How NOT to Go Into Solitude!
[Phil sent the following article, which recently appeared in the Guardian, as an example of how not to go into solitude]
Russia: solitude in Siberia
Friday 31 May 2013 21.00 BST
In search of the simple life, Sylvain Tesson spent six months living in a remote hut on the shore of Siberia's Lake Baikal, on a retreat that reveals much about our need for escape
I stayed at Lake Baikal for the first time in 2003. Walking along the shore, I discovered cabins at regular intervals, inhabited by strangely happy recluses. Five years later I chanced to spend three days with a ranger in a tinyizba, a traditional Russian log cabin, on the eastern shore of the lake. At night we sipped vodka and played chess; during the day I helped him haul in his fishing nets. We hardly spoke, but we read a lot. That was when I promised myself I would live alone in a cabin for a few months before I turned 40.
So, two years ago, I left my home in Paris and spent six months in a little hut on the Lake's western shore, very far from civilisation: it was six days' walk to the nearest village, a day from the nearest neighbour, and there were no access roads.
I wanted to experiment with the simple life and claim back time. I wanted to feel life, and understand how it would look just contemplating the landscape, rather than harvesting kilometres on the road as I was used to when travelling. I have done many great adventures (crossing the Himalayas on foot in 1997, walking the route the gulag escapees took, from Yakutsk in Siberia to Calcutta, in 2003). But it became a disease I wanted to cure.
Lake Baikal is 395 miles long, 49 miles wide, 1,642m (just over a mile) deep, and 25 million years old. I arrived in February, when temperatures drop to -30C and the ice is over a metre thick. I was driven across it in a truck.
Constructed in the 1980s as a geologist's hut, my cabin lay in a clearing of cedar forest in the northern sector of the Baikal-Lena nature reserve. The owners, Volodya T, a 50-year-old forest ranger and his wife Ludmilla, had lived there for 15 years, but they wanted to move to Irkutsk. Other rangers were spaced about 19 miles apart through the reserve.
Sylvain Tesson's cabin in Siberia
The cabin had its back to the mountains, at the foot of a slope 1,981m high, surrounded by coniferous taiga and with views of the lake. Snow had meringued the roof; the beams were the colour of gingerbread. It measured nine square metres and was heated by a noisy cast-iron stove. I could put up with the snoring of this particular companion. I had two windows: through one, looking east, I could see the snowy crests of Buryatia, 60 miles away. The winter forest was a silvery fur tossed onto the shoulders of the terrain.
I took a lot of equipment with me: axe and cleaver, fishing poles, kerosene lamp, ice drill, saw, snowshoes, tent, liquor glasses and vodka, cigars, provisions (pasta, rice, Tabasco sauce, coffee) and a library of almost 80 books.
You can't predict the mood you will be in six months later, so I had planned my library carefully. It would be an easy mistake to choose only difficult reading, and think you would only need high-minded, philosophical, idealistic writing. Then after 10 days you want to kill your book and read a detective novel.
I chose a wide range of philosophy, poetry, literature, nature books. Michel Déon for melancholy, DH Lawrence for sensuality, some philosophers (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, the Stoics), Sade and Casanova to stir my blood. Some books on life in the woods: Daniel Defoe for myth, Grey Owl for his radical stance, Aldo Leopold for ethics. In some respects the whole experience was to put a library in the woods.
If I had not had books, I would have gone quickly mad. A book is a way to have someone with you. For the first time in my life I was able to read a whole book, beginning to end without stopping, sometimes reading for eight hours straight.
I cut my day into two parts. In the morning I did spiritual things: reading, writing, smoking, learning poetry, looking out of the window. In the afternoon I was more physical: digging a hole in the ice, fishing, running around my little kingdom in snowshoes, cutting firewood.
By restricting the panoply of actions, one goes deeper into each experience. The castaway enjoys absolute freedom – but within the limits of his island.
People who live in cabins can quickly fall into a state of depression, of cabin fever. Because you don't see anyone, you can spend your life lying in bed drinking vodka and nobody will say anything to you. So it's important to organise your time with activity, like the monks did, or Robinson Crusoe, who dressed for dinner every night though he was shipwrecked and alone. The way to stay smart is to behave when you are alone as you would surrounded by people in the city.
What was pleasant about this life was the repetition of acts. Each day goes by, a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come. You can find happiness in the possibility of things, but you can also find it in knowing exactly what will happen. It is peaceful, a very slow life, but you become rich.
I have a lot of vitality and need to do sports, so I went out and walked every day, climbed the hills around the cabin, and occasionally took a tent and hiked into the wilderness to bivouac in the woods. And to go ice skating on this frozen lake was amazing.
I also relied on a few goods from civilisation for pleasure: including vodka and cigars. I liked the idea of living in a very huge remote place but with some real luxury goods. Then you balance your life, moving between the two contrasting experiences, archaic and luxurious. After a day's walking in the snow and fishing at -30C, it is wonderful to read Chinese poetry while smoking a Havana.
Though I lived alone, it was not real solitude. For real hermitude you are alone for years and years. For me it was a relative thing.
I sometimes visited those who lived nearest, and I often had visitors – people I knew, sometimes strangers who happened to be crossing the lake. It wasn't too painful for me as they would only stay for a couple of hours, and it would interrupt the loneliness. And anyway, I didn't want to live a very extreme, challenging, difficult life. It was just an experience.
Through Sergei and Natasha, a couple who ran the weather station 31 miles from the cabin, I met Sasha and Yura, two Siberian fishermen. They were archetypal Russians, very strong, very big, speaking loudly, drinking a lot, very generous people with a lot of energy, who hadn't cut their link with the wilderness. If you put those people in the city they would be like an elephant.
These people have a rustic life, an intense and important life. They enjoy it, though they are perfectly aware that it has negative and positive aspects. Life is physically difficult. It is hard to live in a forest in the cold. When you are 50 you look 70 years old. But for sure they would not change it for a life in the city. They know that they would lose their freedom there. Better to live joyfully in a wilderness clearing than languish in a city.
Milan Kundera said because Russia didn't have an elite in its history, and no Renaissance, Russians are still in a state of irrationality and magical thinking, like the Middle Ages. I found that with these kind of people. They don't say superficial things, only wise things. They are not blah-blah-blah people, like me. It was good not to have to keep a conversation going. Why is life with others so hard? Because you always have to find something to say. I thought of those days of walking around Paris nervously tossing off "Just-fine-thank-yous" and "Let's-get-together-soons" to people I didn't really know, who babbled the same things to me, as if in a panic.
It's incredible how much mankind hogs its own attention. The presence of others makes the world fade out. Solitude is the reconquest of the enjoyment of things. The only way to be free is to be alone. You still have laws, of nature, your own discipline, but the beginning of coercion, compromise, imprisonment begins with just one other person.
Boredom didn't frighten me. There are worse pangs: the sorrow of not sharing with a loved one the beauty of lived moments. Solitude: what others miss out on by not being with the person who experiences it.
I was warned before I left Paris that boredom would be my deadly enemy. I'd die of it! I'd listened politely. People who said such things assumed they themselves were superb entertainment. "Reduced to myself alone, I feed myself, it is true, on my own substance, but it is not exhausted," writes Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker.
In April I was given two dogs, Aika and Bek, who helped combat loneliness, and would bark if a bear came near, from the end of May when they came out of hibernation.
When the ice broke on 22 May, it happened suddenly: there was a storm and the ice shattered. I have never seen such power. It was like the elements were making war. In the west we talk about the beginning of spring, of entering spring. In Siberia there was no entering, no transition; it was rapid. In 10 minutes winter was defeated.
That month I sat at my table watching the ice die. Water seeped in everywhere, mottling the surface with black blotches. Then ducks who had been living it up down south landed in the open areas, eager for love and fresh water. Eagles soared, geese patrolled in gangs, gulls did nosedives, butterflies, amazed at being alive, staggered through the air.
Immersion in the Taiga was satisfying because I felt a belonging to nature. Unlike when you are crossing mountains, when you feel like a stranger on the edge, staying in one place makes you feel part of the forest, just like the bear, or a fish, or a bird.
The month of June, when the animals need their vigour for love, presents a problem in the cycle of life: how to bridge the gap between the awakening of May and the abundance of July? Nature has come up with … flies. By July, the air was loaded with bugs.
On 28 July I bade farewell to the lake. I went there not knowing whether I'd find the strength to stay; I left knowing I would return. I often lay in my hammock in the broiling sun. In my kayak I paddled onto the lake, as slick as oil, the reflection so pure you could misread which half of the mirror image was which. On Bastille Day, two friends were visiting from France, and we raised a flag on the beach and downed three vodka eye-openers.
A retreat is a revolt. In the outposts of Baikal the authority of Moscow holds hardly any sway. The urban liberal, leftist, revolutionary and upper-middle-class citizens all pay money for bread, gas and taxes. The hermit asks nothing from the state and gives nothing to the state. He disappears into the woods and thrives there. His retreat constitutes a loss of income for the government. Becoming a loss of income should be the objective of true revolutionaries.
I couldn't live permanently in the cabin. But I have been back to the taiga a couple of times, and I know I will experience again an act of hermitism, maybe for longer. I discovered the Algerian desert a few years ago, and I think the desert is a good place to do this: taiga without the trees.
I am still wandering, but I am not so obsessed with travelling. My experience made me understand that the best way to stop feeling that time is fleeing is just to sit somewhere for a while. I discovered that living within silence is rejuvenating. That the parade of hours is busier than the ploughing-through of miles. That the eye never tires of splendour.
I'm sure more people today will want to do what I did. I think an increasing number will need, at some time, to cut themselves off and escape modern life, then come back later to a more simple life. What I did was a radical acceleration of that. But the return to the forest, you can do it in your own home. Time is the most precious treasure we have. We all have 24 hours a day, but we are all destroying this treasure, especially with electronics. Always being contactable is the beginning of your loss of freedom. It is what we ask of prisoners ; it's like an electronic tag. There is always the intrusion of people into your time and it is horrible.
The first act is to throw out your mobile phone. Try to spend three hours in the same action, in the same consultation of time – writing, reading, doing some action.
Russians know that the taiga is there if things go wrong. It's good to know that out there, in a forest in the world, there is a cabin where something is possible, something close to the sheer happiness of being alive. So, refuseniks of every country, take to the woods! Consolation awaits you there.