Release date: September 17, 2013
Page number: 256
HC ISBN: 978-0-8478-4127-1
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-8478-4140-0
Today I’m happy to share an excerpt from this book. Yesterday I reviewed it on my writing blog, however since I love to travel, including traveling via books, I was thrilled to be able to blog about it here on 50 Year project. At the end of the post, US and Canadian readers can find out how they can win a hardcover copy of The Consolations of the Forest.
I’d promised myself that before I turned forty I would live as a hermit deep in the woods.
I went to spend six months in a Siberian cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, on the tip of North Cedar Cape. Seventy-five miles from the nearest village, no neighbors, no access roads, and every now and then, a visit. Wintertime temperatures in the minus twenties Fahrenheit; the summer brought bears out into the open. In short: paradise.
I took along books, cigars, and vodka. The rest—space, silence, and solitude—was already there.
In that desert, I created a beautiful and temperate life for myself, experiencing an existence centered on simple gestures. Between the lake and the forest, I watched the days go by. I cut wood, fished for my dinner, read a lot, hiked in the mountains, and drank vodka, at my window. The cabin was an ideal observation post from which to witness nature’s every move.
I knew winter and spring, happiness, despair, and in the end, peace.
In the depths of the taiga, I changed myself completely. Staying put brought me what I could no longer find on any journey. The genius loci helped me to tame time. My hermitage became the laboratory of these transformations.
Every day I recorded my thoughts in a notebook.
This is the journal of a hermit’s life.
The heinz company sells around fifteen kinds of tomato sauce. The supermarket in Irkutsk stocks them all and I don’t know which to choose. I’ve already filled six carts with dried pasta and Tabasco. The blue truck is waiting for me; it’s −26° F outside, and Misha, the driver, keeps the engine running. Tomorrow we leave Irkutsk and in three days will reach the cabin, on the western shore of the lake. I must finish my shopping today. I decide on Heinz Super Hot Tapas. I buy eighteen bottles: three per month.
Fifteen kinds of ketchup. That’s the sort of thing that made me want to withdraw from this world.
I’m stretched out on my bed in Nina’s house on Proletariat Street. I like Russian street names. In the villages you’ll find a Labor Street, an October Revolution Street, a Partisans Street, and sometimes an Enthusiasm Street, along which trudge gray-haired Slav grannies.
Nina is the best landlady in Irkutsk. A former pianist, she used to play in the concert halls of the Soviet Union. Now she runs a guest house. Yesterday she told me, “Who’d ever have thought I’d wind up cranking out pancakes?” Nina’s cat is purring on my stomach. If I were a cat, I know whose tummy I’d snuggle on.
I’m poised on the threshold of a seven-year-old dream. In 2003 I stayed for the first time at Lake Baikal. Walking along the shore, I discovered cabins at regular intervals, inhabited by strangely happy recluses. The idea of going to ground alone in the forest, surrounded by silence, began to intrigue me. Seven years later, here I am.
I must find the strength to push the cat off. Getting up from a bed requires amazing energy. Especially when it’s to change a life. This longing to retreat just at the point of achieving your heart’s desire….Certain men do an about-face at the crucial moment. I’m afraid I might be one of them.
Misha’s truck is packed to the point of bursting. It’s a five-hour drive to the lake across frozen steppes, navigating over petrified wave crests and troughs. Villages smoke at the foot of hills, wreathed in mists trapped in the shallows. Faced with visions like these, the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich wrote, “Whoever has crossed Siberia can never again aspire to happiness.” At the top of a ridge, there it is: the lake. We stop to have a drink. After four brimming glasses of vodka, we wonder: How in the world does the shoreline manage to follow the water so perfectly?
Let’s get the statistics out of the way. Baikal: 435 miles long, 50 miles wide, almost a mile deep. Twenty-five million years old. The winter ice is over three and a half feet thick. Beaming its love down upon the white surface, the sun doesn’t give a damn about such things. Filtered by clouds, patches of sunshine slide in a gleaming herd across the snow, brightening its cadaverous cheeks.
The truck ventures out onto the ice. Beneath the wheels, it’s two thirds of a mile down. If the truck plunges through a fissure, it will descend into a black abyss. The bodies will sink in silence. Slow snowfall of the drowned. The lake is a godsend for anyone who dreads decay. James Dean wanted to die and leave “a beautiful corpse.” The tiny copepods called Epischura baikalensis1 will clean the bodies within twenty-four hours, leaving only ivory bones on the lake bed.
We spent the night in the village of Khuzhir on Olkhon Island, pronounced “Olkrhone,” Nordic style, and we’re heading north. Misha isn’t a talker. I admire people who keep quiet; I imagine their thoughts.
I’m on my way to the place of my dreams. Outside, the atmosphere is bleak. The cold has let its hair down in the wind; wisps of snow skitter away from our wheels. The storm wedges itself into the cleft between sky and ice. I study the shore, trying not to think about living for six months in the requiem mass of those forests. All the ingredients of the imagery of Siberian deportation are there: the vastness, the livid cast of the light. The ice rather resembles a shroud. Innocent people were dumped for twenty-five years into this nightmare, whereas I will be living here by choice. Why should I complain?
Misha: “It’s dreary.”
And nothing more until the next day.
Constructed in the 1980s as a geologist’s hut, my cabin is off in a clearing of the cedar forest in the northern sector of the Baikal-Lena Nature Preserve. My new neighborhood is named after these trees: North Cedar Cape. It sounds like an old-people’s home. And after all, I am going on a retreat.
Driving on a lake is a transgression. Only gods and spiders walk on water. Three times in my life I’ve felt I was breaking a taboo. The first was when I contemplated the dry bed of the once-mighty Aral Sea, emptied by Man. The second was when I read a woman’s private diary. The third was driving over the waters of Baikal. Each time, the feeling of tearing aside a veil. The eye spying through the keyhole.
I explain this to Misha. And get no reply.
Tonight we stay at the weather station of Pokoyniki, in the heart of the preserve.
Sergei and Natasha run the station. They’re as beautiful as Greek gods, but wearing more clothes. They’ve been living here for twenty years, tracking down poachers. My cabin is thirty-one miles to the north of their home, and I’m glad to have them as neighbors. I’ll find pleasure in thinking about them. Their love: an island in the Siberian winter.
We spend the evening with two of their friends, Sasha and Yura, Siberian fishermen who embody two Dostoyevskian character types. Sasha is hypertensive, with a florid face, full of vitality. He has the eyes of a Mongol, and a deep, steely gaze. Yura is somber, Rasputinian, an eater of bottom-feeding fish. He’s as pale as the denizens of Tolkien’s Mordor. Sasha is made for great feats, impulsive action, while Yura is a born conspirator. He hasn’t set foot in a city in fifteen years.
A meditation on escaping the chaos of modern life and rediscovering the luxury of solitude.
Winner of the Prix Médicis for non-fiction, THE CONSOLATIONS OF THE FOREST is a Thoreau-esque quest to find solace, taken to the extreme. No stranger to inhospitable places, Sylvain Tesson exiles himself to a wooden cabin on Siberia’s Lake Baikal—a full day’s hike from any “neighbor”— with his thoughts, books, a couple of dogs, and many bottles of vodka for company. Writing from February to July, he shares his deep appreciation for the harsh but beautiful land, the resilient men and women who populate it, and the bizarre and tragic history that has given Siberia an almost mythological place in the imagination.
Rich with observation, introspection, and the good humor necessary to laugh at his own folly, Tesson’s memoir is about the ultimate freedom of owning your own time. Only in the hands of a gifted storyteller can an experiment in isolation become an exceptional adventure accessible to all. By recording his impressions in the face of silence, his struggles in a hostile environment, his hopes, doubts, and moments of pure joy in communion with nature, Tesson makes a decidedly out-of-the-ordinary experience relatable to the reader who may be struggling with hir or her own search for peace and balance in life. The awe and joy are contagious, and one comes away with the comforting knowledge that “as long as there is a cabin deep in the woods, nothing is completely lost.”
Sylvain Tesson is a writer, journalist, and celebrated traveler. He has been exploring Central Asia—on foot, bicycle, and horse—since 1997. A best-seller in his native France, he is published all over the world—and now in the United States.
Websites: http://www.cheminsdetoiles.com/page/30929 ; http://www.rizzoliusa.com/book.php?isbn=9780847841271
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