In today’s over-connected world, isolation could teach us many things. One man spent 6 months in the forest to learn important truths about modern life.
Have you ever wanted to go back to a simpler life, where there were no phones, no TV, no pressures of work, and you weren’t surrounded by people and noise all the time? One man did more than just wishing, he actually spent six months on the edge of the oldest lake in the world – Lake Baikal in the Siberian Forest.
Sylvain Tesson isn’t a stranger to living in isolated places.
In 2003, he stayed in a geologist’s hut at Lake Baikal in the mountainous region of Siberia. His hut was situated in a clearing of the cedar forest in the Baikal-Lena nature reserve. The previous owners had lived there for 15 years but now wanted to leave. This wasn’t the only hut, the reserve housed other rangers which were located at 19-mile intervals.
Tesson found that the people that inhabited these cabins also wanted to live simpler lives and were happy in their solitude. After Tesson spent three days with one of the rangers, he promised himself that he would return before he was forty and stay for longer. And he did exactly that.
Two years ago, he left Paris where he was living and came back to Lake Baikal, where he would spend the next six months of his life. But why would anyone want to travel to a part of the world where the temperatures drop to -30C and the lake was over a metre thick with ice?
Tesson says what a lot of people say who are contemplating a more reclusive lifestyle, in that time was a big factor. Instead of rushing from place to place, he wanted to slow down and experience the journey, take in the scenery, stop and breathe the air around him. But living on your own and having to survive in a hostile environment with no family or friends around to help you if things turn out badly is quite a daunting prospect.
So how did Tesson prepare for his stay in isolation?
“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,” Tesson says.
Even choosing his library was problematic, as he was aware that he could not predict what mood he would be in, six months down the line. So he chose a wide selection that covered nature, poetry, literature, and certain authors such as DH Lawrence for sensuality and Daniel Defoe for myth and legend.
Tesson agreed that without his books he would have easily gone mad in this isolation. The way he puts it is that it is like having ‘someone with you’.
Filling your day with activity
Another way Tesson survived was by splitting the days into two very separate parts. The mornings were spent doing spiritual things, such as learning poetry, writing, smoking, day-dreaming, reading. The afternoons were saved for physical things like chopping wood, cutting a hole in the ice, and fishing.
Tesson believed that by filling his days with activity, he was less likely to fall into a depression. Conversely, constricting his activities allowed him to delve deeper into each one of them. It was also interesting to be able, thanks’ to the repetition of each day, to
It was also interesting to be able, thanks’ to the repetition of each day, to compare the previous one to the next. As you know exactly what will happen the next day, you can be happy by the security of this knowing.
The experience of isolation also taught Tesson to enjoy the stark difference between luxury and poverty. He bought along for the six-month trip some luxury items from civilisation, including vodka and cigars. After a hard day walking in the frozen snow, he would light a fire in the cabin and relax reading Chinese poetry while smoking a Havana.
The most important lesson learned from isolation
For Tesson, looking around at the others who lived in the cabins on the nature reserve, he would say that the most important thing that he experienced and that they have is freedom.
Freedom to live the way they want to, to enjoy the nature around them, to have peace and quiet, to not have to talk meaningless nonsense to strangers.
As Tesson says: “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.”
Being contactable at any time is a loss of your freedom, Tesson deduced. He compared it to the electronic tag we place on prisoners. There is nowhere you can go without people intruding on your time and space.
But we can’t all go to Siberia and spend six months in the forest, so what does Tesson advise?
“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.”
And if all else fails, take to the woods. It’s where the Russians go to find happiness.
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