On Finding Your ‘Soul-Life’ in a 130-Year-Old Book

Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams are two of our generation’s greatest gifts. Brooke is the author of four books,


Weather in canyonlands, by Bill Gracey

Weather in canyonlands, by Bill Gracey

D Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams are two of our generation’s greatest gifts. Brooke is the author of four books, and he offers deep meditations on wilderness and wild lands, as well as working actively in defense of the pristine, most recently with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Terry is legendary for her intensely personal explorations of nature and life and the human resonance between the two, and she’s the author of the critically acclaimed Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and numerous other books.

The couple, who divide their time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Jackson, Wyoming, were in a book shop in Maine when Terry stumbled across a volume called The Story of My Heart. Published in 1883 and written by English author Richard Jefferies, an early nature writer previously unknown to the Williamses, the book felt immediate, powerful, and highly relevant to today, and the two soon launched a project to republish My Heart and bring it to modern eyes with an introduction by Terry and accompanying essays by Brooke.

Recently, I caught up with the two to learn more about how and why The Story of My Heart got under their skin, and what lessons it has for us today.

1. Why should we care about a book that was first published in 1883?

Brooke Williams: The Story of My Heart, I believe, comes from the collective unconscious, into which Jefferies was able to tap. The collective unconscious may hold the tools our species has always used to survive, tools that are made available when we need them. Perhaps we need them now.

Terry Tempest Williams: What made me care about The Story of My Heart was the beauty of the writing and the power of Richard Jefferies’ ideas – the same qualities that make me care about any book regardless of when it was published.

I picked up this book because I was curious about the title. I opened it up, began reading the first paragraph, the second, the third – and suddenly, I had read close to eight pages without stopping, completely absorbed by the author’s passionate voice for the wild, for what he calls “the soul-life” and what it means to be human.

Richard Jefferies as a writer and thinker were unknown to me. But I did feel that he was writing in the vein of Emerson and Thoreau.

2. The term, “nature-mystic” has been used to describe Jefferies. What does that mean to you and why does it have any relevance today?

Brooke: A nature-mystic to me, is one to whom the natural world is the access to pertinent knowledge and understanding from far beyond the intellect.

Terry: A “nature mystic” is one who sees the world around them infused with mystery and sees the patterns and interconnectedness of all things. Michael Soule, the father of conservation biology, fits this description, as well. So do the American Transcendentalists. Emerson wrote a great deal about “the over-soul” – the ineffable sense of the sacred that animates and binds the natural world to all life.

Emerson writes, “When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come.”

A nature mystic like Richard Jefferies recognizes himself in every living thing, illuminated and illustrated through Other. He is at one with the universe.

Photo by Alan English

Photo by Alan English

3. Jefferies writes of a “soul-life.” What does he mean by this?

Brooke: He longed for a life which emphasized the expansiveness of the inner as well as the outer universe, a boundless life filled with meaning and infinity and connection.

Terry: I agree with Brooke regarding Richard Jefferies’ definition of “soul-life. For me, personally, the “soul-life” is enhanced when we commit to being fully present, aware of all our relations, interconnected and interrelated. Nothing exists in isolation.

4. The boom in connectivity and 24/7 online access has many people struggling to find enduring truths in their lives. Are you surprised that Jefferies had many of the same struggles more than 130 years ago? What lessons that he learned are applicable today?

Brooke: Jefferies reminds us that in order to control us society needs to cut us off from our souls, from those “enduring truths”-from the meaning and knowledge found there. A ‘soul-life’ is bad for business and anything that is bad for business must be suppressed or eliminated. Look at our current political system.

Terry: Distractions come in many forms and are not something new to the 21st century, although the speed of our lives has certainly accelerated with the internet, email, and social media. People have access to us at all hours of the day with the expectation that we will respond immediately. And we have access to a constant barrage of information.

The enduring truth of Richard Jefferies that I also find for myself is the power of solitude in nature: walking, observing, noticing the interrelatedness of life. I love his practice of walking his favorite paths. I have my own paths in the desert that provide a healing balm to the mania of life beyond Castle Valley. To be surrounded by stillness outside creates a stillness inside. We must protect our own solitude, especially, as writers. Time is really all we have – how we choose to use it, spend it, and share it and with whom is a daily choice, challenge, and practice.

5. Why, if one is only given so many words to write in one’s life, have you chosen this old book on which to spend so many of yours?

Brooke: This may seem strange, but I didn’t have a choice. For me opening that book for the first time was like opening the door between his world of the dead and this one of the living. It’s been as if he knew he had something we needed and he picked me to be the messenger.

Terry: For me, it was about sharing his work, The Story of My Heart, with readers as an object of beauty. His work is largely out of print. I fell in love with Richard Jefferies’ ideas and the elegance of his prose. It seemed especially relevant now as we grapple with what it means to be human, the role of technology versus the place of nature. And with climate change looming over all of us, Jefferies brings the idea of responsive citizenry into sharp focus. He celebrates what it means to be truly alive in place. He cared deeply about issues of social and environmental justice and framed these issues within a spiritual framework. We can all benefit from his wisdom and the universal nature of his philosophy. He was not afraid to try to articulate the ineffable. He makes me feel less lonely in the world.

Standing stones, Avebury, England, by Gordon Robertson

Standing stones, Avebury, England, by Gordon Robertson

“¨”¨6. You live on the Colorado Plateau and have a sense of “wildness.” Can any part of the English landscape that inspired Jefferies be considered ‘wild’?

Brooke: I’m fascinated by all the ongoing discussion around the question of what’s wild and what’s not. For me, a wild landscape is one where natural systems are still intact and whirring from here into the future and I can feel it. Terry and I walked in many of the places that Jefferies walked. We experienced great weather. We witnessed places where nature was taking back forests that had once been logged and fields that had once been planted. We saw ancient stone walls which had become wild ecosystems of plants, insects, and lizards. Wildness doesn’t mean pristine.

Terry: I became obsessed with the White Chalk Horses of the English countryside. The idea behind who created them seems wild – the wind was wild when we visited them. And they are placed on wild, rugged hillsides even though they are looking out across the relatively tame English countryside.

And the standing stones found at Avebury akin to Stonehenge fascinated me. This is Jefferies’ backyard and it all felt very wild to me. On one of Jefferies’ beloved paths that he walked, I became completely enchanted by the English robins. They were curious and commanding in their presence. I lost track of time and space as I followed them and they followed me. This is the essence of wildness, experiencing both the indifference of nature and at the same time, a sense of reciprocity within the natural world. And the rivers we followed felt wild as they would reflect light and swell with the rain. The melancholia of the winter in England also held a wildness for me that I recognized within my own moods.

There is wilderness and wildness. I found the latter in England and both, I must say, in Jefferies’ prose.

7. Do you think that the further humans get from natural wilds, the more they feel a subconscious loss and schism? Or are we eminently adaptable, and can our “soul-lives” be satisfied in a world built by men?

Brooke: Disconnecting from the wild is cutting ourselves off from that collective part of ourselves responsible for our evolutionary success. We can’t help but feel that loss. I believe that many of our mental and physical ailments are the result of this loss. Regardless of how sophisticated our technology becomes, it will never replace our connection to the wild, or compensate for its loss.

Terry: We are animals, we seem to forget this in our ignorance and arrogance. In “a world built by man” we are rarely satisfied. We are inspired by beauty and much of what our species creates is awe-inspiring and wondrous from art to architecture to our innovations within cities themselves. But there is also a great deal of ugliness and emptiness in cities, real poverty that strips the soul of dignity. We are hungry to fill the void within our own emptiness.

We are creative beings. We seek wholeness. In our strive for more and more, we forget that there is a real world outside of our own, a community that includes plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and human beings that celebrates a unity that has nothing to do with our own egos. As Harvey Locke says, “We are one species among many.”

When we forget the interconnectedness of all things, we lose sight of truly sustains us. We consume material goods to fill the void -at the expense of solitude, peace, natural beauty, and a sense of wild adventure where we seek a power beyond ourselves where we can courting the mysteries rather than the opinions of others. We are seduced by power of a fleeting nature, rather than the power of an enduring nature – a full moon rising in a night sky of stars; the ebb and flow of tides on the edge of the sea, the sound of raven’s wings fanning the stillness of the desert.

White Chalk Horse, by Ann Mead

White Chalk Horse, by Ann Mead

“¨”¨8. You live outside Moab, a place that is the embodiment of the struggle over multiple and sometimes conflicting uses, and you’ve been very active in the effort to protect and create more wilderness. How important is compromise? Should there be sacrificial lands? Or does the importance of protecting relatively untouched lands trump everything else?

Brooke: Protecting remaining wilderness should be a top priority. There will always be compromise and “sacrificial lands,” which is unfortunate. Protecting wilderness is protecting the wild, natural system upon which all life-including our life-depends. Wilderness is where evolution is ongoing. Life either evolves or it becomes extinct. We need to evolve.

Terry: I would argue we are already negotiating from a place of compromise. To protect
wilderness is to protect our future. The esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson has recently come out with this “Half Earth” project maintaining that half the planet needs to be set aside as open space, wildlands, to ensure healthy, viable communities, both human and wild.

In Utah, with the onslaught of oil shale and America’s first potential tar sands development, never have we needed the protection of wildlands more than we do now. Climate justice is justice for all. This is the umbrella of concern that touches us all of us regardless of race, class, gender, or nation. Recently, spiritual leader Oren Lyons of the Seneca Nation said, “It can no longer be about the color of our skin, only about the color of our blood. We are all related. Wilderness becomes our shared breathing space where the ongoing evolutionary adaptations can continue to occur. Wilderness is not a place of recreation, but a place for our sanity and survival as a species.

“¨9. The idea that there are any truly untrammeled lands is rapidly dying – there isn’t an inch on the planet that hasn’t been affected by homo sapiens – and so how does that inform the discussion about wilderness? Does it change anything for you? How would Jefferies have approached this, do you think?

Brooke: Remember that the word “untrammeled” doesn’t mean untouched. Untrammeled lands are free, where the natural system continues on, unrestricted, unhampered. Wild places are where we can participate and consciously be part of this natural system are places where we can be conscious of evolution, and possibly our role in it. Jefferies knew the importance of the uncultivated valleys and long windswept ridges and the birds and insects. I think that if he felt civilization threatening the places that inspired him, he would have fought.

Terry: And The Jefferies Society in his home town of Coate, England, is fighting to stop further development of the glens, glades, and open lands that informed Jefferies’ mind and imagination. Wilderness reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, but rather, a part of it. By setting aside wild places, places that are “self-willed” not domesticated or controlled, we can remember what it means to be human and humble, open to beauty, awe, and a reverence for life.

“¨”¨10. Has Jefferies altered your sense of ‘adventure’, and if so, how?

Brooke: He’s helped. My idea of adventure was shifting when I met Jefferies, which is why I was so open to him. Part of this is getting older. Those long, extreme days in deep canyons, on high cliffs, or down steep chutes have passed for me. I’ve replaced them with long walks in familiar places which, like they did for Jefferies, open the way to my deep, inner world, where nothing is familiar, nothing is expected, and everything is meaningful. It is during these “adventures” that I get a sense of how deeply enmeshed with the wild world we are.

Terry: Jefferies was an adventurer of the mind and spirit. He was fearless in where he allowed his imagination to wander. He was a fierce advocate for the farmer and the working class. Politics was another place he sought as an explorer, an explorer of justice. As a child, he ran away from home and sought his own adventure wanting to cross the sea to America. His only limitation was money. And with age, he did not shy away from his illness. He became an explorer of his own mortality, even death.

Richard Jefferies inspired me both as a writer and a human being to travel beyond my own fears, to engage in both the daily ritual of walking knowing each day is an adventure into wonder – and also, to not shy away from the adventure of exploring our own psyches, to face our fears head on, and through the artistry and rigor of language create a lifeline out of our own isolation through beauty on the page and in the world.

ҬBONUS: How do you define adventure?

Brooke: An unexpected challenge for which I’m prepared, from which I return changed.

Terry: I define adventure as seeking the unknown willingly. Every time I pick up my pen and set out on the sea of the white page, I am committing to an adventure. Adventure is a passionate affair that requires great heart and immense faith, alongside preparation.

Adventure is a map of joy.


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Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.
Showing 3 comments
  • michael
    Reply

    Excellent read and interview . . . to the very last word.

  • Lisa wallace
    Reply

    Yes, to the very last word.

  • Ian McWilliams
    Reply

    Thank you for this Steve. A great interview.

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