In the 1932 movie Grand Hotel, ice queen Greta Garbo listlessly utters one of the most enduring phrases ever spoken onscreen: “I want to be alone.” Her ennui is palpable; I suspect part of the reason why the line has become so iconic is because, frankly, everyone can relate. Have you ever found yourself forced into making small talk with a milquetoast acquaintance and wanted to crumble into ash and disappear?
At these moments, I find that my most consistent wish is to flee everything I have ever known and live alone in the woods: foraging for food, reading books, maybe writing the odd letter. I am clearly not alone in my wish: there have been countless books written by people who go out and do exactly that thing. “The eremitic temptation follows an immutable cycle: one must first suffer from indigestion of the heart of the modern city in order to dream of a cosy cabin in a clearing. Bogged down in the grease of conformity and padded in the fat of comfort, one becomes attuned to the call of the forest,” writes Sylvain Tesson in Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga.
In 2010, Tesson relocated to a small geologist’s cabin in Siberia with six-month supply of hot sauce, pasta, and books to “finally find out if [he had] an inner life.” The journals he kept during his time there sketch out the arresting beauty of living on the shore of Lake Baikal: bitter winds, paralyzing silence and ice thick enough to drive over. Tesson does little more than smoke cigars, drink vodka, and read books, but over the course of six months he learns to contemplate life with a rawness usually reserved for the therapist’s chair. His book list reads like an abridged history of nature hermits: A Year in a Cabin in the Yukon by Olaf Candau, Treatise on Solitary Cabins by Antoine Marcel, and Indian Creek Chronicles: A Winter Alone in the Wilderness by Pete Fromm to name just three. It is clear Tesson was not the first lonely man who believed it is “better to live joyfully in a wilderness clearing than languish in a city.”
Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 and lived in a world more heavily populated by dance cards than 4G mobile networks. Yet in 1845 he’d had enough of trying to keep up with the pace of society and decided—in not his exact words—“Fuck it, I’m building a cabin from scratch on idyllic Walden Pond.” Despite a beard that says otherwise, Thoreau was hardly a mountain man. He was an upper class intellectual, and his escape to Walden was a based on a desire to live on his own terms, rather than in step with the obedient townsfolk of Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau found great pleasure in scouring nature to fulfill his needs and the time he spent fishing in the moonlight and plucking ripe huckleberries would come to define his life and work.
The closest I have ever come to a genuine commune with nature is when I camped for almost a month straight in British Columbia. Before I left Ontario, I had the distinct feeling that something inside me was rotting; my insides were a dank cave full of stalagmites that enclosed something horrible if I only ventured deep enough to find out. I sensed it and fled to the forests and the mountains of the West, where I have never gazed upon such honest displays of nature: jutting cliffs, holey soapstones and serpentine arbutus trees. I hiked up rock faces in Valhalla Provincial Park, paddled the Fraser River straight into Vancouver, and witnessed bioluminescence on the beaches of Galiano Island.
Before then, I was more of an armchair environmentalist — someone with good intentions for saving the world, but doesn’t like to get dirty. But outside my comfort zone, I learned that the truest happiness comes from expending your energy to fulfill the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, warmth, shelter), rather than spending every day worrying about self-actualization. We spent our time setting up tents, taking them down and cooking massive meals on miniature camp stoves. We hiked, canoed, and drove in musty white vans singing along to the Decemberists. The rot inside me started to dry up. But when I was plopped back into the detritus of everyday life, the black goo started to seep back.
The only way to extricate yourself from the heaviness and clutter of everyday existence is to find a place where the clarity of scenery reflects your ideal state of mind. This is why writers and artists have outdoorsy retreats like the Banff Center, where they can “get away from it all,” going on hikes and breathing unpolluted mountain air. Physical space begets mental space. At the risk of sounding like Adbusters, the endless cycle of pop culture that tells us what we ought to like suppresses the thoughts and desires that are actually inside. My own journey was much shorter than Thoreau’s or Tesson’s—1.5 months instead of two years, and 6 months respectively. Yet all three of us followed the eremitic call, and found something larger and more satisfying within ourselves by living closer to nature. When you reach this apex it almost feels like you’ve unlocked the key to the meaning of life.
So many of us badly want to escape this world we have built ourselves. For some, deleting Facebook is enough. Others require a bit more compromise–an off-the-grid bunker where they can live undisturbed off the fruit of the land. Both decision reject social capital as defined by others. Society tends to disapprove of solitary figures because their rejection of civilized norms is a “blot on the social contract,” writes Tesson. But hermits have lived inside society and out, and simply prefer their detached existence in the woods to pretending to care about the things everyone else values. In rural Maine, a hermit named Christopher Knight lived alone in the woods for 27 years, subsisting entirely on food and provisions burglarized from neighbouring campgrounds. When he was arrested for theft, a State Trooper asked him if he was happy. “No, I’m content. They’re two different things,” he replied.
The dream of a cabin alone in the woods allows us to tune out the din of pop culture and make space for clarity of thought. We do it to confront our issues; to put a mirror to our insides and judge if we see what we like. Yes, we want to escape the chatter and cacophony of society, but ultimately we want to know who we are. As Tesson lays it out; “It’s good to know that out there, in a forest in the world, there is a cabin where something is possible, something fairly close to the sheer happiness of being alive.”