Hermit – For a Time

For five years Neil Ansell lived a life of blissful solitude. But then discovered why he can’t live alone.
“My book, Deep Country, is an account of the five years I spent in the hills, of how I lived and what I lived for, of how I learned to become self-sufficient in every sense of the word. Not just in terms of growing or gathering almost all of my supply of food, but in terms of relying entirely on my own resources. I was never bored; there was always too much to be done. Chopping wood, fetching water, foraging. Weeding, walking, watching. This is a book about nature and landscape, but it is also a book about what it means to live a life so remote that you may not see another soul for weeks at a time. No neighbours, no vehicles, no phone. It was possible to walk west from the cottage for 20 miles without coming to another house or a road.

What I found was not what you might expect. You might think that such protracted solitude would lead to introspection, to self-examination, to a growing self-awareness. But not for me. What happened to me was that I began to forget myself, my focus shifted almost entirely outwards to the natural world outside my window. It was as if we gain our sense of self from our interaction with other people; from the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of another. Alone, there was no need for identity, for self-definition.

The process was a gradual one. During my years in the hills I kept a journal. For the first year it is a conventional diary; places I had gone, things I had done. By the second year it is little more than a nature journal; what birds I had seen that day, perhaps some notes on the weather. By the third year it is no more than an almanac, marking the turn of the seasons by the comings and goings of migrant birds and their nesting dates, interspersed by the occasional detailed depiction of a moment, perhaps the flight of a single bird. I am an absence, a void, I have disappeared from my own story.”

“What remains if you peel away all those things that help you think you know who you are? If one by one you strip away your cultural choices, the validation you get from the company of your peer group, the tools you use for communication? Then what is left behind? If you had asked me that three or four years earlier, when I was just arriving at Penlan, I imagine that I would have guessed: your true self. But I soon found that in fact I rapidly became less and less self-aware; my attention was elsewhere, on the outside. And now that circumstances had forced me to look inward once again, it was to discover that there was perhaps no fixed self to find. So what was there instead? Now, more than ever, I had the sense that my life was no so very different from that of the birds fluttering on my bird-feeder, as though a boundary between us had been broken”

“Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills” by Neil Ansell (2012)

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