Joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua trees. Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

It’s more than synchronistic that Terry Tempest Williams appeared at the Mount Baker Theater in Bellingham for a talk on the value of public lands, “breathing spaces in a country that increasingly holds its breath.”

I say synchronistic because I have this urgent dream to visit all our National Parks, not just the ones I return to again and again. And Tempest Williams came to share her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, described by publisher Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a literary celebration of our national parks, an exploration of what they mean to us and what we mean to them… Part memoir, part natural history, and part social critique, The Hour of Land is a meditation and a manifesto on why wild lands matter to the soul of America.”

Among the impassioned essays in this book are photographs from Lee Friedlander to Sally Mann to Sebastião Salgado.

It was a special, and I mean special, event co-sponsored by Village Books and North Cascades Institute.

I’m not sure how to attribute the following quotes, which I took from VB’s and NCI’s websites. I believe they are Tempest Williams’s own words and possibly appear on her book jacket.

“For years, America’s national parks have provided public breathing spaces in a world in which such spaces are steadily disappearing.”

“By definition, our national parks in all their particularity and peculiarity show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect. They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities. Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.”

From beginning to end, Tempest Williams, her vivid language and her presence, transported me. Several times I was brought to tears, listening to her experiences. One story, which is narrated in her book, she described a visit to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley with her husband. While there, this is what they witnessed:

“A silhouette of coyotes feasting on a bison carcass, surrounded by bald eagles and ravens, appeared in our binoculars. As the light grew stronger the coyotes became nervous and left. The eagles flew. The ravens vanished. A large gray wolf entered.

Morning light illuminated the bison body, now more bones than flesh. We watched the wolf disappear into a red cavern of ribs. He emerged stained. In the several hours we watched, the wolf’s stomach expanded with each mouthful of bison ripped from the scaffolding of bones until he stopped eating, looked over his shoulder, sniffed, and walked back into the woods.

At dusk, we returned to the Lamar Valley. We wondered whether the wolves might be back on the carcass. Instead, two coyotes were picking on the bones covered by a buffalo robe. The coyotes disappeared into the the shadows with the last light of day.

An indigo sky deepened. A mile away, a herd of a hundred bison or more grazed unconcerned. Seven left and walked single file toward the remains of the mother bison. They circled her twice, sniffed her, nudged her body, and tightened their circle as they lowered their heads. They stayed with her until twilight. Then the bison left as they came, walking single file back toward the herd–save one lone bull who stayed behind.”

Her conclusion? “We are not the only creatures on this plant who love.”

“We are” she said, “but one species among many.”

Raven, Joshua Tree National Park
Raven, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

“Humility is born in wilderness,” she said. The lesson, of course, is that we must be good stewards and preserve what we can of the wild.

Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park
Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.
Split Rock, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Several moments of silence followed her closing words. A bow to the power of her message. . . and to the truth of it.

“Nature,” she said, “is the pathway to peace.”

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