years ago, when my sister died, friends gave me a copy
of Terry Tempest Williams’ book "Refuge,"
which is about the death of her mother, the damage we do
to the natural world, the acceptance of change and the
importance of nature. It is one of more than a dozen
books Williams has written, all of which share themes of
the natural world.
latest is "The Hour of Land," about our
national parks, and I was fortunate enough to chat with
her in late June. She was in China at the time, so our
conversation took place by email and her answers here
are slightly edited for length.
What are you doing in China? And where are you right
We are on a train traveling back to Beijing from Luoyang,
where we visited the Longmen Caves with immense Buddhas
carved out of stone on a hillside along the banks of the
Li River. Many of the Buddhas were destroyed during the
Cultural Revolution and yet, faceless and broken, still
the Buddhas sit.
my window, I see farmers wearing Chinese straw hats bent
over in the fields, many electrical towers and very poor
air quality. We are in China as guests of several
Chinese universities in Shanghai and Beijing to lecture
and conduct workshops on ecocriticism and environmental
How did you choose the parks you wrote about in
"The Hour of Land"?
I selected those I knew well (Grand Teton, Canyonlands);
those I dreamed of seeing for the first time (Big Bend,
Gates of the Arctic); those with difficult histories
(Gettysburg, Alcatraz); and those I had never heard of
like Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. I imagined
them as guests at a dinner party in conversation with
one another: Cesar Chavez National Monument speaking to
Glacier National Park where the Blackfoot Nation would
have something to say to the United Farm Workers.
You are known for unusual structures with your books.
How did you decide on the structure for this one, which
is not straight narrative but includes poetry, stories
The structure was inspired by Jorie Graham’s poem
entitled "WE," first published in the London
Review of Books. Each chapter, each national park, is in
response to a line from that poem.
One of the parks you write about is Theodore Roosevelt
National Park. You write about the damage that fracking
and the oil rush have done, but then you quote your
father, who has a different view. Why did you include
I included my father because he has always included me
in his shared love of the land. Although our politics
could not be more different, our love of wild nature
binds us together.
father, John Tempest, has laid pipe in eight western
states. He would tell you he is "proud of the scars
he has left on the western landscape" so people can
heat their homes and have water to drink from their
taps. He had never been to Theodore Roosevelt National
Park. He was curious about the Bakken oil boom nearby.
We visited both. The juxtaposition between the two
landscapes in North Dakota — one wild, protected, and
the other a boom town that was leaving the land and its
workers shattered — touched him deeply. His point of
view deserves to be heard if we are to understand the
soul of America at this moment in time.
Talk to me about the connections between grief, healing
and the land.
We are earth.
relationship to this beautiful blue planet is
fundamental. Finding beauty in a broken world is
creating beauty in the world we find. Body. Earth. No
I read your question about grief, healing and the land
— the word that comes to mind is perspective. Standing
on the edge of the Grand Canyon, whatever grief we are
carrying, whatever stress we are holding, whatever is
plaguing humanity is absorbed into this magnificent
eroding chasm shaped by wind, water and time.
I can feel the larger circles and cycles of life and my
heart is calmed.
is a profound patience in stones, a willingness to not
only endure change but to trust it — we hold a small
testament to geologic time in the palm of one’s hand.
as a human. Perspective.
morning my friend Li Hua said this: To be brave with
weapons is easy. But to be brave when an injustice is
done to you or when sorrow fills your heart and you do
not choose the path of anger but remain calm — this is
natural world makes us brave. Our hearts remain tender
and we can keep our eyes steady, wide open.
dares us to love once more.
land absorbs our pain. Hands on the Earth, we remember
where the source of our power lies.
is where my joy and my healing are rooted —
can choose to not avert my gaze.
for a moment, my soul is still.