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'Yellowstone,' 'The Hour of the Land' celebrate, examine America's national parks

David Quammen and Terry Tempest Williams take clear-eyed views of America's national park system.

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The names alone are calling: Acadia, Gates of the Arctic, Grand Teton, Big Bend, Glacier, Yellowstone, Yellowstone, Yellowstone. National parks so gobsmackingly scenic that you know they are Heaven’s door – or the Big House door in the case of Alcatraz Island, which has been left unlocked for years now. You take that deep breath – once you are off the access road, out of the parking lot, and nary a gift shop in sight – something that partakes of both wonder and well-being floods the system.

There are dozens of national parks in the United States. Some are historical/memorial – Gettysburg, the César E. Chavez National Monument, our friend Alcatraz – but most are of the nature-sublime school. They are picture perfect, pitch perfect: “The lark’s on the wing, / The snail’s on the thorn…All’s right with the world.” Not so fast. Yes and no. David Quammen’s Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart and Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of the Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks are in the dissection business. Unsurprisingly, they find the essence of sublime. They also find the rot that both fed and feeds the sublime. Everything has to eat, and everyone has an opinion about what should and shouldn’t be eaten.

National parks may be destinations for us tourists, but in fact they are borderlands. Borderlands, by nature, are haunted, beguiling, and fraught. Political borderlands are a case in point, and so are the cultural/physiographic borderlands of parks. Yellowstone is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But that ecosystem, which sounds so vast, is “an island in many respects,” writes Quammen, evoking the island biogeography of Robert H MacArthur and Edmund O. Wilson, “an ecological island, surrounded by a sea of human impact. It’s an isolated landscape.” Species preserved by it include grizzly bear, elk, bison, and especially wolf, and “when they step off the island, they generally die.” Bang. The park is one thing, he writes, but it needs its surrounds, the great lowland ranches that have served as a buffer and wintering grounds for many of the park’s animals. Today, those ranches are disappearing into sprawling suburbs and vacation homes. This is bad news for the GYE: the “creeping crisis” of habitat loss and migration-corridor bisection.

But all parks must contend with this cultural “where civilization and wildness meet,” writes Williams, “‘the border area where two patches meet that have different ecological composition’….These edges create lines of tension.” She is 2,600 miles away from Yellowstone in Acadia Nation Park, Maine – which is, in fact, an island. This wildness is very much on Williams and Quammen’s minds; in many national parks it is a paradoxical state, a cultivated wild: “wilderness contained, nature under management, wild animals obliged to abide by human rules,” or there may be retribution. Humans have left their fingerprints everywhere, from wholesale population displacement – the abomination of American Indian removal – to the greed of the Northern Pacific Railroad that was instrumental to creating Yellowstone, to the decisions of which resident animals were welcome and which were not.

“Can we preserve … a gloriously inhospitable landscape, full of predators and prey, in which nature is still allowed to be red in tooth and claw? Can that sort of enclave be reconciled with human demands and human convenience?” asks Quammen. Wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes got the thumbs down; there was a fatwa issued on skunks; grizzlies were hunted until the spectacle of their feasting at dumps pumped up tourist dollars. Griz became a cuddly, like dolphins and pandas. But bison and grizzlies are not housebroken: Lance Crosby ran afoul of a grizzly and her cubs last year. “The sow, after killing and partially eating him (not necessarily in that order) and allowing the cubs to eat too, cached his remains beneath dirt and pine duff.” Hunted to extinction, wolves had to be reintroduced to Yellowstone, to great fanfare and opprobrium. “Occasionally they preyed on livestock … reawakening among ranching communities a vehement wolf-hatred that had lain dormant for decades, like a deep, sore memory of a blood feud.” And wolves are wanderers. Border? What border? Bang.

Williams and Quammen are crack writers of different stripes, though both are tough, curious, and possess a razory sense of humor. Both know when to get on a high horse, and when to get off. Williams makes a “poetic crossing” through a dozen parks, monuments, seashores, and recreation areas in "The Hour of the Land," a poetic crossing, she quotes from Edward Hirsch, that “follows the arc from physical motion to spiritual action … into another type of consciousness, a more heightened reality. It is a move beyond the temporal, a visionary passage.” The greatness here lies in her spirit’s palpability. Williams’ hunger for intimate engagement with nature has found her in tight corners, learning “early on we live by wild mercy,” with the scar from 136 stitches running down her forehead to prove it. Unless it kills you, physical pain is nothing compared to fear, and neither compares to the experience when “fear moves out of panic toward wonder.”

Quammen – though he is more the teacher you always prayed for: the artful exegete – too, has felt the experience. Out tagging wolves with Dick Smith, who leads the wolf project in Yellowstone, Quammen closes on a darted wolf, “groggy and helpless, but he was magnificent. ‘Look at those eyes,’ Smith said. ‘That’s wild. This is what our world is trying to do away with. Right here, that look. We want to keep that look. That’s what Yellowstone is all about.’” (The photographs that accompany Quammen’s book are so startling, they appear to be computer-generated images, but they are not. There is a reason National Geographic is known for its photography: photographers blessed with talent, patience, and good fortune. The photographs in Williams’ book, fewer but no less arresting, are in moody black-and-white.)

Williams burns with her convictions: how American Indian reservations and national parks – surprise!! – walk hand in hand; to the schizophrenia of killing a bison to save an elk, or killing a bear if you trespass its personal space; that “wilderness is not a place of privilege, but rather a place of probity, where the evolutionary processes of life are free to continue”; or the Bureau of Land Management does the bidding for the energy companies. Viewshed? What viewshed? Quammen introduces us to governmental ignorance and corruption, and general human folly as regards to practices within the park (like fire suppression), like a quiet assassin, using a thin-bladed knife rather than a shotgun. The two approaches, in these four hands, work their magic on our awareness through zest, heat, and cool.

"Yellowstone" and "The Hour of Land" are rich in history – well-versed history and too often a grim history – and brimming with vignettes of the writer’s personal experiences. Neither book is a eulogy, nor a dramatic song of praise. Both are cleared-eyed as to prospects, both are protective, and both have celebrated Edward Abbey, whom Williams references for his “civil disobedience, or more to the point, wild obedience – a guide to finding one’s whole self in relation to wildness,” a nod of “‘democratic vistas’ that your brother Walt Whitman urges us to embrace.”

This park idea – “confused, inchoate, in some ways cynical at the start,” writes Quammen, “was a good idea that has gotten better, a big idea that has gotten bigger over time.” But national parks cannot be diminished or encroached upon, though the BLM (Abbey called it the Bureau of Livestock and Mining) may try. “When habitat is constrained as a small area,” like in selling off those large ranches around Yellowstone, “animal populations remain small, and small populations tend to wink out, over time, owing to accidental factors such as disease, fire, hard weather, and bad luck,” Quammen notes. The answer is more space, more habitat diversity, more life. “Bigger is better.” How odd and rare to hear those words applied to the environment, and how sane.

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