I am quite efficient at finding books for myself. So much so, that there is always a tower waiting to be read on the coffee table, and a long wish list. Nonetheless, I love nothing more than someone picking out a great book for me, introducing me to a new author. It’s a little like being shown the doorway to a whole new world.
It is perhaps even more miraculous when this sort of book is placed in your hand by a complete stranger. I had a lovely experience of this recently when visiting a bunch of independent bookstores in Sydney. After speaking with me for only ten minutes about the sort of fiction I enjoyed, Megan, from Potts Point Bookshop, handed me a gorgeous hardcover nonfiction book with a cabin in the woods on the cover—possibly my greatest weakness—Consolations of the Forest: alone in a cabin in the middle of Taiga, by Sylvain Tesson. I stood, holding the book, for a moment. Perfect! I could not believe how perfect. That they had the book in store, and that I hadn’t heard of it or the author.
‘Some people can dine exclusively by feasting their eyes on a landscape,’ Tesson writes. I am one of those people. Though I do my feasting through books as much as in the real world, perhaps more. I have something of a passion for nature writing, which is what I would call this book.
Tesson is a French travel writer. He has toured the world by bicycle, crossed the Himalayas on foot and, in 2003, he walked from Yakutsk in Siberia to Calcutta, India, retracing the journey of escapees from a gulag (also the subject of Peter Weir’s film, The Way Back). Consolations of the Forest is Tesson’s first book about staying still. It is also, to my great disappointment, his first book translated into English.
For six months Tesson lives alone in a cabin built by Soviet geologists in the middle Taiga, Siberia, on the shores of Lake Baikal. Tesson doesn’t stay completely still. He spends hours walking, cutting wood, shovelling snow, and fishing. He also writes, reads, smokes, and drinks a hell of a lot of vodka. Nor is he quite alone; I counted about twenty visitors: Russian fishermen and the like. And it is possible, with a day’s hike, to call on a neighbour in a similar cabin.
Consolations of the Forest is a meditation on being alone, being a hermit. Living in a cabin in the woods is a recurring motif, particularly in European and North American literature. A longing to retreat from everyday life, from the clamour of today’s technological, always on, society. But how many of us could do it? For six months. In Siberia.
For Tesson, life in a cabin in the woods is counter revolutionary, working against the pressure of the mainstream. The hermit is content to be dwelling in the forest, contemplating nature and being a part of it. Self sufficient. Taking only what he needs. For reasons that are not fully explained, Tesson needed some serious time out, and yet, taking it comes at a personal cost.
By happy coincidence, my friend Krissy, from Avid Reader, in Brisbane, this month recommended another beautiful new hard cover from the same publisher—Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, by George Monbiot. I love this book so much I would like to buy a copy for everyone I know. If I could, I would make it compulsory reading. Monbiot is a journalist for Guardian and has published a long list of books. He is also an environmentalist, and the winner of a UN Global 500 award for outstanding environmental achievement. His brain is a great one: scientific training with a poet’s sensibility, and he is renowned as something of a radical thinker. His sentences are lovely, his arguments sound and packed with the punch of emotional truth. I aspire to write as he writes and to live as he lives.
The term ‘rewilding’ at first referred to releasing captive animals back into the wild. Its meaning expanded to describe the reintroduction of plant and animal species to habitats from where they had disappeared. It has also come to mean a restoration of wilderness, and for primitivists, a return—a rewind, perhaps—to wilder way of human life. For Monbiot, the term encompasses a rewilding of ecosystems, not restoring them to a previous state or conserving them at a particular point in time, but allowing ecological processes to find their own way.
Some of Feral’s most memorable accounts are of the Welsh coast near Cardigan Bay. Monbiot walks, dives, swims and paddles the places he describes; it’s an adventure tale. And, ultimately, the story of his own journey. There is a beautifully described transformative moment, sighting salmon leaping in the Natgobaith gorge, from where they had long been absent: ‘It was then that I realised that a rewilding, for me, had already begun. By seeking out the pockets of land and water that might inspire and guide an attempt to revive the natural world, I had revived my own life.’
Monbiot argues for our rewilding, too; not necessarily rejecting civilisation or technology for the solitude of the woods, but seeking a life richer in adventure and happiness. Feral, for Monbiot, is a state of mind.
Feral and Consolations of the Forest are, in many ways, escapist texts, transporting us to other worlds. They offer a gift, like any good book; the solace of a retreat to our ‘inner forests’, as Tesson describes it. Yet Feral and Consolation of the Forest are also very much of the real world, challenging us to consider the way we live our lives, our responsibilities to the natural world, and to the other species we share that world with.
Inga Simpson is the author of Mr Wigg, and the winner of the 2012 Eric Rolls prize for best nature essay. She is currently researching Australian nature writing as part of a PhD in English literature at the University of QLD.