- Published: 28 September 2014 28 September 2014
[reprinted with permission from Advance Read Copy.]
JM: Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.
WH: I live on an off-grid organic farm in the mountains of western North Carolina. I love growing my own fruits and vegetables and literally feeding my family. It’s also gratifying to see my son picking berries and milking goats, flipping over rocks in the creek searching for salamanders, and exploring what’s left of the wild world.
JM: Where were you living when you were 7 years old?
WH: I lived in a small house in a lower-middle class neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. My mom ran a babysitting business out of our house; my dad was a police officer and coach of my baseball team, which won the league just a few months before the Cardinals won the World Series. It was the best summer of my childhood.
JM: Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?
WH: My fifth grade science teacher, Robert Fixman, ignited my love of science and the natural world. His classroom contained several plastic swimming pools filled with crayfish that endured our experiments testing their claw strength. Best of all, though, was Mr. Fixman’s astronomy unit. I vividly remember him drawing the constellation Orion on the blackboard, one star at a time, beginning with Betelgeuse (still my favorite star). He showed us how Orion’s stars could be used as guideposts to find other constellations. One cold winter evening, he organized a Star Night on the elementary school playground, where parents and kids drank hot chocolate and huddled around a telescope. Thanks to Mr. Fixman, I was—and still am—utterly awestruck by the night sky. One of the big reasons I moved to the mountains was so I could see the stars at night.
JM: Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?
WH: Walden and the Tao Te Ching were life changers early on, but an anthropological work called Tarahumara by Bernard Fontana probably has shaped my adult life more than any other. It introduced me to a tribe of subsistence farmers in Mexico living in the deepest canyons on the continent who can run hundreds of miles virtually barefoot. I’ve spent the past decade visiting them and learning from them. I founded a nonprofit to help them keep a foothold on their ancestral lands. They are the toughest people I have ever met—and also the most joyful.
JM: Do you have a favorite children’s book?
WH: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It was the first book that ever made me cry. Now I read it to my sons. Inspired by the book, we have a beech tree in the forest with our initials carved in it.
JM: What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?
WH: For our elementary school musical Steamboating, our teacher asked us to come up with a word for each letter of the title that described something about the musical. For S, someone shouted “singing!” For T, someone said “tickets!” When we got to the letter M, my friend Bennie whispered a word into my ear. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was a big and impressive-sounding word, so I proudly shouted “masturbation!”
JM: Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?
WH: I still haven’t figured out all the rules of being a grown-up, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far: You will get your heart broken. You will lose. You will get hurt. You will be disappointed. You will make dumb mistakes. Learn from them, get back on your feet, and fight harder. The most important thing you can do in life is keep getting back up, over and over and over again.
Many people cheat and deceive—both themselves and others—to get what they want. Don’t do that to yourself. You’ll feel hollow and empty, even if you make a lot of money and can buy a lot of stuff. Measure your success with your own internal bearings. There is nothing more important than your integrity of your heart. It speaks without talking.
No one will notice most of the good things you do. You won’t get a star by your name or extra credit. You’ll have to grade yourself. Hold yourself to high standards.
Grow wiser and more mature without losing your inner playfulness. Keep your youthful heart alive even as you get older. It’s really hard to do. There are a lot of forces trying to grind you down into a boring, monotonous, working machine following the same worn-out routines. Nourish your buoyant, joyful spirit by taking on new adventures, seeking out beautiful places, and surrounding yourself with inspiring people.
You are alive. You are breathing. That is always something to celebrate and never to take for granted. Let the light of the universe shine through you, whether you’re creating a masterpiece or washing dishes. Live for more than yourself. You are a part of something larger.
JM: How did you meet your wife? How did your first date go?
WH: During my senior year of college, I was working part-time, and my boss asked me to take her niece out to dinner since she was new to town. I was dreading it…until she opened the door. She was gorgeous, and I was wearing jean shorts. I stumbled and stammered through dinner, taking her to the nicest restaurant I could afford, but it didn’t seem to impress her all that much. Afterward, with absolutely nothing else to lose, I invited her to go backpacking the next weekend. She smiled for the first time all evening. We hiked and paddled and swam and camped together, and something clicked. We’ve been together for 18 years (married for the last 12) and we still return often to that riverside camping spot—now with our two boys.
JM: Will your fans get to read another book from you any time soon?
WH: Right now, I’m trying to wrap up the fall harvest in between travels for Untamed, but once the farm is tucked in for winter, I hope to hunker down and start working on my next project.
JM: And finally, the Time Travel question: IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME to any period from before recorded history to yesterday, be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice, actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all, meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them. When would you go? Where would you go? Who would you want to meet?And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?
WH: I would return to pre-contact Native America. I don’t glorify the noble savage; I know they burned down forests and over-hunted some species. I realize that tribes routinely slaughtered each other and starved to death in winter. And I’ve spent enough time with indigenous people today to understand that they are human beings who share the basic desires and dreams and disappointments as we do.
But of all the world’s civilizations, the first people of North America seemed to have been one of the most sustainable. I’d like to know how they made it work. I’d like to understand where we went wrong. Was it the advent of agriculture? Or the advanced weaponry of warfare? Were the natives doomed to be decimated by European diseases and domination? Could it have turned out differently?
I’d also like to see the North American continent before Europeans arrived. I’d like to see the fecundity of life, the sheer numbers of wolves and bears in the forest, the oceans teeming with whales and dolphins, the skies darkened by birds. I’d like to see Cumberland Island, raw and wild, with saber-toothed cats prowling the forests and thousands of turtles nesting on its beaches.
Most of all, I’d like to live with the indigenous people who first settled in the mountain valley that I call home. How did they experience it? I’d like to see if I could last more than a few weeks surviving off the land with them, gleaning some of their lived wisdom. Would I long for the comforts of modernity? Could I learn to attune myself more keenly to nature’s rhythms? Walking in their worn moccasins, could I deepen my experience of life?
JM: Thanks, Will! If you wouldn't mind a companion, I'll join you on this one.