THE BLOG
11/17/2014 11:31 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Richard Jefferies and the Role of the Dead

Obsession was the last thing on my mind as I read the opening pages of The Story of My Heart, the autobiography of Richard Jefferies, the 19th Century British Nature-mystic. The second-to-last thing on my mind: getting this small gem reissued for current readers.

Now that the book is back in circulation where it should be, one question that keeps coming up is "why put so much effort into a book that was first published 131 years ago?" After discovering the book in a dark corner of a shop in Stonington, Maine in 2010 Terry Tempest Williams and I spent the next four years working with Torrey House Press to bring this book to a vastly different audience than that for whom Jefferies originally wrote it.

"Why?" Terry's answers to this question center around the beauty of the writing and the power of the ideas -- wildness, for what he calls "the soul-life," and what being human means. Those are good reasons, but only part of why I invested so much in the re-birth of this book.

"I had no choice," is how I answer the question.

This has roots going back to another book, Dominion of the Dead in which author Robert Hogue Harrison makes the case that the dead are all around us, all of the time, that they know much more than we do, and they ''perpetuate their afterlives and promote the interests of the unborn" so that we, the living, will work to "keep the story going" into the future. I already sensed that that life goes on after death but Reading Harrison's book convinced me that after some important personal experience with dead people, I was not crazy and I was not alone.

There we were in the back of that bookshop, Terry standing still for longer than usual, a small tan volume open in her hands. "Have you ever seen this book?" she asked. "Have you ever heard of Richard Jefferies?" She closed the book and handed it to me. I didn't know it at the time, but that book became a door to the different fascinating dimension where the dead work to find ways to help the living and protect the future.

Torrey House Press loved the book too. The original deal with them was that they'd publish the book, Terry would write the introduction, and I'd write the afterword. We spent a month in England following in Jefferies' footsteps. I spent two years doing research, writing, and obsessing.

This included boring dinner parties where Jefferies and I dominated the conversation; long drives in the desert with Jefferies in the seat next to me, daily walks in conversation with Jefferies. Finally, Terry had written her introduction and I had my afterword -- actually 18,000 after words.

Much conversation and cutting later, my contribution comes at the end of each chapter, responding to the questions: "Why does this book matter today?" and "Why am I so obsessed with it?" Scott Slovic, founding president of Association for the Study of Literature of the Environment, and one of two people we knew already familiar with Jefferies, has written an actual afterword which blesses the book and places it in a literary context.

Based on what is now occurring all the time all around us -- politically, economically, and mainly environmentally -- this seems like a good time for the dead to weigh in. Jefferies saw glimmers of problems associated with too much wealth concentrated in too few. He cherished idleness, knowing it to be the antidote to lives he saw consumed by constant, mindless work. He believed in the power of the past to influence the present and the importance of regular exposure to the wild world. His quest for a "soul-life," for something beyond immortality inspires me.

More than inspired, I'm different because of Jefferies. I now have the strong sense that the small, incremental changes many of us are attempting to make in our personal lives will serve only to slow down our demise. We need massive infusions of imagination and creativity and courage to make quantum-scale, systemic changes in how we make things and how we fuel our desperate lives. And that our own collective wildness is the key.

Recently I heard the writer, Hampton Sides on the radio talking about his new book, In the Kingdom of Ice. I've loved many of his books and have just started reading this one--the story of George Washington De Long, a 19th Century Polar explorer. De Long lived from 1844 to 1881, Jefferies from 1848 to 1887. During the interview, I heard something familiar from Sides --a tone in his voice suggesting that De Long had miraculously found him, rather than the reverse. I'm reading the book for the adventure story, but also for hints that De Long may have information from that Great Beyond far beyond the North Pole, something we need now.

Someday, I hope to meet Hampton Sides -- at a cocktail party, perhaps. I'll summon him to a far corner and ask him if he felt that De Long had entered his bloodstream and if so, does he know why? I'll ask him if De Long changed his life in the same way the Jefferies changed mine. Then we'll both talk about what we're doing about that. And if they haven't already met, we'll introduce De Long and Jefferies to each other.