Author Brooke Williams will read from his new book, “Open Midnight: Where Ancestors & Wilderness Meet,” at Back of Beyond Books on Wednesday, March 1, at 7 p.m.
Williams’ book tour will take him to both coasts, but Moab is the first stop.
“We love the bookstore here,” Williams said, referring to himself and to his wife, author Terry Tempest Williams. The couple split their time between Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Castle Valley, but Back of Beyond “is our home bookstore,” Williams said.
“Open Midnight” is a complex book – “We don’t know what shelf to put this on,” Williams said, with a laugh – that traces Williams’ evolving relationship with wilderness as well as his connection to his great-great-great grandfather William Williams, who was born in the same town as Charles Darwin and moved to America with the financial assistance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Williams first conceived of the book 15 years ago when a friend’s trip to England prompted him to investigate his own family history.
“Darwin represents all of our greater history,” Williams said. “William Williams represents my personal history.” The book, he said, has “been through a lot of different incarnations.”
In a partly imagined biography reconstructed from the few details of William Williams’ life that still survive, Williams follows his ancestor’s journey from Shrewsbury, Darwin’s hometown, to death on the wagon crossing of Wyoming. Between the chapters describing this journey, Williams describes how, thanks to his ancestor, he shifted from “exploring new and different ways to save wilderness” to “discovering how wilderness saves us.”
“I used to work over in Escalante,” Williams said, referring to the time he spent advocating for the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “I was really idealistic and I took people for their word that these issues” – the conflicts over new wilderness designations – “were more about economics than anything else.”
“What I realized during those years I worked in Escalante was it’s not about economics. It’s about control,” he said.
Williams’ work with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, from county meetings to lonely drives on desert roads verifying maps, has gradually led him to a resigned pessimism toward the political battles over wilderness. He sees the pushback against wilderness areas or national monuments as an ideological, not an economic, disagreement. And he thinks the two sides are getting farther apart.
“At one time I was idealistic enough to think a compromise was possible,” Williams said. “I don’t anymore.”
Stepping back from the ideological fighting, Williams turns his focus to “ground-truth,” a term he first encountered as a verb: to check the accuracy of a map by visiting the terrain it depicts. Out in the Utah desert with a map, his truck and his dog, he began to understand ground-truth as a noun: the inescapable feeling of connection to the living land that he experienced on those journeys.
That’s what Williams regards as truth: “that basis of our connection to that biological life force,” he said.
He recalls the advice of University of Montana writing professor William Kittredge: Find the one story you’ll tell over and over again for the rest of your life.
“My story,” Williams said, “is that we are biological beings basically unchanged since the Pleistocene.”
Back of Beyond owner Andy Nettell said he’s looking forward to hosting Williams again. The last time Williams held a reading there was to promote his previous book, “Halflives: Reconciling Work and Wilderness,” in 1999.
“Open Midnight,” Nettell said, is “the culmination of years and years of thought, a lot of which has come out of wandering the desert.”
“It’s really satisfying to see it culminate in another book,” he added. “We’re excited to do all we can to help.”
Local author Brooke Williams launches new book in Moab on March 1
What: A book reading with author Brooke Williams
When: Wednesday, March 1, at 7 p.m.
Where: Back of Beyond Books, 83 N. Main St.
Back of Beyond is located at 83 N. Main St. For more information, contact the bookstore at 435-259-5154. “Open Midnight: Where Ancestors & Wilderness Meet” will be available in March from Trinity University Press.