At the beginning of 2011, I had the distinct feeling that something inside me was rotting. My insides felt like a dank cave full of stalagmites that enclosed something horrible if I only ventured deep enough to find out. So to figure out what was wrong with me, I fled my suffocating university town for the wilds of Super Natural British Columbia. To the rest of Canada, BC is known as the place with beautiful mountains and really good weed. I camped for almost a month straight; hiking up rock faces in Valhalla Provincial Park, on a bioluminescent beach, and on an island so serious about their leave-no-trace rule we had to pack up human waste too (that part was kind of gross).
It turns out I am just a blip in the timeline of spending time alone in nature to find myself. There have been countless books written by people who go out and do exactly that thing. In 2010, Sylvain Tesson relocated to a small geologist’s cabin in Siberia with a supply of hot sauce, pasta, and books. In his book Consolations of the Forest, he writes, “I have come to do what always intimidated me…to finally find out if I have 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. 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.” 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, Indian Creek Chronicles: A Winter Alone in the Wilderness by Pete Fromm, and of course, Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Henry David Thoreau is the patron saint of those who seek to find themselves in nature. Despite a beard that says otherwise, Thoreau was hardly a mountain man – he was an upper class intellectual. 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.” His escape to Walden (and subsequent book about it) 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, even though his peers thought he was nuts, and the time he spent fishing in the moonlight and plucking ripe huckleberries would come to define his life and work.
The truest happiness comes from expending your energy to fulfill the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, rather than spending every day worrying about self-actualization.
Thoreau, Tesson, and I all heeded the eremitic call, and found something larger and more satisfying within ourselves by living closer to nature. I thought that camping amidst some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world would save me. I was right. Before then, I was more of an armchair environmentalist – someone with good intentions for saving the world, but who 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, rather than spending every day worrying about self-actualization.
It is possible to find something larger and more satisfying within ourselves by living closer to nature, and when you reach this apex it almost feels like you’ve unlocked the key to the meaning of life. The happiest memories I have are completely unrelated to my current urban life of movie premieres and book launches – they are of setting up and taking down tents, cooking meals on miniature camp stoves, hiking up mountains and driving in a musty white vans singing along to the Decemberists. In British Columbia, 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. 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. 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.”
Originally posted by Isabel Slone on Medium.com
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