Sylvain Tesson

The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga

“Fifteen kinds of ketchup. That's the sort of thing that made me want to withdraw from this world.”

There is a gentle passage in Joseph Brodsky’s sublime essays on arrival, place and unpacking ourselves where he writes about landing in Venice and feeling perfect anonymity, where no one knows him and he knows no one. There is something about the oft-traveller, he empties himself to make space for new.

Sylvain Tesson (born 26 April 1972) is a formidable French travel writer, with experiences hiking across the Himalayas, biking around the world, and following the path of Gulag escapees, all in attempts to stress-test society’s limits and boundaries. In crossing these boundaries, he shoves aside a few of his own.

Norway, mid-winter. “The sepia gloom of an arctic afternoon in midwinter invaded the rooms and was deepening to an oppressive black,” Nabokov once wrote. Snow provides an apt companion to solitude; it forces one to wrap up and cosy down. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In The Consolations of the Forest, Tesson fulfils a promise to himself and retreats to a cabin in the woods on Lake Baikal. He avoids useless materialism and addresses what psychologist Rollo May called “the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.”

It’s funny: you decide to live in a cabin, and envision your self smoking a cigar under the open sky, lost in meditation … and you wind up checking off items on supply lists like an army quartermaster. Life comes down to grocery shopping.

Tesson brings supplies and plenty of books, reduces stimulation, amplifies solitude, and writes astutely about being interrupted by humans—devastated by it, in fact: “What I came here to escape has descended on my island: noise, ugliness, testosterone-fueled herd behavior.”

Like many who find themselves in vast solitude and angry at insensitive interruption, Tesson’s deeply observational eye swims between the vast and the minute (reminds me of physicist Alan Lightman’s contemplation of the universe and its stardust) and winds everything together in meaning.

Respecting insects brings joy. Taking a passionate interest in the infinitely small helps guard against an infinitely mediocre life. For the insect lover, a puddle can be Lake Tanganyika, a pile of sand takes on the aspect of the Taklamakan Desert.

Buff tip of a camouflaged moth by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
Buff tip of a camouflaged moth. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

I’ve spent much time alone, and this book resonated. The desire to withdraw and renew, certainly. But other aspects felt a bit too on the nose: “In the depths of the taiga, I changed myself completely.” How do you change completely? Do your beliefs change? Your manner of interaction? Surely, to change would be, at the very least, to deny the compulsion to write another book about solitude.

That being said, Tesson’s underlying message rings true:

We alone are responsible for the gloominess of our lives. The world is grey because of our blandness. Life seems pallid? Change your life, head for the cabins. In the depths of the woods, if life remains dreary and your surroundings unbearable, the verdict is in: you can’t stand yourself!

As a lifelong introvert and seeker of empty spaces, I’ve found being alone isn’t about avoiding others. Nurturing and sustainable solitude is allowing others to flow through us. Remaining unaffected, yet having empathy. I cannot strike that balance, nor can Tesson.

Clare Millen's "Open Sky", acrylic on canvas.
“Open Space” by Clare Millen. Using a process of repeated application and scraping, Millen forms structures on the canvas. “I work in layers -” Millen articulates, “Building, scraping and scoring surfaces to expose the history of colour and surface I have laid down. I am led by what is revealed and work intuitively until I feel the piece is complete.” Learn more.

Read further on the sustaining and self-evolving powers of solitude in Lynne Schwartz’s delightful Ruined by Reading or Mary Oliver’s Upstream. Read more on the nature of creative alienation in Anna Deavere Smith’s Letter to a Young Artist. And finally, my own study of meaning ensconced in small things.1