Terry Tempest Williams explores Americans’ bond with their national parks
Steamboat Springs — Terry Tempest Williams tells the best story about a wolf kill you are ever likely to hear, acknowledging its savagery, and at the same time, finding spiritual meaning in the death of a bison cow.
But that’s what one would expect from an award-winning author who manages the tricky feat of melding environmental activism with poetic phrases.
The author and editor of many books about Americans’ relationships with wild places, Williams spoke to a packed house at the Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs July 28 in support of her newest book, “The Hour of Land: a Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.”
Tempest Williams contemplated the past and future of the National Park Service and the grand landscapes it is entrusted with, describing them as “breathing spaces” for our society and the “closest thing we have to sacred lands.”
She described how generations of her family have visited Grand Teton National Park annually and have regarded it as a place where memories were formed.
If there was one point she wanted to drive home with her audience, it was that when considering the American landscape, “The word ‘we’ must include all of the species that inhabit it.”
“We are not the only species who lives and dreams and loves on the planet,” she said.
Tempest Williams’ story about the death of a bison cow, whose fate it was to be killed and devoured by wolves in the midst of the difficult delivery of a stillborn calf, made the point dramatically.
She and her husband, Brooke Williams, a longtime advocate for the Southern Utah wilderness, were visiting Yellowstone National Park when they awakened before dawn one morning to visit the Lamar Valley on the northern edge of Yellowstone.
Tempest Williams described how, as the morning mist began to rise off the Lamar River, they glimpsed a mound in the distance and soon recognized it as a bison carcass. Two coyotes, a pair of bald eagles and a handful of ravens were feeding on it. A nearby park ranger confirmed it was a wolf kill and described how the weakened bison, struggling to give birth, was taken down within a few minutes by the wolf pack and dealt a sudden, violent death.
“Our hackles rose when the coyotes rose to leave and the eagles vanished,” Tempest Williams recalled. And then, “Out of the lodgepole forest emerged a magnificent white wolf.”
The lone wolf “entered that cavern of bones and for close to an hour cleaned them until they were white,” she said. “When he came out, he was wearing a white bib of blood.”
The wolf soon disappeared into the trees, but Tempest Williams and her husband couldn’t resist returning to the scene just before nightfall for another glimpse of “those gleaming bones.” They observed a herd of between 200 and 300 bison in the near distance but could not have anticipated what they witnessed next. A group of bison broke off from the larger herd and approached the carcass single file.
“They circled her, tightened the circle and nudged her and sniffed her,” Tempest Williams said.
Future of the parks
Answering a question from her audience about the increasing impacts of heavy visitation on America’s national parks, Tempest Williams acknowledged the challenges faced by the under-funded National Park Service. She recalled a conversation with a park ranger in Yosemite National Park, who described the pounds of toilet paper she picked up during a single hike up a trail. But Tempest Williams was also quick to point out that the increasing diversity among park visitors is a postive thing.
In her preparations for writing “Hours on the Land,” she traveled to less-visited parks including Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Great Bend National Park in Texas. They remain among the many places in the National Park system where one can readily find solitude, she said.
Tempest Williams also offered high praise for Routt County’s will to preserve thousands of acres of ranch and farm lands by providing tax dollars to help fund conservation easements.
“Today, when we flew over the spine of the Rocky Mountains (from Iowa), I just wept,” she said. “I felt like I had ruby slippers on. I really have to honor this community. Coming into this valley, you know that this open space is hard-won.”
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