That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic
In 2014, Torrey House published The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke and Terry Tempest Williams. In it, nineteenth-century nature writer Jefferies’ essays are interspersed with Brooke’s, creating a conversation between the two that reaches across time and space. In today’s That Thing With Feathers, Brooke continues the conversation from Castle Valley, Utah, where his well-trodden daily walks contain worlds.
April 1, 2020
Since Torrey House published our “rediscovery” of The Story of My Heart, its author, Richard Jefferies, has stayed close. While I tried to make sense of the ways Jefferies’ late nineteenth-century writing matters now, I felt that he had mysteriously become part of my life. One evening as I sat down for dinner I noticed that Terry had set three places. “You didn’t mention that we would be having a guest,” I said. She said, “It’s for Richard. He’s always here anyway.” She said, “We may as well feed him.”
While I miss his immediate presence—Richard Jefferies no longer joins us for dinner—his influence lingers. By most definitions, Jefferies was a hermit. Like the ancient Chinese hermit-poets, he preferred his time spent in the wilds, paying attention to, and then writing down, what occurred to him.
During these isolation days, I’ve evolved. At first I was frustrated, wondering when this disruption might end. Now I’m filled with gratitude, excited to explore my own eremitic life.
Yes, this is a different kind of famine, and yes, we are hungry in a different way. “Well, then, let us be hermits.”
Recently a friend told me the story of an old hermit during a famine. A pilgrim came to him saying, “We are hungry. What should we do?” The hermit said, “Well then, let us fast.” We might not be able to control what happens, but we can control how we deal with it. Those who know tell us that in order to stop this virus from spreading “you need to stay home, isolate yourself from your friends.” Yes, this is a different kind of famine, and yes, we are hungry in a different way. “Well, then, let us be hermits.”
We don’t work in the grocery story, the post office, the bookstore, or in other “essential businesses.” We don’t work in healthcare. The best we can do, we are told, is stay home.
Actually, the best we can do is be grateful—to those risking their own health and their own lives to provide for us (the grocery and bookstore and warehouse workers, those who deliver what we need) and those who make possible our privileged lives (our communication, our heat and light and water). For the farmworkers who grow our food. And we are grateful for the heroes in the hospitals who take care of those of us who have and will have COVID-19, and who will help some of us die.
We’re over sixty and more susceptible to the virus. While we are grateful, we blanch when asked by younger people if we need our food delivered. The least we can do is become hermits. In Hindu philosophy, all humans ideally mature into hermits.
If there is a “hermit wisdom”—and I believe there is—it is accessed by walking. Besides solitude and scarcity and choosing to live close to nature rather than in a city, walking is a key factor in the eremitic life.
In our version of The Story of My Heart, we devoted an entire chapter to walking. Actually, not walking but wandering. “Walking,” I wrote, “refers to a vast spectrum of movement as a means of getting from one place to the next.” In contrast, “wandering is an end in itself.” I go on: “Wandering is goalless, open-minded. In my own experience, wandering is directly related to imagination and creativity—and, I believe, my spiritual evolution. When my ideas run out or no longer serve me I will go wandering in the desert to gather more.”
Throughout most of his short life, Jefferies walked every day near his home in Swindon, England. While researching his life, I found that he took regular walks in familiar places. This inspired me and during these first weeks of voluntary isolation, I’ve mapped the regular walks I’ve taken over the two decades we’ve lived here in Castle Valley. (I would include the map here, but that might mean sharing these walks with people other than Terry and Winslow, the dog.) I will list some of them, however.
Hermit paths (various, near the house)
The Green Gate Walk
Coyote Path Redux
Grunt and Burp (actually, Grunt, Burp, and Fart)
Post Election Walkabout
Our Jefferies book has many references to psychologist Carl Jung, who helped explain much of what we loved about The Story of My Heart. Jung believed in two worlds. “The inner world is truly infinite,” he wrote, “in no way poorer than the outer world.” I realize that during these walks, while obviously occurring in the outer world, I’ve watched the line blur between it and the inner world. As a result, they have taken on mythical dimensions.
This necessitated that I separate my region into four additional worlds. The Hermit World; Midworld (between Hermit and Enchanted World); Enchanted World (where anything not illuminated has been eliminated); and Distantworld (“There be dragonflies”). Many features I’ve encountered throughout the years have taken on higher (symbolic? archetypal?) value, such as: Cave NOLAC (Cave that is no longer a cave), Portal (access from Midworld to Enchanted World), Pink Gate and Invisible Gate (access between Hermit World and Midworld), Green Gate (entrance to the vast home of the Queen), the Erotic Juniper, Skull Bush, and the Enchanted Forest.
So far, my pandemic has included all of these walks, save for Grunt and Burp, which hopefully I will take soon, perhaps tomorrow.
The earth’s lifeforce is a pulse. Who knows what information that force is bringing up from the middle of the earth.
The Story of My Heart attracted us for a number of reasons, mainly the revolutionary ideas to be found there. Although well-read, Jefferies was not well-educated, which caused me to conclude that his wisdom came up from the earth through the bottoms of his feet. While doing research for an essay I wrote for The Brooklyn Rail (find it here), I discovered that the earth does give off a force. The “Schumann Resonance” pulses at 7.83 hertz per second. The earth’s lifeforce is a pulse. Who knows what information that force is bringing up from the middle of the earth. And yes, the yuan-chauny is a place near the ball of our foot through which we absorb that force—that knowledge—with each step we take.
Yesterday afternoon, en route to the Enchanted Forest, I brushed against a sage heavy with seed as I dropped into the wash. Once loose, the sage pollen formed a visible cloud. “Such a rush of gladness,” I said out loud as I breathed in the yellow air. (I made a mental note that I’d never used the word “gladness” before.) Then, after walking a short distance, I found a large juniper and laid down in its shade. Looking up, the tiny moon sat perched where two branches forked, a crescent egg in its nest.
Brooke Williams has spent thirty years advocating for wildness, most recently with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and as the executive director of the Murie Center in Moose, Wyoming. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Business from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and a biology degree from the University of Utah. He’s written four books including Halflives: Reconciling Work and Wildness, and dozens of articles. He lives with his spouse, the writer Terry Tempest Williams, in Castle Valley, Utah.
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