‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’ Thus wrote Henry David Thoreau, in Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, and this is the rub of Sylvain Tesson’s latest book, Consolations of the Forest. A celebrated author in France, Tesson has toured the world by bicycle and journeyed through the Himalayas, Central Asia and Russia. Fast approaching forty, he decides to change his way of life, retreat from the teeming city (Paris) and spend six months living as a hermit deep in the woods. He is ‘tired of running errands … too behind with my mail’. He hates the noise of the telephone and the traffic, he talks too much, he craves silence. He wants to ‘find out if I have an inner life’ and ‘settle an old score with time’. By entering a ‘realm of simplification’, Tesson hopes to ‘thicken seconds’, slow everything down and generally recondition his durée, as Bergson called it.
Tesson travels to the densely forested shores of Lake Baikal, Siberia. The lake – 435 miles long, 50 miles wide – is frozen to a depth of three and a half feet. His cabin, ‘a matchbox’, stands ‘with its back to the mountains’. Snow has ‘meringued the roof, and the