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Western writer fights for the earth

Terry Tempest Williams is an acclaimed writer and advocate for conserving public lands.

Her most recent book, "The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks," offers a collection of essays on the value of national parks, the regenerative power they offer and the need to fight for their preservation against private interests.

Williams will be speaking Thursday at 8 p.m. at Kleinhans Music Hall as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center's acclaimed Babel writers series.

She spoke to The News from her office in the Harvard Divinity School, where she is writer-in-residence.

Q: These aren't good times for the chronically underfunded national park system.

A: Pick your department: Whether it's Scot Pruitt in EPA, Rick Perry in Energy or Ryan Zinke in Interior, they are all in bed with the oil and gas companies. When I wrote the "The Hour of Land," it was under the auspices of a celebratory moment, the centennial of the National Park Service. A year later, it is a lament and a call to action.

I"m really asking the question: What do these national parks mean to the soul of this country? I would argue it is where our collective stories are, and in that sense this book changed me. I though I was writing a book about our national parks. What I realized was I was writing a book about America.

Q: You have described "The Hour of Land" as your most challenging book yet. What inspired you to write it?

A: You can't grow up in the American West and not be surrounded, moved, conflicted and graced by public lands, whether its our national parks and monuments, state parks or wilderness. I've always been grateful for that and it's been heightened by the fact that my family has made their livelihood working on the land, laying natural gas pipe, water lines, sewer lines, fiber optics.

We were raised with a deep sense of connectivity to the natural world, but also with the knowledge that nothing ever is as it appears. I thought, finally, I can write straight to the heart of my concerns about public lands. In everything I have written, I have written around it, hidden in lyrical prose and metaphor.

Q: You wrote "Wilderness is an antidote to the war within ourselves." 

A: You can't help but be moved when you go to a national monument like Cesar Chavez in Keene, Calif. George Washington Carver's home in Missouri or the Stonewall monument, which celebrates the LGBTQ community. I was familiar with the wild part of the park system, but not prepared for its expansiveness. That was particularly so seeing the depth of our cultural histories, which is not just the dominant story of white privilege but the many stories of diverse cultures and identities in place.

Q: In "The Hour of Land," you wrote, "To touch warm granite beds once blanketed by glaciers is both a hard fact and a perversion."

A: It's humbling, it's shattering. It's remembering we are not the only species that lives and breathes on this planet.  You realize it's not if or when, but that the future is here and now.

Q: What do you think of biologist E.O. Wilson's contention in "Half Earth" that half the planet must be set aside to conserve biodiversity for humans and countless other species?  

A: I have enormous respect for Ed Wilson. I saw him not long ago talking about why half the earth must be protected. I think it's a vision we need to embrace, and its a difficult vision.

Q: You live in Utah and Wyoming, hardly bastions of environmental activism. How do you keep your spirits up? 

A: I have never lived anywhere else. That's the way I grew up. You can imagine by surprise at being in Cambridge.

Q: Would you remind repeating how you met your husband? It's a great story.

A: I was working behind the counter at a bookstore and this wild man and a beautiful, radiant woman walked in, an artist I knew. When they came to the counter, that wild man was buying all my favorite books, from Edward Abbey to "Portraits from North American Indian Life" by Edward Curtis to John McPhee to Emily Dickinson.

He turned to the woman and said, "My one dream in life is to own all of the Peterson Field Guides. She turned to him and said, 'That was the dumbest thing I've ever heard.' And without thinking, I said, "I already have them." And he looked up at me, our eyes met and that was it. We were married six months later. I was 19.

Q: Will this be your first visit to Buffalo?

A: My brother married a woman from Buffalo. I have fond memories of going to Woolworth's and to Niagara Falls; it was so cold and I  loved it. I am so excited to return and to be a part of this distinguished literary series that is known all over the country.



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