We had been following the path for a long ways deep into the woods. We came to a point where the trail split. A tree loomed. A couple of signs were nailed to the tree, one above the other. The sign above read: “Why not? Makes sense.” The one below: “Why bother?” No indication as to which path was which. So we just continued.
In the early 20th century, Fridtjof Nansen set off on a journey through the Arctic to open up the Northeast Passage. His scientific observations made then may be more relevant now than ever.
By M. Michael Brady
On Tuesday, August 5, 1913, explorer, scientist and later Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) set off from Tromsø, Norway to open a Northern Sea Route across the Eurasian continent. He was on board the Correct, a passenger freighter chartered by Norwegian businessman Jonas Lied carrying a cargo of cement bound for the city of Krasnoyarsk in Krasnoyarsk Krai of Siberia for the ongoing building of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
For centuries, explorers had sought Northern Passages, to the East as well as to the West along the northern coast of North America. Unlike his daring Arctic expeditions of the late 19th century that had tested the limits of human strength and endurance, the 1913 journey was for him a vacation during which he made scientific and other observations while assisting businessman Lied in opening up a regular trade connection with Siberia. The result from prolific author Nansen was a book, Through Siberia, a benchmark account of the geography and indigenous peoples of Siberia.
Nansen is widely known as an explorer. Yet in the sciences he is remembered as one of the great minds that contributed to our understanding of the globe, particularly in oceanography, his principal pursuit. His 1893-96 expedition in an attempt to reach the North Pole is regarded to be one of the major achievements of the heroic age of polar exploration that started in the late 19th century and ended with the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917, led by Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922). That said, Nansen’s North Pole expedition principally was a scientific undertaking. The results of it had a lasting impact on the sciences of the Arctic.
One of Nansen’s seminal scientific findings was triggered in late August 1893, as he sailed the purpose-built Fram polar ship off the Taymyr Peninsula near the Nordenskiöld Arctic Archipelago. Suddenly, the ship came almost to a dead stop, though its engine was at full speed. The Fram had encountered what Nansen called “dead water”, which as he wrote is “a peculiar phenomenon that occurs where a surface layer of fresh water rests upon the salt water of the sea, and this fresh water is carried along with the ship, gliding on the heavier sea beneath as if on a fixed foundation”. It was the first-ever such explanatory hypothesis, though dead water had long been experienced by fishermen in the Norwegian fjords, which are bodies of salt water sometimes also fed by fresh water from glacier runoff. Later research by others proved that Nansen’s hypothesis was correct, and now dead water is fairly well understood.
Scrolling ahead a century to the turn of the Millennium, the Arctic has changed significantly since Nansen’s journeys there. Though it may seem remote and thereby of lesser interest to people living at lower latitudes, the Arctic plays an increasingly vital role in the health of the globe. Just how so concerns the scientists from 20 institutes working at FRAM, the High North Research Center for Climate and the Environment in Tromsø. The eighth annual Arctic Frontiers international conference was held this year. The Arctic Council of eight countries with territory within the Arctic Circle has become the international clearinghouse for debate and discussion on Arctic matters. A scholarly journal in English, the Arctic Review on Law and Politics, now is in its sixth year of publication, and this year the Eighth Polar Law Symposium will be held in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Vast deposits of oil and gas have been found under Arctic waters, though the recent fall in oil prices has set a stop to thoughts of extraction due to the costs and risks of it in the extreme environment. Perhaps more important, global warming has opened Arctic waters permitting ships to sail the Northeast Passage about two summer months a year.
The relatively recent surge of academic, cultural, and commercial interest in the Arctic raises the intriguing question of what Nansen might have made of it all were he to see the Arctic of today. In 2012, Øyvind Ravna, a professor at the University of Tromsø, speculated that there was one certain way to answer that question: celebrate the centennial of Nansen’s 1913 expedition by replicating it. His suggestion gained support, most encouragingly from the two universities of the High North, the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway and the Northern Federal University at Arkangelsk, Russia. Research institutes as well as businessmen joined in, reflecting and extending the multidisciplinary purposes of the 1913 journey. It was to be the largest ever joint Norwegian-Russian expedition.
On Monday, August 5, 2013, to the day a hundred years since Nansen had departed from Tromsø, the 20-some strong Norwegian contingent of the expedition team including Prof. Ravna and led b y Jan Gunnar Winter, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, left Tromsø by air to fly southeastward to Arkhangelsk to join the Russian contingent and board the Professor Molcanov, an ice-strengthened Russian research ship, to retrace Nansen’s wake through the Arctic Ocean to Siberia. The Norwegians had chosen to fly the first leg of the journey, principally to avoid the delay of customs clearance at sea.
After nearly three weeks covering more than 3000 miles, eastward through the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea and then southward up the Yenisei, Siberia’s largest river, the journey ended at Krasnoyarsk, as had that of 1913. On the way, the international team of experts observed changes since Nansen’s time in the Arctic climate, the landscape and its peoples. Few of their observations could more vividly describe the effect of global warming of the Arctic than the brief anecdote of team members sunning themselves on deck on August 11, as the Professor Molcanov glided effortlessly across the ice-free Kara Sea, at a point where Nansen had been obliged on the same date to change course a century earlier due to impenetrable sea ice. The ethnographic observations are as poignant. Industrial pollution has ruined the traditional grazing lands of the once nomadic Enets south of the industrial center of Norilsk. Now numbering just 200, they risk extinction. The same fate awaits the slightly more numerous Kets, the only people still speaking a language of the Yeniseian family, living further south up the Yenisei River.
Ravna has collected these and myriad other observations in a book illustrated with his color photos as well as vintage black-and-white photos of the 1913 expedition, many of them previously unpublished. He’s the right man for that task in more ways than one. He was born, brought up and now works north of the Arctic Circle, in Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county that borders on Russia and has a large subpopulation of the once nomadic Sami reindeer-herding people. Like many residents of Finnmark, he is of Sami heritage. In addition to his native Norwegian, he is fluent in English and proficient in Russian and Sami. His wife, Zoia Vylka Ravna is of a Nenets reindeer herding family, born in western Sibera and educated in St. Petersberg. They met in 1995, when he was working on a book on the indigenous peoples of Siberia, My Russian North (published in 1996).
This book is his eighth photo documentary work. As the editor of the Arctic Review on Law and Politics, he has an in-depth familiarity with the subject matter. He’s a freelance photographer (His photo of Norwegian reindeer herders illustrated “Dateline Europe: Norway’s Snowmobile Laws Headed to Court”, Mountain Gazette, January 6, 2015). That said, this landmark book may be the last of its sort for a while. The unrest in the Ukraine of 2014 has altered relations between Russia and the rest of Europe. The journey that was possible in 2013 would have been difficult in 2014 and even more so now. So until the war rhetoric subsides, Nansen’s vision of Siberia as “The land of the future” may remain a dream.
Bush pilot, guide, dog musher—Dave Olesen documents what it takes to survive the north in “Kinds of Winter.” A Review by Dick Dorworth
KINDS OF WINTER: Four solo journeys by dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
By Dave Olesen
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, $19.99
Dave Olesen is a thoughtful, articulate adventurer who closely notes the details of an extraordinary existence in which the mundane chores of daily life entail severe consequences for inattention, keeps track of his experiences and observations in journals which he turns into books to share with fortunate readers. His latest book “Kinds of Winter” is, to sum up, beautiful. Olesen lives with his wife and two children, forty three huskies and a ninety year old Danish sailboat on a remote homestead by Great Slave Lake next to the Hoarfrost River in Canada’s Northwest Territories where average winter nighttime temperatures are below -20F and there are five hours of daylight in December.
Olesen works as a bush pilot and guide, and, for 15 years, he was a competitive dog musher, finishing the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled dog Race eight times. That’s a long way from the small Illinois town where he grew up, but in 1987, armed with B.A. degree in Humanities and Northern Studies, he fled to the north to pursue a life that inspired Gary Snyder to write of Olesen: “I salute this man and his passion, and his family for giving him space to explore it. An old Inupiaq Eskimo once said to me as I set out in a canoe on a September river, ‘Don’t have any adventures.’”
But the daily challenges of life at Olesen’s home are a backdrop and nutritious foundation for the kinds of winter he seeks and discovers when he and his teams of sled dogs really do go looking for adventure. He explains it thus: “Once a year for four consecutive winters I hooked up a team of dogs and set out on long trips away from our homeland, traveling toward one of the cardinal points of the compass: south in 2002, east in 2003, north in 2004, and finally west in 2005. Having gone out, I turned home again. It was as simple as that.” Yes, as simple as a man alone with his team of dogs going south for 155 miles, east 380 miles, north 210 miles and west 520 miles through the kinds of winter that keep the Northwest Territories sparsely populated.
The adventure alone makes “Kinds of Winter” worth the read, but Olesen is no chest-thumping conqueror of the extreme compiling a resume of achievement for the reader to admire. Olesen, like his literary/spiritual predecessors Muir, Thoreau, Leopold, Abbey and Snyder is reminding himself and the reader of Muir’s admonition: “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
Every human being can, with a bit of intentional effort and spirit of adventure, break clear away, once in awhile, and wash the spirit clean. But there are very few who do so who also have the literary skills and discipline combined with the human and environmental insight to realize and write: “Time. It is all nice and fuzzy that: ‘Go out in the wilderness and just let Time flow’ or ‘let Time have no meaning’ stuff, but in traveling between supply caches, or climbing a mountain, or paddling a long river in a short summer, Time takes on fundamental importance—it cannot be ignored. It is the approach of dusk at day’s end, the looming onset of winter in mid-September, the final sack of feed rationed out to a hungry team. Like it or not, folks, the clock is ticking, even ‘way out here’ in la-la land, Today, though, sitting just 75 miles from home, I am long on time. I can rest, and walk, and watch the day go by. Muir and Thoreau would be happy for me.”
We should all be happy for Dave Olesen who has the skills, discipline and insight to make every reader happy he and she took the time from the ticking clock to read “Kinds of Winter.” —Dick Dorworth
When you live in a place where the wind screams across the high alpine almost nonstop for six months, you learn to carpe any diem when said wind is forecast to be light. Such was the case this week, when a sizable storm was followed by three days of unseasonable calm. It was hard to convince ourselves to go home on the day these turns were made.
Photo by Devon O’Neil
In the midst of winter’s rigor (wake, eat, ski, work, eat, sleep), a quick jaunt up to a backcountry hut can reset even the most frenzied of us. This is part of the allure of undertaking hutmaster duties for the Summit Huts Association (the escape ranks just above stirring other people’s poop). I do a handful of shifts each season, and try to spend the night whenever possible. Last week, after completing my chores, I only had time to duck into Ken’s Cabin for tea before returning the way I came, back down the mountain to civilization.
Photo by Devon O’Neil
Middle of February. I have an 8:30 a.m. appointment in Albany to have the car serviced. It’s over an hour’s drive away. Need to get an early start. That means a pre-dawn, subzero walk with the collie through snowy woods.
We head off down the snowshoe trail. He runs ahead, barking into the dark. He wears a bell so I can keep track of his whereabouts. As often happens, he disappears for a time on the far side of Paradise Hill. Who knows what he might be getting into. The snow back there is a couple feet deep. At this hour, things appear dim and gentian-blue. I stop at the edge of a spruce grove and listen. I hear no bell.
So I call the collie’s name. Silence. I call again. Silence. I wait. From high in one of the spruces, a barred owl gives a hoot. I call the collie’s name again. The owl gives another hoot. Silence returns. Time passes but not the silence. I am starting to worry about my appointment. I don’t like being late for appointments. But lo! Out of the gentian blue comes the familiar tink-tink-tink of an approaching bell. Then the collie appears. I give him cheese and we head home.
Back inside the house, I remove copious clumps of snow and ice from between the pads of his feet. He assists by licking my hand. Now I notice a certain smell coming off him—rank, gamey, feculent. Once again, it would seem, he has gotten into something fundamental. No time now to give him a bath. If I leave at once I can still make that car appointment. So I head out the door. The collie barks his displeasure at being left home alone. He barks and he barks and he barks. I can hear it from all the way up at the barn.
In dark cerulean cold, the car starts only grudgingly. I drive off. It takes a long time before the car’s heater has any effect. I am halfway to Albany before I become aware of a certain fragrance, now coming off me. Talk about regrettable transfer effects. I’ve had a lot of wild ideas in my life, but I’ve never smelled like one before.
I arrive at Albany in time for the car appointment. Everybody there keeps a polite distance. For some reason, service today is particularly speedy. I’m out of there in no time. I drive back home to the Catskills listening to some Loudon Wainwright. Upon my arrival, the collie barks with joy. Till he is led to the tub. Then it’s my turn.
Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park
Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional.
By Brooke Williams
Three camper-backed trucks are parked a the exhibit turn out off of north-running Highway 385 in Big Bend, National Park, which seems strange. We thought no one was here. It is late January. We’ve seen no blooming plants and very few birds in our two gentle days. The trucks are empty and no one is standing at the interpretive sign. The truck’s occupants must be out hiking as this pull out is, according to the guidebook, the parking area for the Dog Canyon Hike.
Dog Canyon can be seen on the horizon… a deep crack (a cut, a scar, a fissure, anything but a canyon!) as if the time-eaten rock forming the horizon had been bent too far—beyond its breaking point. Dog Lake will no longer be the name of this place. I will call it Dog Gash.
Three people, I’m sure belonging to those campers, appear in the distance. By the time we’ve pulled and filled our packs the hikers are near enough for us to see that they are older, fit, and—by the way they move and their hiking poles, lightweight long-sleeved shirts, and big-brimmed hats—comfortable with this desert, these distances.
We’ve been talking to everyone and everyone seems comfortable talking to us. It’s as if we all share three things: we’re not from here; this desert has lured us here; we’re not sure exactly why.
By hearing ourselves speak to one another we might hear clues coming out of us.
Five of us gather where their hike ends and ours begins. The two women are open and friendly, energetic with the glow from a six mile walk in perfect weather. The man is serious. We find out quickly that they are volunteers for the Park Service—living in their campers, they answer questions at information desks, pick up trash, sell guidebooks, maps, and tee-shirts, and issue permits at the Visitor Center’s that seem to have been carved into this desert.
The serious man is all business.
Do you have water?
3 three quarts.
Yes. That too.
Although I pride myself in the comfort I feel wandering in the desert, I consider it bad luck to ignore another’s warning.
You know it’s four hours?
No, I lie. Thank you.
Of the packs, his is the largest and I wonder about a gun.
We all smile. Terry and I turn toward the gash in the horizon and begin.
A grey, hard-panned surface spreads in every direction. I’m wondering if we find our own way across the desert expanse to Dog Gash when a footpath appears through a small patch of dried plants, suggesting a trail. Or at least a route. I prefer routes to trails. Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional. Routes are prompts for our own creative wanderings. Seductions. In some cases, routes provide security, comfort when needed. Routes are suggestions. The Dog Gash ‘trail’ is really a route.
I like the art of stacking stones and where better to practice my art than here, where the cairns—whatever they might once have been—need significant work.
The stones are perfect, some long, all of them with angles surfaces, which with the right touch and patience, I’m able to turn random piles into statues.
I follow one to the next, stopping, kneeling on the hard desert, creating structure from chaos.
After reforming three cairns, I move along the route into a vast field of creosote. These plants define this desert. They can be shoulder-high or shorter than one’s knees, and evenly spaced or random as if dropped from high in the sky. All of which depends on the source of water from which they draw. Creosote roots exude a toxic substance which keeps other plants at bay, from competing for valuable moisture. It is these distances these brilliant plants have created between themselves through which I follow the route, cairn to cairn. Creosote exudes the “scent of the desert” which I breathe in knowing that I am much better having done so.
Terry has moved on out of sight. Looking down, I notice that my path is sidewalk smooth and I stop to shed my shoes and socks. In the months since I walked barefooted outdoors, I’ve missed it. My feet are white and tender and marked by creases left by my socks. I’ve read about the benefits of walking barefooted—the chemical exchange of important ions; the massaging of points on one’s feet which are connected to our various organs. I don’t need to believe any of that to know that walking barefooted makes me happy. I stuff my shoes and socks in my pack, take three glorious steps, calculating: If walking barefooted feels this good, walking naked will be that times ten. Or twenty. I look around to be sure I’m alone, as I would feel sorry for anyone accidently seeing what six decades of time and distance can do to a body.
Dressed in my floppy hat, I move like liquid across the desert. I stop to re-build six cairns. The February sun is perfect, its beams hitting my pale body at such a low angle they’re deflected rather than absorbed. Pinching my skin, I find no redness. The route, which has been straight and directly east, turns south and winds between creosote which grow closer together here, suggesting they share more abundant water. The trail roughens and the small stones and sharp sticks require more of my attention. It turns sharply west and becomes tube-like as it drops into the large wash through which water running over the eons has created Dog Gash. Terry is there, waiting.
She laughs briefly at my naked state and we walk toward the gash which becomes a portal between two worlds. There are many rocks, which although rounded from ten thousand floods, are too much for my just-born feet.
Now with shoes (no socks) I follow her toward the Gash. We stop in bank shade to eat and drink and glimpse a small bird on a dead branch. A wren, its white eyebrow telling us it’s Bewick’s and not Rock Wren or Canyon Wren. Two insects buzz around us and across the wash a brilliant orange butterfly surfs an invisible breeze. Terry makes notes in her journal and I get up and move.
As I enter the gash the air thickens, compressed by the rock walls rising high above the dry wash on both sides. The gash is filled with shade and the cool air charges my skin. I wander along in a trance, wondering how I would explain this place to someone from another planet or Omaha.
A million stones of different sizes and colors and shapes pave the creek bed. I pick up those with the most unique shapes and notice they are all the same color—a pink shade of white, not grey or beige. What could shape have to do with color? Two ravens croak high in the cliffs where a cloud casts a boat-like shadow.
Terry joins me where I’m sitting on a sandy bench looking out over it all. We don’t say much, but watch time pass slowly in front of us as if it has taken on form and color.
Chilled, we get up and move back through the gash, sensing that the end to this short day is closer than we think.
Terry’s shoes come off when the trail smoothes. We walk slowly, nowhere else to be, two miles to go. I work on three more cairns. Terry follows a small brown bird. A large beetle recently crossed our path, I can tell by its tracks.
The sun melts on the horizon, spreading bright color along it. I stop to put on my clothes, which feel like they belong to someone else.
Looking north, in the fading sunlight, I can see where a massive chunk of rock has fallen from a cliff, and smashed into white powder on the dark talus slope below. I swear that it happened today, while we were in Dog Gash. I’ll find out later the rock fell in 1987.
The shadows grow as we move through the creosote. Tomorrow, we’ll head south toward the Rio Grand. We’ll see Mexico across the river and the creosote will be starting to bloom there, as the spring will be further along. I’ll wonder if I’ll be older there—further along—and long for Dog Gash where I can be young again.
Between the Arctic and Scandinavia, this island beckons climbers with vast, untrodden terrain.
By Michael Brady
Svalbard is an Arctic archipelago about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has the world’s northernmost permanent population, mostly in two settlements, the administrative center of Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, a research station. It recent history has an American connection: Longyearbyen was established by and named for John Munro Longyear (1850-1922), a developer from Michigan and the principal founder of the Arctic Coal Company that developed and started mining coal fields on Spitzbergen Island in 1905 to 1916.
Today Longyearbyen is a thriving town with a population of more than 2,000. Research and tourism have become key business sectors. The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the Global Seed Vault, and SvalSat, the world’s largest ground station serving polar-orbiting meteorological and earth observation satellites are located there. Ships call at Longyearbyen, and there’s scheduled airline service between its airport and the Norwegian mainland. Longyearbyen may be the world’s most wired community, as it’s connected to the mainland by broadband submarine cables. Everyday life there is much that of towns on the mainland. Outside town, there are few signs of civilization, as Svalbard is a vast Arctic wilderness, 60% covered by glaciers. Mountains and fjords abound, and there are seven national parks and 23 nature reserves. The climate definitely is Arctic, though considerably milder than other land areas at the same latitude. Understandably, outdoor sports are popular, particularly hiking, mountaineering, and ice caving.
In mountaineering, Svalbard arguably is unique in having more untrodden terrain than comparable mountain areas elsewhere. In April 2007, a mixed Slovenian, Swiss and German climbing team made first ascents in seven climbing areas of the Atomfjella chain on Spitzbergen Island (further reading), yet there remain many yet-to-be-done first ascents of routes and summits.
The name Atomfjella (“Atom Mountain”) reflects a penchant for naming the mountains in the archipelago after the terms of the natural sciences. There are mountains named after the Electron, the Neutron and the element Radium. The second highest peak in the archipelago, Perriertoppen (“Perrier Peak”) is named after French zoologist Edmund Perrier (1844-1921), and the highest, Newtontoppen (“Newton Peak”) is named after English mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1726).
Newtontopen on the northeast coast of Spitzbergen island not only has the loftiest summit. It is the largest massif, with its base is at sea level. So its prominence, the minimum height of climb to the summit is the same as the summit elevation, 1,717 meters (5,633 ft.). That makes it an ultra prominent peak, or “Ultra”, designating a prominence of at least 1500 meters (4920 ft.). There are more than 1500 Ultras in the world, but some famed peaks, including the Eiger and the Matterhorn in the Alps, are not Ultras because they rise from high-elevation cols.
In contrast, McDonald Peak in the Mission Mountains of Montana is an Ultra, because it has a prominence of 1722 meters (5650 ft.), about the same as that of Newtontoppen. In that topographical statistic lies a clue to an advantage of climbing in the archipelago. Climbs in the USA start from high elevation plateaus or cols; the key col for McDonald peak is at an elevation of 4180 ft. But summit climbs in Svalbard start from sea level or at elevations of a few hundred feet. So you don’t need altitude acclimatization to climb.
There’s one challenge in Svalbard that’s not found in comparable mountaineering areas elsewhere. Polar bears, of which there are some 3000 in the archipelago, more than the human population. The polar bear is the world’s largest land carnivore, and humans are intruders in its traditional habitat. A polar bear will attack without warning. Accordingly, people who go on extended trips outside town are required to register and are advised to take precautions including carrying and knowing how to use a big-game rifle.
Climbs are best in summer, when there’s daylight round the clock, and least practical in midwinter during the polar night that lasts from mid November to early February. This year it may be wise to avoid the week of Friday, March 20, when Svalbard will be one of two places (the other is the Faroe Islands) where you can stand on land to watch the total solar eclipse (further reading) that day. But if you want to watch the eclipse, book travel and lodging early, as crowds are expected.
Further reading and viewing:
Svalbard Guide by Pål Hermansen, 288 page paperback, German edition 2008 by Travel Media GmbH, ISBN 978-3930232598 (listed by Amazon.com), English edition 2013 by Gaidaros Forlag, ISBN 978-8280771551.
Svalbard Atomfjella new routes in Spitzbergen climbing expedition, by Gregor Kresal, on Planet Mountain website , selectable in Italian or English.
Svalbard Governor’s website , selectable in Norwegian, English, or Russian.
Visit Svalbard, information of interest to visitors, including lodgings, tours and the like, selectable in Norwegian or English.
Total Solar Eclipse of 2015 Mar 20, NASA Eclipse Website
Dateline: Europe, Svalbard: High Arctic Habitable, by MM Brady, Mountain Gazette, issue 179, June 2011, page13.
Every two years, the alpine ski racing universe takes over a mountain and crowns 10 world champions in a fortnight. This year, said universe took over Beaver Creek in Colorado’s Vail Valley, the first time in 16 years the worlds have taken place on American snow. Say what you will about U.S. racing fans — how they only care during big events or don’t really understand the nuances — but they have shown up like there was free ice cream to be had. The stands have been packed every day, albeit with plenty of international flavor mixed in, and the action has featured both near-misses (see: Miller, Bode) and brilliance (see: the country of Austria and Maze, Tina). Also, when you win, they project your name onto the side of Vail Mountain overnight.
Last February, winter eased its chokehold on the high desert. The sun was warm enough for both mud and sweat, and I sat on our south-facing deck, eating a carrot and squinting while the desert quiet hummed like a huge and distant insect. I had been working for months to make personal sense of a book published in 1883—The Story of My Heart—and a man, Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), the 19th century Nature-mystic who wrote it.
My wife Terry Tempest Williams and I discovered the book years ago in the far corner of a dusty bookshop on an island in Maine. We read it out loud to each other, proposed to a publisher that it be re-issued, and traveled to England to walk on the ground that inspired it. I was near the end of 18,000 “after words” that would become my contribution. I’m not sure when, during the course of this process, I became obsessed. That bright day on that deck, I felt my obsession turn to frustration.
I knew Jefferies was out there—from strange insights I’d had since finding his book, from “visits” I can neither explain nor justify. I’d read Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, The Dominion of the Day, which comforted me with the matter-of-fact description of the role of the dead in encouraging the living to “keep the story going” into the future. I had the strong sense that Jefferies had picked me to complete his unfinished business.
“Why me, Richard Jefferies?”
I was tired and needed a day off from poring over his florid but densely beautiful prose, which I was sure held clues to our modern situation. I’d asked this question many times as I struggled to capture the meaning I knew hid in those old pages. I needed to know this. I needed to know many things.
“Why me, Richard Jefferies?” I asked out loud as a breeze swirled in front of me.
“If the eye is always watching, and the mind on the alert, ultimately chance supplies the solution.”
I clearly heard those words which had become familiar during the two dozen times I’d read The Story of My Heart. I’d begun to rationalize: Obviously, I’m so close to this book that its words are now stored in my unconscious ready to use when I need them. But then I heard, “You seemed ready when you found it on that bookshelf. I had been waiting for a long time.”
This was the opening I’d waited for. I seemed to have discovered the portal between life and death. Not wanting to waste the opportunity to interview Jefferies, I jumped right in.
Such a limited, term, “death.”
You moderns talk about it, but you give no real credence to the immortal “soul.” You say you know the soul leaves the body at death, but you ignore the “souls” of your dead when you have much to learn from them.
Why have you come back now?
Come back? I haven’t been gone.
What do we need to know?
You think you’re special and you are—never in history have humans knowingly contributed to that which threatens to destroy them. But you can change.
One day as I moved up the sweet short turf near my home, my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling at every step; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant. I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I felt the earth’s firmness—I felt it bear me up: through the grass, there came an influence as I could feel the great earth speaking to my soul.
Your point is….?
You people pave everything. Or drill it or dig it for the carbon fueling your lives. The great earth cannot be heard through pavement, over the drilling and digging.
We are working to protect wild place from paving and drilling.
You speak of saving these wild places as a reminder of the past brilliance of our evolution or because they are havens for other species. This is true, but limited. You save these wild places because they will save you. The great earth is speaking about all that is at stake for the future of humans. Those who profit from paving and drilling do not know this. Not only do they refuse to hear what the great earth says, but also profit from silencing the great earth.
We do our best.
That is only part of it. Your people are strong and brave and capable of finding your way to the far corners of the Earth—no matter the season, no matter how extreme. This is admirable. But the earth-knowledge you need to save yourselves comes up through your feet anywhere that is wild, anywhere the natural system continues to function. You need only to slow down. You need only to open. This is how you evolve. You need to evolve.
How much time do we have?
Time is not what you think. Then the air around me grew quiet, and so did Richard Jefferies.
–Interview by Brooke Williams. The re-release of Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart (torreyhouse.com), first published in 1883, features essays by Brooke Williams and an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams.