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Discussing Familial Roots and a Journey of Discovery

By Qian (Audrey) Li

Brooke Williams has been a freelance journalist for over thirty years, advocating for the wilderness and exploring places where the untamed outer wilderness and “internal” wilderness meet. On April 11, with reference to his new book, “Open Midnight: Where Wilderness and Ancestors Meet,” Williams offered his insights on discovering our role in evolution in a talk at the College.

“A memoir of wilderness, metaphysical transformation, ancestral immigration and Charles Darwin, ‘Open Midnight’ beautifully evokes the feeling of being solitary in the wild, at home in the deepest sense, in the presence of the sublime,” writes the Trinity University Press.

While researching the story of William Williams, his oldest known ancestor from England, Williams discovered that his ancestor lived at the same time as Charles Darwin, who also resided in Shrewsbury, England. This discovery triggered Williams to imagine the encounter between his ancestor and Darwin.

“My book has some imagination in it, but it is all non-fiction,” Williams said. “Like I say in the book, I am not sure that all of this stuff happened but I am not sure that they did not. Later I learned, Carl Jung said most everything you can imagine has roots in your unconscious. So that means what you imagine is true too, in a certain way, isn’t it?”

While William Williams is part of his personal family history, his imagined encounter with Darwin and Darwin’s theory of natural selection extended the search for his personal history back to the earliest moments when life first began. Williams went to England to learn more about his ancestor’s life and had an epiphany once he got there.

“I have gone thousands of miles to visit the place where my ancestors were born only to realize that just because my genealogy showed my earliest ancestor showing up there in the late 1700s, they did not just fall out of the sky,” Williams said. “My ancestors had ancestors who had ancestors who had ancestors going back to those first cells coming alive in that steamy swamp.”

“For the first time, I saw my family tree as a small branch connected to the entire massive tree of life … We are all related if we are willing to look back far enough,” he continued.

Fiona McCarey ’19, a film major, found that the talk resonated with what she has been doing in her environmental literature course this semester.

“We have been working a lot on connecting nature to larger ideas, more philosophical observations rather than the physical here and now,” McCarey said. “And I think Williams’ talk really spoke to that aspect when he was describing both physical spaces of red rocks in Utah and in Shrewsbury, but thinking in larger concepts of who was actually here, why were they here and where they were travelling to.”

The relationship between imagination and fiction that Williams talked about also helped McCarey with her recent confusion about these two seemingly contrasting concepts and inspired her to create a story that derives from her experience.

“I recently went to Silver Lake where I found weird burnt papers. I started to think that I could totally come up with this really cool story but that is not necessarily non-fiction and I do not know if I could write it for my environmental class,” McCarey said. “But now I think I will try to tackle that for my next paper.”

Speaking of her experience at the talk, McCarey relates Williams’ search for his ancestor’s stories to her own ancestors from Ireland which her father has discovered by doing researches at ancestry.com. As McCarey is planning to go study abroad in Ireland, she hopes to take Williams’s initiative and find out more about her ancestors while there.

“You forget where you necessarily come from because most of my family lives in America so I do not think about the before when you get here. So my take away is to think my family in a larger context of the world and how we are all interconnected,” McCarey said.

Leo McElroy ’18, a junior who studies physics and computer science, learned about the talk from the Calendar of Events and was intrigued by Williams’s experiences.

“I think that broadening one sense of ancestry to include a large portion of the natural world, or specifically the living world, was striking to me,” McElroy said. “I only did some basic genealogy stuff like drawing a family tree for four or five generations back when I was younger. I have not had the sense of guided by ancestors two hundred years back the way the speaker described.”

By weaving two parallel stories about the inner and outer wildernesses, Williams compares the place he loves to the place he actually comes from. Sharing his journey of discovering about his ancestors, Williams invited the audience to consider our entire being from both inside and outside, challenging our concepts of reality, spirituality and the wild.

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