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'Daughter of the West' looks beyond the majesty of national parks

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Grassy Bay Cliffs at sunset.
The Grassy Bay Cliffs rise up out of Sand Point Lake in Voyageurs National Park. Author and activist Terry Tempest Williams forces readers to discover the rich, and sometimes painful, history that surrounds our national parks in her book "The Hour of Land."
Evan Frost | MPR News file
"The Hour of Land"
"The Hour of Land"
Courtesy of publisher.

Terry Tempest Williams has always considered herself a "daughter of the West." She spends most of her time in Utah and Wyoming, but finds herself drawn to a surprising place: Acadia National Park in Maine.

In her book, "The Hour of Land: A Personal Typography of America's National Parks," she writes, "Here is where I come to meet my perfect solitude; where nothing is expected of me."

Williams joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk about the impact of our national parks that goes beyond great scenery.

 To hear the full discussion use the audio player above. 

Here is an excerpt from "The Hour of Land:"

America's national parks were a vision seen through the horrors of war.

On June 30, 1864, not long after the Civil War's most deadly battle, at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant into law, protecting for the first time—for all time—land secured for the future. Yosemite Valley and the ancient, giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove located there were written into law as America's inaugural nature preserve ceded to the state of California, later to be expanded and established as a national park in 1890. Though this war-weary president would never see the glory of El Capitan or the beauty of its reflection in the Merced River, he had experienced them through the images of photographers—Carleton Watkins, Timothy O'Sullivan, and Eadweard Muybridge. These magnificent lands were alive in Lincoln's imagination and he believed they might offer a unifying peace for a divided nation.

The irony was this: Fourteen years prior to the signing of the Yosemite Land Grant, another war had been fought here—the Mariposa Indian War, from 1850 to 1851.

It is a chapter buried in America's history. In the midst of the California Gold Rush, the Mariposa Battalion, a volunteer militia company under the banner of California, had gone to battle against the Ahwahneechee Indians who lived in the Yosemite Valley. The Ahwahneechees resisted the invasion but were eventually defeated. In an act the military leadership deemed respectful, they named the lake where the war was fought after Chief Tenaya, leader of the Ahwahnee, but to the chief, this well-intentioned gesture served as a final humiliation. In the name of Manifest Destiny, Tenaya and his people were removed from their home ground and assigned to a reservation near Fresno, California. This reservation was short-lived as Congress did not ratify any of the eighteen treaties made with California Indians between 1851 and 1852. As a result, Miwoks, Monos, and Yokuts remained living in their traditional homelands with no claim to the land, always on guard against white settlers.

This is a book about relationships inside America's national parks, and as is always the case with relations, the bonds formed, severed, and renewed within these federal lands are complicated. They are also fundamental to who we are as a country. Whether historical or ecological, political or personal, the connective tissue that holds together or tears apart our public lands begins with "We, the People." 

Copyright 2016 by Terry Tempest Williams