By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Before William Williams joined other Mormon faithful—before he, too, set out on his own religious pilgrimage westward, ultimately dying in Wyoming—this ancestor of writer Brooke Williams was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England in 1808.
Just months later, Charles Darwin, one of the godfathers of evolution, was born in the exact same community.
Cut from different socioeconomic cloth, it is unknown if Williams and Darwin ever crossed paths as boys from, figuratively, different sides of the tracks. Each, however, would later embark on journeys that changed the course of history.
In the case of the former, his shaped the destiny of the Williams clan in the West. For Darwin, famously, it involved sailing aboard the Beagle on a nautical course around the southern tip of South America and up to the Galapagos Islands, where the genesis for writing about the origin of species awaited.
In his new book, “Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet,” Brooke Williams, who divides his time between Jackson Hole and Castle Valley, Utah, muses on his affinity for untrammeled nature; on how landscape propels people forward and alters perception; and how the quest for meaning in wilderness delivers spiritual sustenance.
In late July, Williams gave a reading in Bozeman, met by a strong turnout of friends who have followed his work and that of his wife, Terry Tempest Williams. (Terry was on her own book tour in support of the paperback release of her acclaimed homage to America’s national parks titled “The Hour of Land.”)
Both Williamses were raised in the Latter-day Saints faith. Today, Brooke identifies as a “post-Mormon.” He’s still trying to make sense of his heritage, knowing it is sometimes easier to see more clearly from the outside than in. He readily says he is at once an outgrowth of moral ideals that sprung from his kinfolk who settled in their holy version of Zion, the promised land, where teachings emphasize dominion over nature, and yet he is a passionate defender of wilderness.
Today, Utah is ground zero for the modern sagebrush rebellion, a state where the power of LDS religious philosophy is tethered to a political ideology that is anti-federal government, anti-federal public lands ownership, anti-environmental regulation and anti what is, for Williams, his own reverence for leaving nature alone.
Landscape protection has actually proved to be very lucrative for Utah’s economy with nature-tourism, the main driver of Utah’s popularity as a destination.
If you did not care about national monuments like Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante before, you will with Williams as your Thoreau-esque chaperone.
The thing about “Open Midnight” is that it is, in a way, a celebration of public lands, but it’s not a rant. Rather, Williams uses the parallel courses of his great-great-great grandfather and Charles Darwin as springboards for pondering the existential factors that determine where people end up in their lives. What Williams couldn’t piece together from historic records about his relative, he invents by trying to imagine his frame of mind.
In fact, he gives his ancestor the chance he never had—to experience wild Utah in all her glory. As part of a trek of self-discovery, the author is a thoughtful, nurturing interpreter taking us to the wild haunts he loves, escorting readers on walkabouts through the slot canyons, pinyon-covered mesas and corners of southern Utah where ancient people first trekked a dozen millennia ago.
He ponders the things that impulsed William Williams and Darwin and he delves into his own grasp of the sacred. It’s a complicated weaving but it holds together. He brings his reflections into shining light, set against the backdrop of an immigrant’s dream.
William Williams was bound for Utah but he died on Oct. 9, 1863, along the banks of the Sweetwater River in far southwestern Fremont County, Wyoming. Pondering the prospect of a better life that on faith alone compelled his elder to seek the unknown and to perish trying to find it, Brooke Williams literally wades into the Sweetwater baptizing his own conviction that humility in nature holds answers.
“I believe that there is an underlying goodness, rightness and order in the universe,” he writes of his optimism even in these challenging times. “Call it what you will—God, a higher power, Great Spirit, Yahweh, Allah—but something is out there holding all this together, and it is big, complex, and beyond the most distant and radical limits of our ability to understand or even imagine, which renders meaningless all the arguments we have about life and death and what’s out there beyond the beyond.”
We are not in control, he admits, while finding solace and not fear in places that remind him of that fact. “I feel good knowing that something is true even when it is beyond our ability to know,” he adds.
What I know is Williams has penned a book that, in the best sense, will leave you agape, whether you believe in the religious definition of the word or not.
Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.
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