For Christmas this year, my in-laws gave me a book called Dans les fôrets de Sibérie (In the Forests of Siberia) by Sylvain Tesson. While they may have chosen it because it won the 2011 Prix Medicis Essai, and is a well-written and enjoyable book, I couldn’t help but think it was a snarky attempt to convert me.
Made up of daily journal entries, the book tells the true story of Tesson’s several months spent mostly in isolation in a cabin in Siberia. This wasn’t a forced thing – like Thoreau before him, Tesson’s temporary exile was self-imposed. Though at first I thought the Thoreau connection would stop there, it didn't: Thoreau isn’t well-known among the French, but Tesson does know of him and Walden, and alludes to them a few times near the start of his own book, including a moment when he claims Thoreau’s listing expenses while at Walden makes him “too commercial”. Statements like that turned me off, at first. Who the hell attacks Thoreau for something so petty?
Or at all? He even LOOKS like a nice person!
I mean, didn’t Thoreau include those lists in Walden as a guide for others who might want to leave civilization for a while? He wasn’t being “commercial” in telling them how much they might spend – he was just being helpful. I found myself regarding Tesson’s book as an embodiment (if books have bodies) of what I hate in the French character: such bitterness and criticism, such an aversion to joy.
But still I kept on reading, because those lines about Thoreau weren’t all that the book had in it, of course. On every page, Tesson evokes the beauty of what most of us (myself very much included) would think of only as a harsh land, full of danger and discomfort. He muses on nature and solitude, animals and ice, solitude and company, books and windowgazing. With IBS, my commute to work is a challenge, and I need something to take my mind off it. Though I always have a book with me, not all of them succeed, but whenever I opened this one, I found myself in the snow around Tesson’s small heated cabin, on the shores of Lake Baikal. I wandered at his side over small mountains and into remote villages (like Thoreau, Tesson wasn’t always alone during his six month sojourn).
The book offered escapism and a lot of food for thought. In these ways, it was an excellent gift. But it didn’t do what my in-laws might have wanted.
Since I’ve met them, they’ve made it plain that they think city life is full of danger and evil. What they want most for their son and future grandchildren is for them to live in the countryside somewhere. My mother-in-law is especially fervent about this, and has even gone to such lengths as dissuading my boyfriend from buying the apartment next door to ours, which could have given us a bigger living space, just so that we would hopefully one day feel too cramped here and choose to move to a house in some bucolic setting (a fact that was blurted out by my father-in-law during our vacation in Rome last year. Yes, there is a way to ruin a delicious pizza in Rome.).
Many of you reading this may also think that country life is far better, and richer, and simpler, and healthier, than life in the city (although I hope you’d never sabotage someone’s plans in an attempt to get them to relocate). But I really think it depends on who you are.
There are moments when I think I want to leave this life and the routine and all my obligations behind. I wouldn’t go to Siberia, or to a pond in the woods – but to an isolated beach.
Let’s imagine me there: I’m alone in a small house that hopefully has air conditioning, though if I’m trying to be at one with nature, it won’t. I spend hours staring at the ocean, something I do whenever I’m near it. Its waves are hypnotic to me. I feel inspiration and stories surge into my mind. At night, I hear the rush of the waves, like breathing. Maybe being alone in nature with few distractions would change me, make me see the world in a way I’ve never seen it before. But there are also sand fleas, and the heat rash and reaction to suntan lotion that inevitably attack my sensitive skin. And worst of all, there are spiders.
I’m not just afraid of spiders in the conventional sense (at one point, Tesson himself writes, “I’m awakened by a mouse who got into my covers, which is less frightening than a spider…”); I have such a severe problem with them that I’ve had to go to therapy for it in the past. Arachnophobia means, among many other things, that I will never fully be comfortable in any natural environment: there are even spiders on Mount Everest – and, I’ve learned, in Siberia.
In an apartment, I get to experience nature with some remove. I don’t see a pristine pond or unspoiled taiga outside my window, but there are trees, and on those trees are pigeons, whose lives I follow almost as passionately as my cat does. Besides my cat, within these walls, there are bugs and even spiders, of course, who sometimes make themselves visible (though I’d prefer they didn’t). Outside our front windows, we regularly watch two crows lording over the neighborhood from the rooftop of the building across the street. I’ve written about it before: no matter where you are, nature finds a way to bring itself to you.
I don’t know that isolation in nature is the answer for everything. It’s not as though Thoreau or Tesson came out of their experiences with all of their problems neatly wrapped up, all of their hang-ups…hung up. It’s not as though they would never go on to experience disappointment or heartbreak. And of course, the fact that their time in nature ended, shows that they did ultimately choose to come back to civilization.
“Civilization” isn’t necessarily the opposite of isolation, anyway. Tesson himself points out in his book that there are many city-dwellers who retreat from society and stay in their apartments, surrounded (as he is in his cabin) by books or other means of cerebral and spiritual stimulus. Great thoughts and art and deeds have originated in just about any environment we can think of. Our soul and mind are with us wherever we go, like a candle held out into the night. It just depends on what keeps yours alight.
I’m a city girl. I’ve known it since I was a kid. The Atlanta suburbs were too remote and uncomfortable for me. I was so allergic to the omnipresent pine trees that I mostly stayed inside. I hated that it took twenty minutes to get to a movie theater, fifteen to reach the nearest library. Since the age of 18, I’ve made sure to live in places where I can easily get to both. Walking, with humankind and canines all around me, and birds in the air, and trees I’m not allergic to blowing in the breeze. Or in the Metro, with mice and rats living their lives in holes beside the tracks.