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.