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Travel Books - A Hermit on Lake Baikal

In The Consolations of the Forest, Sylvain Tesson parks himself in a small ranger’s cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal to explore what it is to be a hermit, and to see if he has “an inner life.” A more rugged, vodka-fueled version of Thoreau’s Walden, Tesson lives in a ten foot by ten foot log cabin for six months, arriving at the beginning of February, when the world’s largest fresh water lake is a frozen sheet of ice, and departing at the end of July when the lake is alive with wildfowl. Written as a journal, Tesson explores the changing seasons and extols the life of a hermit. Hermits are the real radicals, he decides, because they turn their backs on civilization. They don’t need it. A political radical needs something to oppose. A hermit simply walks away and is self reliant. He is therefore more dangerous.

Of course, like Thoreau, whom he finds too preachy, Tesson does return to civilization in the end. And even though he is very isolated (his nearest neighbour is a long day’s walk away), he is well-supplied, bringing an enormous supply of vodka and cigars to pass the solitary hours, and more than sixty books to read. He divides his day between the chores he must do to keep alive, such as chopping firewood, fetching water, and fishing through the ice, and simply thinking or staring at the passing scene. The secret to being a hermit, he discovers, is paying close attention; for the world, even in its smallest detail, is endlessly fascinating. He also explores his world by snowshoes, skates, and later by kayak. When he gets cabin fever, he journeys to visit his neighbours, who feed him endless cups of alcohol and mourn the passing of the Soviet Union.

The book should be boring, but it isn’t. Tesson is a wonderful writer with a gift for aphorism and for capturing his surroundings in lucid prose. It is also remarkably funny and moving. I read the book over two days at the cottage, rarely glancing up from the page. My children were suspicious when I told them what it was about. “Does this mean you are going to vanish into the woods and live as a hermit, too, Dad?”

Maybe. maybe.

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