Book summary: Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson

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Our review: 4/5

For those of you who dream about going to live in the woods, here’s your modern Walden to fuel your fantasies.

Consolations of the Forest

“To get the day off to a good start, it’s important to remember one’s duties. In order: greetings to the sun, the lake, the little cedar growing in front of the cabin.”

“REASONS WHY I’M LIVING ALONE IN A CABIN

I talked too much

I wanted silence

Too behind with my mail and too many people to see

I was jealous of CrusoeIt’s better heated than my place in Paris

Tired of running errands

So I can scream and live naked

Because I hate the telephone and traffic noise”

1. Read

“On that October day five years ago when I discovered old Walt’s Leaves of Grass, I had no idea that reading it would lead me to a cabin. It’s dangerous to open a book.

  • “I already knew that one must never travel with books related to one’s destination; in Venice, read Lermontov, but at Baikal, Byron.”
  • “I empty the crate. I have the novelists Michel Tournier for daydreaming, Michel Déon for melancholy, D. H. Lawrence for sensuality and Yukio Mishima for steely coldness.”
  • “A small collection of books on life in the woods: Grey Owl for his radical stance, Daniel Defoe for myth, Aldo Leopold for ethics and Thoreau for philosophy, although I find his sermonizing a touch wearing. Whitman – he’s enchanting: his Leaves of Grass is a work of grace.”
  • “A little poetry and some philosophers as well: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, the Stoics. Sade and Casanova to stir up my blood. Some crime fiction, because sometimes you need a breather.”
  • The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Alaska Wilderness, John Haines
  • The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima
  • “Tears are kept in check by reading.”

“I listen to Schubert while watching the snow, I read Marcus Aurelius after my wood-chopping chores, I smoke a Havana to celebrate the evening’s fishing.”

“Guided by a mysterious impulse, my hand selected the books I needed to read. Marcus Aurelius helped me. Giovanni showed me the man I should have been; Chase showed me as I am. Books are more useful than psychoanalysis; they say everything, better than life does. In a cabin, mixed with solitude, they make a perfect lytic cocktail, gradually relieving the symptoms of acute disease.”

2. Time is the most valuable thing we have

“A free man possesses time. A man who dominates space is merely powerful.”

  • “I wanted to settle an old score with time. I had discovered that walking provided a way to slow it down. The alchemy of travel thickens seconds: those spent on the road passed less quickly than the others.”
  • “The best way to kill the intensity of a moment is to feel obliged to catch it in a photo.”
  • Zen monks call lingering in bed in the morning ‘forgetfulness in sleep’.
  • ‘I’m leaving, and have barely passed the first of the elms that line the road …’ André Chénier, guillotined on 25 July 1794.

3. Be joyful in nature

  • “Better to live joyfully in a wilderness clearing than languish in a city.”
  • “I struggled through the snow and forgot the struggle on the mountaintops.”

4. Surround yourself with splendour

  • “The eye never tires of splendour. The more one knows things, the more beautiful they become.”

5. Know when change is due

“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! Make the necessary adjustments.”

6. Switch between contrasting worlds

“The essential thing is to live one’s life with a brave hand on the tiller, swinging boldly between contrasting worlds. Balancing between danger and pleasure, the frigid Russian winter and the warmth of a stove. Never settling, always oscillating from one to the other extremity on the spectrum of sensations.”

  • “To attain a sense of inner freedom, one must have solitude and space galore. Add to these the mastery of time, complete silence, a harsh life and surroundings of geographic grandeur. Then do the maths, and find a hut.”
  • “What is essential? Not to weigh too heavily on the surface of the globe. Shut inside his cube of logs, the hermit does not soil the Earth. From the threshold of his izba, he watches the seasons perform the dance of the eternal return. Possessing no machines, he keeps his body fit. Cut off from all communication, he deciphers the language of the trees. Released from the grip of television, he discovers that a window is more transparent than a TV screen.”

7. Live simply

“The cabin, realm of simplification. Beneath the pines, life is reduced to vital gestures, and time spared from daily chores is spent in rest, contemplation, small pleasures. The array of tasks to be done has shrunk. Reading, drawing water, cutting wood, writing, pouring tea: such things become liturgies.”

  • “In life, three ingredients are necessary: sunshine, a commanding view and legs aching with remembered effort.”
  • “To get the day off to a good start, it’s important to remember one’s duties. In order: greetings to the sun, the lake, the little cedar growing in front of the cabin.”
  • “Living in a cabin means having the time to take an interest in such things, the time to write them down, the time to read them over. And what’s more, once all that is done, you still have time left over.”
  • “I eat my bread and force myself not to think any more about women baking because I still have two months to go out in this hole.”
  • “In Life of Rancé, this quotation from the Elegies of Tibullus: ‘How sweet it is while lying in bed to hear fierce winds.’ The wind rampages all day long and I read my Tibullus.”

8. Slow down

“To sit at the window drinking tea, allowing the land to ripple through its nuances, letting oneself steep in the passing hours, no longer thinking of anything, but suddenly seizing a passing idea and jotting it down in a notebook.”

  • “The cabin is a laboratory, where you precipitate your longings for freedom, silence and solitude. An experimental field where you invent a slowed-down life for yourself.
  • “Tonight my bivouac is the quintessence of campsites: lapping water, a meadow at the base of a cliff overlooking a calm lake, with a few birches to break up the breeze.”
  • “It’s good to know that out there, in a forest in the world, there is a cabin where something is possible, something fairly close to the sheer happiness of being alive.”

9. Mountaineers are unhappy in cities

  • “Some of my friends live for this alone: gaining altitudes where the odourless air stings the nose, where life hangs between earth and sky in a realm of abstract forms. When they descend into the valleys once again, they find that life smells bad. Mountaineers are unhappy in cities.”
  • “It seems that some men check out women’s hips to assess whether they will bear children easily. Others consider their eyes for signs that they will prove captivating lovers, or think the length of their fingers will reveal something about their sensuality. And some men study geography in the same ways. These mountains offer nothing but a host of immediate sensations. Man will never improve on these ranges.”

10. Realise what really frightens you

  • “Boredom doesn’t frighten me in the least. There are worse pangs: the sorrow of not sharing with a loved one the beauty of lived moments.

11. Speak kindly to the world

  • John Burroughs, in The Art of Seeing Things: ‘The tone in which we speak to the world is the one the world uses with us. Give your best and you will get the best in return.’
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Lucy Fuggle
I'm Lucy – an adventurer, writer, author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, and creator of Live Wildly.