The Hour of Land, 9.16
The Hour of Land, A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, by Terry Tempest Williams
“Liberty is the right to question everything.” Ai Weiwei
“Humility in the face of humanity allows us to see ourselves as “one species among many,” not the indomitable center of human-developed world.” -Terry Tempest Williams
You may have noted that 2016 is the United States National Parks Centennial. Now encompassing fifty-nine protected areas, the National Parks are one of the United States great ideas and national treasures. In celebration of one hundred years, culture production is happening throughout 2016, including for example, the Eastman Museum’s usual suspects exhibition, Photography and America’s National Parks and the eye-popping IMAX movie, National Parks Adventure, an exhilarating celebration of the National Parks, with the subtext of a lifestyle and car advertisement.
In Terry Tempest latest book, The Hour of Land, A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, Williams has written a book about the “relationships inside America’s national parks.” As the title suggests, Williams writes about the dozen parks she visits for the book, often with a highly personal voice that weaves family, history, and memory into an engaging, and at times intimate portrait of her relationships to both place and people.
Of the twelve essays, each representing one of the parks she visits, William’s employs a varied approach in her essays, both in terms of content, and stylistic form. For example, several of her essays are an education in and of themselves, engaging with topics ranging from history, environmental policy, and politics. In her essay, Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania, William’s dives deep into our nations bloody civil war. Her writing is both a history lesson on the infamous military battles in addition to ongoing interpretation of the civil war, which, for example is expressed by one volunteer park guide as a war about “the big man telling the little man what to do.” Other essays are written in the form of letters and correspondences, and yet other essays read like travel literature and even a love poem.
The Hour of Land can be read on multiple levels. Ranging from an engaging read on the history and motivations for the national parks, to a call for preservation and environmental stewardship, each essay opens up yet another vantage point and conversational perspective. I connected to William’s essays on multiples levels, ranging from living in the Pacific Northwest and my proximity to many of the parks she writes about, to a reverence for nature as a kind religious experience including as a father, artist, and environmentalist.
The Hour of Land includes selections of iconic photographers curated by Frish Brandt. William’s writes, “Their images create an emotional landscape alongside the physical one explored through each park in this book. By touching the essence of place, another kind of poetic crossing is made.” She later writes, “While the politics of the book are often charged, the photography resides in a kind of tranquil celebration that on one hand will comfort the casual observer.” While the photographs are almost entirely landscape in nature, the book does includes Richard Avedon’s portrait of Cesar Chavez, which is an important visual expression of the dance she negotiates in terms of social justice issues and the environment.
In the essay entitled Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, Williams delves into the history and culture of Alcatraz Island, which is engagingly juxtaposed with the exhibition, entitled @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. William’s thoughtfully visits Ai Weiwei’s Alcatraz exhibition and weaves an important analysis of his art works in respect to social justice, human rights, and freedom of expression. Using the platform of art, Ai Weiwei is a dynamic spokesman for free expression and liberty. Imprisoned and censored himself in China, his words and exhibition are powerful statement that touches on a few of the Hour of Land’s central tenants. Ai Weiwei writes, “All aesthetic judgments we are making are moral choices,” which Terry Tempest Williams follows up with “All environmental choices we make are moral choices.”