The exterior was clad with overlapping sheets of hemlock bark. Smoke rose in a curl from the chimney and dissipated among the thin pines. Inside, a fire crackled and spat, and my narrow bed nestled alongside a desk, a bookshelf and little else.
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Alone in a cabin in the woods, solitude seems like a decadent luxury
Watching the snow fall across the rural landscape, emotions are heightened and thoughts run clear
by Cal Flyn / March 30, 2019
I spent last month at an artists’ colony in the woods of New Hampshire. Each resident is given a cabin in the forest—mine was a simple, single-roomed structure with bare rafters, and a bathroom tacked on out back. The exterior was clad with overlapping sheets of hemlock bark. Smoke rose in a curl from the chimney and dissipated among the thin pines. Inside, a fire crackled and spat, and my narrow bed nestled alongside a desk, a bookshelf and little else.
In a place like this, life feels stripped back to its bones. Through my window, as I sat working, I watched the snow fall and settle and soften the landscape; I saw it melt and run in torrents before flash-freezing into lakes and rivulets of solid ice. It’s hard not to feel inspired when you are alone with your thoughts, with no phone service, no visitors and nowhere else you have to be. Emotions are heightened and thoughts run clear.
Sometimes the isolation and the weight of expectation that comes attached to a stay like this can feel too much to bear. Every evening, the colony’s residents gathered for dinner and some would arrive troubled and tear-stained after a long day warring with their own heads. When progress is slow it can be difficult not to dwell on other residents of other cabins—at other times and places—and the great works of art and literature they created in them.
Henry David Thoreau is almost as famous for his cabin at Walden Pond as he is for his writing. Dylan Thomas loved his “word-splashed hut” overlooking the Carmarthenshire cliffs. Virginia Woolf and Roald Dahl built writing sheds as getaways from domestic stress. My temporary home once hosted the playwright Thornton Wilder and more recently the author Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the shadow of giants, it’s hard not to find one’s own work wanting.
“To live in such a place, even for a short space of time, seems to confer a touch of aesthete mysticism,” writes Dan Richards of wilderness retreats in his new book, Outpost. They act as “ascetic creative crucibles with a feral animating energy emanating as much from within as without.”
I’d certainly agree. During the day, if I hit a mental wall, I could emerge into the watery winter light and follow the tracks of whitetail deer and rabbits and turkeys between the trees. Or take up a broom and sweep my porch clear of snow, getting my pulse up and fresh blood flowing to my brain.
What luxury. Because it is a luxury, to live so simply. To decouple yourself from humanity. Not everyone can undertake a hermetic retreat—and those that do often do so at the expense of relationships and family life. In 2010, the French author Sylvain Tesson lived for six months in a rustic cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where he read and wrote, chopped firewood, boiled snow for water, butchered deer, and considered the question of how to live.
He kept a beautiful journal, Consolations of the Forest, shimmering with self-knowledge and wonder at the natural world. But his solitary epiphanies were of no consolation to his girlfriend, who he’d left behind in Paris, and broke up with him by text message to his satellite phone.
Tesson chose a quotation from Henry de Montherlant, the French playwright and novelist, for an epigraph: “Freedom is always available. One need only pay the price for it.” De Montherlant shot himself in 1972. What price are you willing to pay? Next time I go into the woods, I think I’ll take my partner with me.