In commemoration of the centennial of the National Park Service, Williams (When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, 2012, etc.) explores 12 diverse parks.
There are few contemporary nonfiction writers who can capture the essence of the American wilderness landscape as eloquently and intimately as Williams. Noted for writing about the American West, her distinctive prose style is capable of conveying a deep spiritual dimension within the physical setting. This is very much in evidence in her latest book, a broadly ambitious and deeply impassioned collection of essays on a select group of settings within the national park system. Her writing expands beyond recreational parks to include battlefields, monuments, and seashores. Williams reflects on personal ties to locations such as Grand Teton and stretches across the country to Arcadia National Park, where she discovers familial roots going back several generations. Other locations, such as Big Bend National Park and Alcatraz Island, offer first-time encounters. Williams provides well-documented histories of many of these parks, yet a more consistent thread running throughout the book touches on the rapid changes incurred in recent decades, primarily related to the destructive effects of climate change or by the interference and conflicting interests of the federal government and the oil industry. The author heartbreakingly examines the Gulf Islands National Seashore and the mass devastation caused by the 2010 BP oil spill. Williams’ message for preserving and respecting these sights is heartfelt, but she has a tendency to occasionally overstate her message, and her calls to action sometimes veer toward rants. Her writing is most powerful and convincing when she allows her subtle and often sublime reflections to shine forth: “No matter how much we try to manage and manipulate, orchestrate, or regulate our national parks, they will remain as the edge-scapes they are existing on the boundaries between culture and wildness—improvisational spaces immune to the scripts of anyone.”
An important, well-informed, and moving read for anyone interested in learning more about America’s national parks.