Have you ever been overcome by a sense of awe and wonder? Perhaps outside watching the sun set over a roiling ocean or watching the Milky Way spin overhead on a moonless night? Perhaps you had a sense that you were small yet connected, insignificant and humble yet in touch with something much bigger than yourself, something huge. It is a transcendent feeling, one that Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams are intimately familiar with, and one they recognized right away when they picked up an antique copy of THE STORY OF MY HEART by nineteenth century naturalist and mystic, Richard Jefferies. There, in a charming New England independent bookstore, kindred spirits connected over the generations.
At Torrey House Press we think the nineteenth century transcendentalists including Richard Jefferies, and today Brooke and Terry, are on to something. It is a big something that is at the cutting edge of realizing meaning and significance. In THE STORY OF MY HEART, Richard Jefferies speaks of the soul being “the mind of my mind.” Jefferies was tuned into the fast-breaking science of his day. He knew about atomic spectral analysis which was discovered very near the time he wrote THE STORY OF MY HEART. He knew about Darwin’s ideas of evolution (and did not accept them). But whenever Jefferies spent time in natural environments he was thrilled and overwhelmed by the experience of being connected to something greater than religion, or science, or anything that common comprehension allowed. Jefferies had what religious scholar Marcus Borg would call a “thin rind.” He was more sensitive and more aware than most. Like the great mystics before him, Jefferies was easily connected to something real and big out there and it nearly drove him nuts trying to express what he found and experienced.
Today in science, the source and reason for human consciousness remains a mystery. To a pure and reasoned scientist, our sense of self and awareness and free will is necessarily but an elegant illusion, an epiphenomenon that springs from the electro-chemical mechanics in our brains. To most scientists that is, perhaps not to all. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics invokes consciousness as the source of a probability wave collapse that brings into existence a material particle where before there was only probability. It is an interpretation that has withstood the rigorous inquiries of science for nearly one hundred years. And it is at the quantum uncertainty level that there comes the possibility of choice, the possible source of the free will and sense of self that we all have. Adventurous thinkers today are considering the brain as a quantum amplifier that can convert the realm of the quantum into that of the material world. There is a notion that a universal consciousness is required to make this new hypothesis work. In that hypothesis, it works out that the material world springs from consciousness, not the other way around. Following this line of logic, there are legitimate questions of whether consciousness might be an element of the universe, just like space and time. And since we humans are creatures that evolved in the wild, it is back home in the wild that we can be most connected to this universal element, and it is through us that the universe becomes aware and continues to evolve.
It well could be that Jefferies was better than most at linking in with universal consciousness. His tool was to get outside and pay attention. With his resulting experience he rejected the idea that he was a simple creation of ancient religious myths or that he was just an elegant machine of science. Brooke and I have discussed how these notions exist somewhere between the disciplines of science and philosophy. Thus it takes free and bold thinkers like Brooke and Terry, smart and objective but not confined to a narrow academic silo, to engage with their own life experiences and more deeply explore this source of meaning, of significance. In that sense they are the new Transcendentalists. Working with them on this adventure of thought has been an honor and privilege for us at Torrey House. A truly transcendent experience.