In New York one day recently, I walked for 40 blocks and heard at least a dozen people yelling into their phones. A woman shouted, “I TOLD you, I was home last night. What’s the matter, don’t you trust me?” A man was screaming, “Statistically speaking — I’m just saying that statistically speaking — will you let me finish, if you just shut up and let me finish maybe you would LEARN something!”
I was thinking about hermits.
I had been reading Michael Finkel’s “The Stranger in the Woods,” a book about a man who lived alone for 27 years in the woods of northern Maine. Before that, I read Howard Axelrod’s “The Point of Vanishing,” a beautiful memoir of his own two-year seclusion in the woods after an accident blinded him in one eye. And then there is Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House,” about a year alone on Cape Cod; and the grandfather of all American hermit chronicles, Thoreau’s “Walden.”
I’m finding the literature of solitude especially appealing right now, at a time when public life seems noisier than ever before. There is a powerful attraction in the idea of fleeing, getting away from the clamor of the world. If you’re by yourself, nobody can disagree with you, or tell you that your ideas are stupid, or that you can’t do something, or that they’re going to take something away from you. (Then again, the solitary life is not necessarily free of conflict, as Isabel Colegate points out in her study of hermits, “A Pelican in the Wilderness,” writing of St. Anthony: “He suffered temptations, was beaten up by demons, and reasoned with the wild asses until they desisted from eating his vegetables.”)
In material terms, a hermit’s life is defined by renunciation. But the books written by and about hermits make clear that withdrawing from society can also be a kind of reclamation, an opportunity to move toward something else.
When Beston went to live in a tiny cottage on Cape Cod, in 1926, he was hungry for reconnection with the natural world. He describes the seasonal bird migrations, the survival of plants in the harsh dune environment, the constant yet ever-varied sounds of waves on the shore. “The great rhythms of nature,” he writes, “today so dully disregarded, wounded even, have here their spacious and primeval liberty.”
Axelrod writes that living alone in the Vermont woods gave him the sense of “something essential I might grow closer to, especially as my outer layers fell away.” He discovered that solitude can actually be less lonely than life in society. “I needed to find something that couldn’t be taken away and that I couldn’t leave.”
The Maine hermit in Finkel’s book hoped he would never be found, that he could live and die alone in the woods. But for other hermits, solitude is a temporary condition, from which one returns to society with renewed energy, focus, and hope. Beston’s writing inspired Rachel Carson and the modern environmental movement, and led to the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore. He wrote: “Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of man.” Thoreau began developing his ideas on civil disobedience while living at Walden Pond; Gandhi and Martin Luther King would later build on these ideas, incubated in solitude, to create massively influential social justice movements.
There are a variety of healthy responses to stress and conflict. One is to wade into the fray: to show up, speak out, keep fighting. Another is to withdraw for a while, and then come back stronger. “If you have built castles in the air,” wrote Thoreau famously, “your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.