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Celebrating Public and Wild Lands

Julia Champtaloup By Julia Champtaloup Published on August 16, 2016

What does it mean to shape our landscape and be the architects of our future? Author Terry Tempest Williams begs us to contemplate these topics with some urgency in her new book The Hour of Land as she explores how policy makers are presently aiding the destruction of our natural landscape and precious natural resources, while at the same time ignoring climate science, further extinction of species, disappearing glaciers and our diminishing energy resources.

The Hour of Land could perhaps inspire the American population in its hour of decision with the upcoming Presidential election if it was entitled The Hour of OUR Land. Williams has composed a literary celebration of American’s national parks and wilderness that is at the same time a personal memoir and a political and social critique.

In revisiting the history of public parklands and wilderness in the United States, Williams reminds us of the incredible riches that were recognized by writers and explorers such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. In visiting 12 parks around the US, including rediscovering some of the parks she frequented growing up, Williams has created an important manifesto in the form of a collection of essays that serves as part contemplation and part commentary on the vital role of national parks and wilderness historically, and into the future.

The majestic landscapes that were brought to life by photographer Ansel Adams and painter Frederick Church inspired many Americans but also Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt to protect the incredible landscapes of Yosemite and Yellowstone. Williams documents the history of political activism that was so crucial in bringing about the movement for protection of natural lands and resources. She also highlights some of the present day politics leading to further destruction and ignorance of those same protected lands.

Current political and ecological issues facing national parks are highlighted in visits to Big Bend National Park in Texas, the Arctic National Park in Alaska, Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, among others. Surprisingly, national monuments such as the Civil War battlefields in Gettysburg, Virginia and Alcatraz Island are also under threat.

Revisiting and documenting humanity’s negative impact on nature features prominently in Williams’ writing. She recounts the distress she witnesses at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where lands are surrounded by shale oil drilling. Visiting the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi she observes the effects first hand of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. After witnessing the catastrophic affect of the oil spill in the area, Williams later observes regeneration and renewal, evidence of nature’s resilience, even under the most dire conditions and continued abuse.

The Hour of Land beckons us to heighten our awareness around our relationship with nature. With statements like “The call of the wild is not what you hear but what you follow” and “The time has come for acts of reverence and restraint on behalf of the Earth. We have arrived at the hour of land” the author reiterates a sense of urgency surrounding the issues related in the book.

This book is also a call to action, asking us to rethink what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to the protection of our public lands. Just as Humboldt, Darwin and Thoreau observed even in their time, climate change, extinction and continued destruction of our natural environment are perhaps avoidable but must be addressed.

Williams also challenges us to see ourselves as one species among many, just as Alexander von Humboldt observed after his travels to Latin America (1799-1801). Humboldt was the first to bring a holistic perception to modern science and created the concept of ecosystem. He already knew what would later be the basis of our thinking about man’s relationship with nature and our planet: it is interdependent based on reciprocal relationships and has to be treated with respect and intelligence.

Presently, Williams encourages us to contemplate how we can join together to ensure public and wild lands remain available and accessible for future generations. Her book is almost a spiritual guide leading us on a journey to discover the deeper meaning of what wilderness means to us or more importantly: what it should mean to us.

Sadly, the current American political landscape and community sentiment is dotted with fear and insecurity. Engagement with deeper issues is replaced by sound bites and superficial policies. As our political landscape closes in, we need to reconnect with the larger world beyond ourselves. Williams stresses: ”Our national parks are our burning bush of identities”.

Julia is a Sydney based writer covering sustainable living, innovation, books and art.

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