My own private Walden
I was asked by a friend some months ago why I live like I live, camped alone in the forest under a tarpaulin with little in the way of convenience or comfort. I was surprised how difficult it was to answer the question, which was a clue to me that I didn’t really know clearly myself. I was just something I felt I needed to do. The question stuck with me and rattled around in my brain for weeks, and seeking to understand the answer has been very rewarding.
One of the rewards has been the discovery of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), an American writer, philosopher and naturalist. Oddly enough it was through Seth Macfarlane’s satirical animated comedy Family Guy. At the beginning of S08E12 Chris and Stewie get lost in the woods after chasing a butterfly, leading to an argument during which Stewie quotes Thoreau:
I couldn’t believe my ears. Stewie Griffin had just precisely enunciated a huge part of the answer to my question. I could have written those words myself, but they were written by Thoreau more than 100 years before I was born. The quote continues:
When I started my own journey ‘into the woods’ over 3 years ago I had no idea of the profound impact it would have on me. After another redundancy and another relationship ending I thought I was just taking a much needed break. I needed to heal and get my mojo back. So I sold up my professional city life and went camping, declaring I wasn’t coming back til I was ready. And I’m still not ready.
Thoreau’s purpose and experience spending two years in the woods outside of mainstream society in 19th Century Massachusetts have eerily close parallels with my own decision to presently live outside of mainstream society in 21st Century Australia. There are huge slabs of his book Walden that I could make my own with simple substitutions of names or other details. And while I can’t claim Thoreau to be exactly a soul mate since our personal philosophies are at odds in places, I’m sure he would agree with my assessment that I live like I live because I feel a need to know that I am alive. And what I discovered in reading Walden is that Thoreau and I have instinctively followed the same recipe for living deep and deliberately: seeking solitude, embracing discomfort and nurturing a deep connection to nature.
Within weeks of leaving my city life I had made my first transformational discovery – true solitude is magnificent. I was in Tasmania and, keen to avoid the crush of Grey Nomads on the tourist routes, I headed off the beaten track into the Tarkine forest and found a camping site next to a lake with 4WD only access. This was true wilderness, and I was the only person there. And for I think the first time in my life I was truly alone. After 4 or so days I began to feel an unsettling emptiness so I walked down to the edge of the lake where I could get a couple of bars of phone reception and called my friend Jason in Perth to chat. Having described my empty feeling to Jason, an experienced solo round-world yachtsman, he gave me some priceless advise which I now share with everyone I can:
And Jason was right. I pushed through and came to a place where I was comfortable with just my own company. I camped by that lake for 6 weeks, and only saw another human on 3 occassions. And since that time I have consistently sought and enjoyed solitude for its many benefits.
The second great discovery was that discomfort is my friend. Rather than something to be feared and avoided, discomfort is something to be welcomed and embraced. I discovered to my surprise that the times I felt most alive were the times I was uncomfortable: cold, wet, hungry, sore. It was at precisely these times that I knew I was alive, and embracing the life I was feeling consistently brought a smile to my face. I recall one instance in the Otways in Victoria when I was literally racing dark storm clouds to get to a new camp site before the storm broke. As I began to set up camp it started raining and then half-way through it started hailing. I remember struggling to put the fly on my tent drenched in cold rain and being pelted in the head with hail stones – all the while laughing. After frantically get my gear inside out of the rain I suddenly noticed there was blood everywhere. During the course of setting up not one but three leeches had attacked me and, having had their fill, subsequently detached and left me bleeding. It didn't spoil my mood. Sure I was wet and cold and very uncomfortable, but I felt alive and that feeling more than compensated for the discomfort. Over time I came to realise that most of modern ‘western’ life is about avoiding or minimising discomfort. We make it our aim to be comfortable. But so often that comfort is associated with a deadness, a numbness to life.
I’m not saying that I deliberately seek out discomfort. I’m much more the hedonist than the asceticist! I don’t believe that discomfort is a higher or more valuable experience than comfort, and I sense this is one area where I differ slightly from Thoreau. But it does seem to me that there is a balance to be struck between comfort and discomfort, between pleasure and pain if you like. One is the ‘up’ to the other’s ‘down’ and it is in the dynamic that we find life. To ‘flat line’ is to be dead.
Connection to Nature
The final ingredient in the recipe is a deep connection to nature, something that has been central to my life for as long as I can remember. Like most country kids of my generation I enjoyed my share of outdoor activities as a child. But my connection with the earth to me was much more than just recreation. I communed with nature, often alone, looking, listening, smelling, touching, climbing, exploring, learning. Beyond breaking the odd stick or plucking a flower I never destroyed or harmed (like I saw some other boys do). Going into the forest to me was akin to going to church. Our local church was a place of awe and reverence, a gothic wonder with towering columns, vaulted timber ceilings and beautiful stained glass. A place one went to commune with God. The forest for me was much the same. A place of awe and reverence, with towering trunks, an arching canopy of green and dappled light and colour all about. A place one went to commune with nature, to drink in some mystical life force. A place just to be. We lived on the edge of town and I often played in the patch of forest behind our house making tree houses and swings. And I was fond of making special places, part sanctuary, part shrine, where I would deliberately place and arrange objects I had found, or subtly rearrange the rocks, logs and litter to enhance the natural aesthetic. It wasn’t gardening so much as tending. Nobody taught me to do this, and as far as I know nobody witnessed it. I just felt I wanted to do it.
No surprise then that almost 40 years later I find myself sojourning in a similar forest just over the mountains from where I grew up. And I feel the same as when I was a kid. This is a place of awe and reverence, of exquisite beauty, and of abundant life. I drink it in every moment. And I commune with nature. I do not attempt to dominate her or seek to change her. I listen to her, and she teaches me. I share my spot under two ancient trees with myriad creatures. Sure there are ticks and leeches and spiders and scorpions and ants and snakes and rats. But there are also dozens of bird species, frogs, lizards, goannas, wallabies, possums, bandicoots and antechinus. Not to mention the hundreds of species of plants, the amazing fungi and a million different insects. Unless it is raining I sleep with only an insect mesh between me and the forest. So the last thing I see when I close my eyes at night is the night sky through the gaps in the forest canopy. And the first thing I see when I open them in the morning is the sunlight gently filtering through the foliage. I fall asleep to the sound of frogs, and wake to the sound of birds. And I sit in the morning sunlight with my coffee and the rufus fantails entertain me with their dance. And throughout the day the honeyeaters and yellow breasted robins flit around me gleaning insects from my camp and perching on my sculptures.
But is this ‘connection to nature’ anything more than a romantic projection of my own mind. It seems to be something shared by many, Thoreau included. But equally there are others for whom this seems to be a foreign concept. Much more than being uncomfortable with the creepy crawlies and the dirt, so many of my fellow humans seem to have little or no connection with nature, hold no reverence for her and feel no obligation to care for her. Moreover there are those that see nature as a mere resource for human consumption, whose minds have turned her into something inanimate, nothing more than another place on the Monopoly board of life, a commodity to be bought and sold in the pursuit of ‘wealth’.
It was in researching this issue that I came across the work of Theodore Roszak and ecopsychology, a field of study dedicated to humans and their connection to nature. It has its roots in the work of some of the most influential thinkers of recent ‘Western’ history including Marx, Freud and Jung. But even more exciting for me is that it encompasses traditional indigenous philosophies and knowledge, where concepts of connection to nature are typically foundational. For all its wonders ‘western’ culture has certainly lost much of the richness of the cultures it has too often attempted to replace. The Enlightenment in particular marks a significant development in our civilisation’s alienation from nature, but the drift probably started millennia before with the advent of agriculture. It is fascinating to me to learn that when Europeans colonised north America the indigenous Alonquin recognised the culture of the settlers as ‘wetiko’ - a form of madness denoting the possession of a cannibalistic spirit driven by greed, excess and selfish consumption. (Other indigenous nations use different words for the same concept). They recognised the white man’s disconnection from nature:
To me the forest is similarly ‘tame’, bountiful and an incredible blessing. I am sometimes asked ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ ‘Isn’t is scary being out there in nature all alone?’. My honest answer is no. Never. Not once have I ever felt afraid. In fact, I feel the opposite. I feel safe. I feel welcome. I feel protected. I feel at home. I am certainly aware of potential dangers and I am mindful of my safety and well being. But my relationship with nature is one which commands respect, not fear. I see myself as just a small part of a much greater exquisite whole. I play my part in concert with the other parts (as much as possible), and this makes for a happy and largely trouble free existence.
Thoreau sought to discover if life, when reduced to its lowest terms, would prove to be mean or sublime. I can tell you on good authority that it is very much the latter!