In 2011, husband and wife Brooke and Terry Tempest Williams were perusing the aisles of a favorite antique-filled used bookstore in Stonington, Maine, when a small leather volume with the title The Story of My Heart embossed in gold drew Terry’s eye.
She picked it up, flipped it open and found herself instantly pulled into its dreamy musings on nature – curlicues of conjecture on the power of wandering through wild lands and the expansive potential of the soul. After several minutes, her husband found her standing in the aisle, engrossed in the book.
“I said, ‘What have you found?’” Brooke Williams recalls asking her.
Neither had heard of the author, a British essayist named Richard Jefferies. And neither knew it at the time, but the discovery was the start of a healthy obsession, a journey to get to know this long-dead writer and a project aimed at bringing his words to 21st-century readers.
Three years later, the pair has published a reissue of The Story of My Heart, as rediscovered by the Williamses. The slender brown book reads like a conversation – Terry Tempest Williams lays the groundwork in her introduction, and then Jefferies’ original chapters are interspersed with notes and contemplations of Brooke Williams.
The result is a small volume that packs a punch – The Story of My Heart is at once a philosophical treatise, a love story and a meditation on the ineffable power of nature on the human soul.
The couple will be in Durango today for a presentation of their project at the Durango Arts Center. Terry Tempest Williams said their goal with the book is to bring Jefferies’ little-known – but still relevant – ideas before modern readers.
“These are protest prose to live a more deliberate life,” she said. “He was writing in the Victorian age, and we are in the 21st century, and what makes us human remains constant.”
The Story of My Heart was first published in 1883. In it, Jefferies tells the story of his soul’s awakening through communion with the elements. The whispers of the wind, the dazzle of sunshine, the quiet of a night sky and the rhythms of the ocean help him develop what he refers to as his “soul-life.”
He writes of the value of watching clouds pass, explores the eternity of the soul and calls out the responsibility of the individual to work toward the future happiness of the human race.
After purchasing The Story of My Heart in 2011, the couple read most of it together in a day on an empty beach as the tide climbed toward them. To say they were compelled by the little book is an understatement.
“The insight that came to his brain just from moving around in nature was something I was really attracted to,” Brooke Williams said. “There is definitely something mystical about it, especially for me. I think it was right then that we said, ‘It would be great if we could figure out how to get this back into press.’”
The couple contacted a publisher in Salt Lake City about the potential of reissuing The Story of My Heart. The publisher agreed if the couple would write an introduction and afterword.
They said yes, and the process took them deeper than they expected. They researched Jefferies’ life, his contemporary fans (Rachel Carson among them) and previous reissues of the book. They ended up traveling to the Richard Jefferies Museum in the writer’s hometown of Swindon, England.
Brooke Williams in particular became obsessed with the man, meditating on his words, having silent conversations with him and bringing him up to anyone who would listen. And what began as his afterword turned into a dialogue that is woven into the reissue.
Brooke Williams said many of Jefferies’ ideas – he was concerned about pressure from industrial development, overpopulation and disparity in income – are still weighty today.
“The point of it is that, maybe it will inspire people to think: ‘These kinds of questions have been around for a long time, yet we haven’t done anything about them,’” he said. “We’re chained up by these ideas that have been around forever. We need something really big to happen. Small steps aren’t working.”
And Terry Tempest Williams said the couple found a soul mate in their search for a soul-life.
“I think ‘soul-life’ means to me living an authentic life and slowing down, being more attentive, improving the quality of our listening, living closer to the bone and being connected to a place that allows us to be connected to our soul,” she said. “I think it’s what we’re all hungry for, and we don’t even know what we are missing.”