As a self-professed national park geek, I read a lot about national parks — pretty much anything I can get my hands on. I tend toward historical accounts, which will not surprise anyone who’s read my posts here. But when it comes to the national parks centennial commemoration, it seems to me contemporary analysis is especially important. The National Park Service faces daunting challenges as it enters its second century, including overcrowding and its attendant effects on front- and backcountry, persistent lack of funding, vandalism, attracting visitors who better reflect the diversity of the country, external and spectacularly misguided pressure to transfer federal public lands into private hands, and an apparent inability or unwillingness to address internal agency problems like sexual harassment and questionable ethical decisions.
Anyone who loves the national parks must acknowledge these issues. Our parks are places of respite, escape, recreation, education, spiritual renewal, and monumental beauty, certainly, but they are also human places that reflect our foibles and flaws. With that in mind, I recommend three books offering different perspectives on the issues facing national parks (click the cover image to learn more about each).
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks – Terry Tempest Williams
The subtitle of this literary exploration of the meaning of national parks tells readers what to expect. This is a deeply personal account of Tempest Williams’s visits to twelve national parks over the course of a year. What do the parks mean to her, and what might they mean to us? She suggests that parks are “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” At the same time, simply by choosing to set aside certain areas, humans have shaped the landscape in ways that early parks proponents could not have imagined. Nonetheless, she concludes, “no matter how much we try to manage and manipulate, orchestrate, or regulate national parks, they will remain as the edge-scapes they are, existing on the boundaries between culture and wildness.”
As always, Tempest Williams’s literary writing demands the reader pay close attention. This is not a fast read. I found I could digest only a chapter or two at a time, then I’d have to go away and process for a while. As someone who tends to zip through books, I appreciated this. It forced me to slow down and think carefully about the issues she raises. I especially liked the variety in the selected parks and in the essays’ forms. Some are straight narratives, others weave in and out of time, at least one is a spare selection of thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, The Hour of Land is a clear-eyed love song to the parks, one that offers realistic paths forward in these complex times.
Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks – Mark Woods
The beginning of Woods’ story will feel comfortably familiar to those of us who spent summer vacations packed into cars, driving to the national parks. For many, those childhood road trips influenced our adult choices in ways we don’t fully understand. Woods sets out to delve into that experience by journeying to twelve national parks (the twelve-parks-in-twelve-months is a popular organization device in centennial books) to try to under why they are so important to us as Americans. He planned to take his mother along to revisit places and feelings central to his youth, but almost before he can get started, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, changing the course of his life and the book. I was impressed by Woods’ ability to seek and find meaning in his experiences in the parks, clouded though they were by grief.
Woods zeroes in on the parks as the intersection of people and place. They are compelling repositories of memory and culture, dynamic and unique to each individual yet understood by all who spend time in them. Woods is a journalist and this comes through in his clear, concise writing. Atop Half Dome, he grumpily observes hordes of people taking selfies or taking advantage of rare cell service in Yosemite. He realizes why he dislikes crowded parks: “It’s not just that I don’t like all the other people. I don’t like the person I become.” I suspect many readers can relate to this frank analysis, which he skillfully employs on himself and on the parks throughout the narrative .
Tales from the Parks – Russell Cahill
This last selection is a memoir of the author’s career in national and state parks, and it does not tackle the thornier issues confronted by Tempest Williams and Woods. Cahill is good storyteller, the type of guy you’d love to have at your campfire spinning tales. His memories are infused with his deep affection for the parks, tempered by the reality of daily life as a ranger and, later in his career, superintendent. His experience reads like a fantasy trip itinerary for park lovers. He started in Yosemite, then moved to Glacier Bay, Katmai, and Haleakala, with an intermezzo in Washington, DC, to help develop National Environmental Policy Act rules. After leaving the Park Service, Cahill served as director of Alaska and California state parks and eventually retired from a position with Washington State Parks.
I met Cahill at Mount Rainier National Park on August 25, 2016, the Park Service’s centennial day. After a morning hike to celebrate the occasion, I headed to Paradise for the park festivities. Park fangirl that I am, I approached Superintendent Randy King and asked for a picture. “Sure,” he said. “Hey, Russ, come take a picture.” Digital commemoration complete, Russ and I introduced ourselves and started a conversation that continued through the celebration. Turns out he lives about ten miles from me in Olympia. I’ve since seen him read from his book at the local library, and he’s as good a storyteller in person as he is on the page. Cahill’s book is an homage to a time when rangers were jacks-of-all-trades (there were, he notes, precious few jills at the time), and it celebrates the skills and knowledge rangers deploy in their work every day. Ever wondered how to get rid of a bear that’s wandered into a park lodge? Cahill’s got a solution.
Although each takes a different approach, all three books are, at their core, optimistic about the national parks. Right now, as we near the end of a brutally negative election season and as we grapple with sometimes distressing news out of our national parks, I found the authors’ hope and love for the parks inspiring. I hope you do too, and I’d love to hear your favorite books about America’s best idea, the national parks.