“A history of subversion”: An excerpt from Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book

“César E. Chávez National Monument” from The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.

The sound of running water in the midst of drought is unnerving, a drought so brutal the curled leaves of the great oaks of California are crackling in the hot breezes. The soil is dry. Grasses are brittle. I hardly dare breathe for fear of starting a fire.

 

Brooke and I are visiting the César E. Chávez National Monument, established by President Barack Obama in 2012 in Keene, California. It is high noon, hot and dusty save for the sanctuary of this Peace Garden with its fountain flowing in the central plaza.

César Chávez, the great labor organizer and activist on behalf of farmworkers, is buried in this garden of roses with a stone-carved statue of St. Francis of Assisi in one corner and La Virgen de Guadalupe in the other. Chávez lived and worked in this community of Nuestra Señora Reina de La Paz located in the Tehachapi Mountains, 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Together with Dolores Huerta, he founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW), to secure basic human rights and fair wages for the largely Latino community of laborers.

His grave is simple. A cross made of barn wood with a welded crucifix stands behind a slightly raised piece of granite bearing the carved words:

CESAR ESTRADA CHAVEZ

1927–1993

Offerings have been left: a small American flag; two eagle feathers that hang on each arm of the cross; a weathered Mexican flag; one red rose; and at the base of the gravestone, a bobble-headed mariachi figure playing the guitar. Next to the toy musician is a pair of red and black clippers used to cut grapes.

César Chávez, head of the United Farm Workers Union, speaks at the headquarters for the state Agriculture Labor Relations Board board in 1975. Chávez was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927, and died in 1993.
Associated Press

These 187 acres of rolling hills were once a rock quarry, but in 1918, they became the site of the Stony Brook Retreat, a sanitarium for those suffering from tuberculosis. The hospital could accommodate 55 adults, while next door, in the “preventatorium,” there was room for 44 children. After Kern County shut the sanitarium down in 1967, locals believed the place was haunted.

Chávez didn’t see it that way. He saw it as a perfect gathering place for the United Farm Workers –– a place where they could organize and live in peace. The association had outgrown its national headquarters, Forty Acres, in Delano, California, and had been looking for the right piece of property. When word reached César that Kern County was planning to auction off these 187 acres in the remote high desert of Tehachapi, close to Delano and Bakersfield, it sounded promising. Representatives from the UFW asked the county officers to show the land to them. The county refused.

César solicited the help of his friend, Edward Lewis, a movie producer from Los Angeles. They hatched a plan: Edward Lewis would ask to see the land as an “interested party,” accompanied by César’s younger brother, Richard, posing as Lewis’ chauffeur. The men returned with the report that the site was perfect, with a number of houses, office buildings, and a large community center already in place, ready to be renovated and reinhabited.

The plan worked. Kern County sold the property to Edward Lewis for $231,500. The state of California was stunned when Edward Lewis then turned around and sold the parcel to the United Farm Workers for $131,000. The UFW named it Nuestra Señora Reina de La Paz, and it became indeed a place of peace, a refuge not only for César and Helen Chávez and their eight children, but for many other members of the movement. It was both a home and a sanctuary for strategizing, organizing, and keeping the dream of farmworkers’ rights alive.

The history of our national parks and monuments is a history of subversion, shaped by individuals with either too much money, like John D. Rockefeller Jr., and held suspect in the cow town of Jackson, Wyoming, or by the too poor and too political migrant farmworkers led by César Chávez, working the fields of reform in California.

On Oct. 8, 2012, Obama designated the land at La Paz as one of our newest national monuments. The proclamation reads:

At La Paz, members of the farmworker movement celebrated such victories as the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first Federal law recognizing farmworkers’ collective bargaining rights. At La Paz, the UFW grew and expanded from its early roots as a union for farmworkers to become a national voice for the poor and disenfranchised.

Walking through the village, the spirit of collaboration remains among the empty buildings that once housed the conversations of struggle and reform. Emaciated California ground squirrels are barely moving in this land of little water, and I am having a hard time separating the welfare of farmworkers from the welfare of the biotic community who lives here now. I watch a black phoebe drink from the basin of the fountain and listen to the sound of water in this oasis surrounded by parched land.

César Chávez’ mother, Juanita, gives him a drink of water as he ends a fast on Jan. 3, 1968, in Delano, California, while Robert Kennedy and Chavez’s wife, Helen, look on.
George Ballis/The Image Works

Penance; paying penance. Chávez believed in penance, in part because he never felt he’d done enough. He led boycotts, strikes, and hunger strikes — gestures used to bring about greater justice and attention to the plight of the farmworkers, who were demeaned and used, who battled desperately low wages and exposure to pesticides. Leaning against an oak tree for shade, I can’t help but confront my own ignorance regarding these issues. I remember the grape boycott, but little else. It was not my struggle. That was my privilege. Now, I see it differently. Acts of injustice undermine all of us. The privacy of hypocrisy is corrosive.

What if our national parks and monuments became places of conscience instead of places of consumption? How many more T-shirts can we buy, let alone wear, that advertise where we’ve been? How many different forms of recreation must we create to assuage our adrenaline addictions, from wing suits to pack rafts to rollerblades? Is it not enough to return home with a fresh idea gleaned while walking in new territory? As I have been visiting our national parks, I keep asking myself: Who are we becoming?

In the end, it may be solitude that the future will thank us most for conserving — the kind of solitude born out of stillness, the stillness César Chávez and Dolores Huerta held for themselves at La Paz in the midst of their revolution. It is the kind of stillness that can still be found in each of our national parks, where a quieting of the soul inspires creative acts.

The Organic Act is the United States federal law that established the National Park Service as an agency of the United States Department of the Interior. The act was signed into law 100 years ago by President Woodrow Wilson; Congressman William Kent of California and Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah co-sponsored the bill. Stephen Mather, who was assistant secretary of the Interior at the time, had lobbied hard for a unified agency to oversee America’s national parks, and so it was both logical and fitting that he became the first director of the National Park Service.

Mather was both an industrialist and a conservationist, a man who had become a millionaire through his family’s Pacific Coast Borax Company. The singular image for Borax detergent, “20 Mule Team Borax,” was Mather’s brainchild. He applied his keen marketing skills to help promote the national parks in the early twentieth century.

Who could have imagined that the vision of our national parks, devised in 1916 by a privileged white businessman, could be transformed a century later to include the vision of a black president, a former community organizer, to establish a national monument to honor a Latino labor organizer and a community of farmworkers who understood their privilege as the privilege of human dignity?

If our national parks are to remain viable in the future, they must become sites of transformation where the paradigm of domination and manipulation ends, and a vision of unison begins.

Women harvest table grapes in Delano, California. A field-packed box of grapes weighed about 26 pounds and workers were paid a piece rate — the faster you work, the more you earn — with no toilets, drinking water or rest breaks provided.
Jon Lewis Photographs of the United Farm Workers Movement. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (c) 2016 Yale University. All rights reserved.

We have opportunities to expand this vision of environmental and social justice by establishing more national parks and monuments. We can also enlarge the borders of the ones we have, like Yellowstone and Canyonlands, in the name of ecological connectivity, in an era when the last desperate cries of the fossil fuel industry are threatening to destroy not only our most revered public landscapes but the planet. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a shimmering example of a 50-year fight for protection. Native voices are now forcefully calling for a resolution in the form of a national monument. The Gwich’en see these lands as the birthplace of caribou, “The Place Where Life Begins,” that must be held for future generations. “This is a human rights issue,” says Sarah James, a Gwich’en elder. “Oil development there would hurt the caribou and threaten our way of life.”

The idea of traditional knowledge being embedded within traditional land management is both a revolution and a healing between Indians and the National Park Service. This is the vision behind the Bears Ears National Monument proposal, led by the Navajo, Hopi, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Mountain Ute Coalition, and supported by 20 other tribes in the American Southwest. Willie Greyeyes, chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah, said, “The tribes are determined to see the cultural values in this landscape protected.” Close to 2 million acres of ancestral lands adjacent to Canyonlands National Park would be secured through the Antiquities Act. “We can still hear our ancestors’ songs being sung on the mesas,” one of the elders told me. “Prayers have to be walked, not just talked,” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk said.

At the intersection of landscape and culture, diversity and inclusion, patterns of cooperation emerge in the name of community. The power of what binds us together, rather than what tears us apart, becomes a shared priority. A creative tension between needs, both human and wild, must be considered and negotiated. An unexpected harmony begins to emerge as something to be honored and safeguarded like water in the desert.

We, the people, have made mistakes. We have made mistakes in our relationships with those who came before us and the land that holds their histories. We have made mistakes in how we have managed and misunderstood the wild. But after spending a lifetime immersed in our national parks, I believe we are slowly learning what it means to offer our reverence and respect to the closest thing we as American citizens have to sacred lands. Our national parks are places of recognition. When I see a mountain lion’s tracks on pink sand in the desert, I am both predator and prey. When I see the elusive Everglade kite hovering above the sawgrass, I am that manifestation of hope and survival. And when I visit the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, and listen to Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” her voice becomes the voice I want to cultivate in the name of courage.

We are at a crossroads. We can continue on the path we have been on, in this nation that privileges profit over people and land; or we can unite as citizens with a common cause — the health and wealth of the Earth that sustains us. If we cannot commit to this kind of fundamental shift in our relationship to people and place, then democracy becomes another myth perpetuated by those in power who care only about themselves.

In my own state of Utah, there are those (including most of our elected officials) who want to see our federal lands returned to the states. At the Western Freedom Festival held in Cedar City, Utah, in 2015, in the proximity of Zion and Bryce national parks, devotees of the rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay his grazing fees, gathered to protest what they see as an assault on their liberty. From their point of view, any more federal lands “locked up” in the name of wilderness or national parks is a threat to their values as Americans. Why? Because they are sick of the government telling them what to do. Threats of violence are real. Death threats were made. So much so that during the Freedom Festival, employees of all federal land agencies from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service were advised not to wear their uniforms in public so they would not be a target, literally. The windows at the visitor’s center at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument were replaced with bulletproof glass.

What are we to do with this kind of polarity of vision within the United States of America? How might we begin a different kind of conversation so that our public lands are seen as our public commons, instead of the seedbed of rancor and violence?

The time has come for acts of reverence and restraint on behalf of the Earth. We have arrived at the Hour of Land.

“All the world seems a church and the mountains altars,” wrote John Muir. But perhaps the naturalist’s most prescient words were these: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Chávez walks in a field with grape pickers in support of the United Farm Workers Union in 1968.
Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

The world is intertwined. Life is evolving. We, too, are evolving. We revise our ideas over time. What John Muir advocated for in his lifetime — the protection of wild country and our national parks — is still, I would argue, a noble cause, worthy  of our admiration and respect. When the environmental historian Donald Worster says that Muir started a new American religion, if I am honest, I am part of his congregation. When I saw Yosemite Valley for the first time, I felt I was standing in Eden. I have followed in his footsteps of environmental activism as an American writer. And when Richard White argued at the Aurora Forum at Stanford University in 2009 that “Muir’s vision for the 19th century … is not going to be a vision for the 21st century,” I understand his point of view.

“Muir’s view that you can protect the mountains while everything else is opened up to development. …  Global warming has finished that. … It’s all one world.” White goes on to say, “It’s not that I’m against wilderness areas, it’s not that I’m against national parks, but essentially, we’ve now instituted a system of change that is going to take over — the entire planet.”

What Muir could not see from the vantage point of Mount Ritter in 1872, the same year Yellowstone became America’s first national park, was the scale of changes that would be piled onto the Earth by modernity. How could he have imagined that the work of a backcountry ranger now includes picking up five pounds of toilet paper in a two-foot radius on the trail to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park? How could he have comprehended the appetite of an expanding global population and the carbon load now weighing heavy on all of us? We don’t need to denounce John Muir’s legacy, we need to broaden it.

When we enter places of grandeur and sites of suffering, and inhabit landscapes of historical import and ecological splendor, we stand on the periphery of awe. How did this happen? Who were the witnesses? And what are we seeing now? The American landscape has a voice, many voices. It becomes us. Our national parks are a burning bush of identities.

This deeper understanding of our individual and shared histories, both human and wild, allows us to touch and be touched by what has occurred in the past and what remains as we contemplate what we can create together by listening to one another with an open heart.

César Chávez said, “After 30 years of organizing poor people, I have become convinced that the two greatest aspirations of humankind are equality and participation.” If we can learn to listen to the land, we can learn to listen to each other. This is the beginning of ceremony.

The 300-mile march to Sacramento in 1966 unified a crowd of protesters so large parts of the highway had to be closed. The boycott and strike brought attention to years of poor pay and conditions for farmworkers. Chávez also brought Latino and Filipino strikers together, because growers historically pitted one ethnic group against another to break field walkouts.
Jon Lewis Photographs of the United Farm Workers Movement. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (c) 2016 Yale University. All rights reserved.

This essay is an excerpt from The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, by Terry Tempest Williams, forthcoming from Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June 2016.