very enjoyable to listen to, read by narrator David Drummond. It was a trade-off: probably I missed some nuance and detail in favor of that lovely sound. But I felt this was a worthwhile trade-off. Sound is one of Doyle’s great strengths – but so is story. He has it all. Loveable, complex, diverse characters, realistic setting, sweeping large plot, philosophy, and poetry, all in one. Absolutely recommended as ever.


Rating: 8 shared bottles of beer.
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