By Zak Podmore
Immediately following the presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, author Brooke Williams walked out the door of his house in Castle Valley, Utah, with a backpack, parka, and a few hard boiled eggs. The excursions didn’t take him far from home as the raven flies, but they allowed him to tap into a new psychic reality that he says can open up when we wander into a wild landscape with only our sleeping bag and personal demons for company.
Williams’ detailed account of the trips forms the basis for his new book Mary Jane Wild: Two Walks and a Rant (Homebound Publications, 2021), a deep meditation on politics, ecology, and psychology that attempts to describe what a logistically simple solo walk in the desert can offer us as a species. Drawing on everything from academic research that shows wilderness experiences can be an effective treatment for depression and PTSD to philosophical inquiries into the worldwide wisdom tradition of hermits and mystics, Mary Jane Wild shows us why wild places matter in the age of climate disasters and uncertain politics.
I caught up with Williams by phone to hear more about the book and the hikes behind it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Zak Podmore: A recurring theme throughout the book is the distinction between what you call the inner and outer wilderness, and you work to demonstrate how each concept is dependent upon the other. You write, for example, that the most effective way to access your inner wilderness is by spending time in the outer wilderness of redrock deserts and night skies. What do you mean by the two wildernesses?
Brooke Williams: They refer to Carl Jung’s idea of the inner and outer world: the unconscious — which is composed of the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious — and then ordinary reality. I don’t know if it’s my getting older or what, but I tend to put things into fewer and fewer boxes where I can access them better. That said, the outer wilderness is all we can see and touch. It’s what Jung referred to as the outer world. The inner world in the Jungian sense is the inner wilderness, the shamanic “non-ordinary” reality. I also consider this our evolutionary body. It all lines up in a very simple fashion for me, which is what I need.
I just got back from Maine where I teach a semester at Colby College every year. I think my job is to help my students realize that the modern, physical world we live in is only a small part of all that’s out there. And that non-ordinary reality, our inner worlds, may contain a pool of information that we need right now. We’re encouraged to ignore that other, inner world because we can’t see or touch it or prove that it’s there. This important dimension has been part of human life since we first appeared on earth. That it’s missing from our current existence may explain many of our problems.
Contrary to what people might think on first seeing the book title, Mary Jane Wild doesn’t refer to an intoxicating plant but a system of canyons near your home in Castle Valley, where nearly all of this book takes place. But there are some mind-altering or reality-bending processes at work in the book that emerge when you step through what you call “the portal.” What does this portal represent and what lies on the other side?
Someone told me once that these things are not a matter of, you need to see it to believe it, but the reverse, you need to believe it in order to see it. I love a quote I just heard, “Those who do not believe in magic will never experience it.” And I love that idea.
The portal is actually a culvert that goes underneath the La Sal Loop Road in Castle Valley, and it separates the sagebrush-juniper flats from the canyons that lead up to Castleton Tower and eventually over into the Mary Jane Wilderness. I often walk from our house across the BLM land to the Loop Road, which I’ve always walked across. But that day, for some reason, I walked beneath the road, through the culvert. On the other side, I realized that something shifted. I’d entered an enchanted landscape.
This past fall, my sister brought her kids and her grandkids down for a walk. When we got to the culvert, I explained to them that this was a portal and that one side of it was different from the other. One of the kids — Sage, who’s six— got it. She would pick up a rock and say, “Brooke, will this rock change colors when we go back through the portal?” “Will our car still start once we go back through the portal?” Her mind just took off, and I just love that about kids. I realize that we were all like that as children. We all get that trained out of us so we can become good little consumers where we can’t get by without our technology and the constant input that masks who we really are, what we inherently know.
Castle Valley is a very spectacular place with a spectacular backyard, to say the least. But do you think accessing this portal to an inner wilderness requires us to visit a designated wilderness area or national park? Or is this something that can be found closer to civilization in any wild or semi-wild place?
I think our inner worlds are most obvious and most easily accessed when we’re in a wild place. In my book, I write a lot about hermits. I’ve been in touch with the writer Bill Porter, aka Red Pine. He lives in Port Townsend, Washington, but he spends a lot of time in Taiwan. He translates fifth-, six-, eighth-century Chinese poet hermits, and writes books on his travels. He wrote a great book called The Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. He and I have a three-year correspondence. Based on all I’ve learned from Red Pine about Chinese philosophy, I realize I must be a Taoist.
Red Pine suggests that there are two kinds of hermits: Little hermits and Great hermits. Little hermits need massive amounts of wild places and solitude. The Great hermit, however, can be a hermit wherever he or she is. I like that. It can happen anywhere. But for me, being out in wild places — places similar to those our ancestors have lived in for 200,000 years — suggests that there’s a whole lot going on out there that does not immediately meet the eye.
Something else that you mentioned in the book that I really liked was the distinction between “stoke” and “awe.” And I feel like that’s something that comes up a lot in the debate over Bears Ears and the way non-native Americans like us have had the opportunity to become more educated about Indigenous ties to the landscape through the Bears Ears movement. We’ve been told again and again, and rightly so, that Indigneous values and stories and ancestral connections to the land don’t always line up with the more Western-oriented adrenaline seeking that has become such a big part of the way a lot of people interact with wilderness or wild places.
I got chills when you mentioned that. I’ve been involved in different conservation issues for forty years. I was involved in efforts leading up to the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, looking mainly at the economic benefits of protecting wild places. Later, I realized the debate over land protection was much bigger and deeper than economics, and I wasn’t even sure what it was or how to put any words to it. Then, later hearing Native people rise up and say, “Now it is time for us to talk about sacred places” it all made sense.
So many white people are looking differently at Indigenous wisdom because of the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. This is part of a much bigger movement, but Bears Ears is certainly a huge piece of it. This may be why there is so much ill-placed opposition to the national monument because unconsciously people who have their religious lives completely in order do not want to feel challenged by this idea of what is ‘sacred’; they do not want to have their belief system altered or nudged or tilted at all. But if we’re going to figure out how to adapt to the climate-impacted future we’re facing — there are many things we can do: stop burning carbon, eat locally, use renewable energy, for example — but we also have to tap into Indigenous knowledge. That’s always a factor on the list. Native people have thrived for far longer than we have. They know something.
In the book, you talk about how your life’s work as a writer and thinker has been exploring the notion of deep biological time, the idea that we’re all walking around with Pleistocene genes in the middle of the Anthropocene. How did you explore that notion in the Mary Jane Wilderness?
That’s such an important piece of it because I sense that while out backpacking, we’re living as close as we possibly can to the lives evolution prepared us to live. Wild landscapes offer an opportunity to tap into our biological, evolutionary body that we have. When we’re not encumbered by technology or vehicles or television, our biology comes alive. That’s the real key, I think. Spending time in the place where our evolutionary body and the evolutionary landscape mesh. For me, this may be the most important reason to protect wild places.