In the last few years I have read Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, The journals of Richard Proennecke, and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. This is of course in addition to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Thoreau’s Walden, which have been a part of my library for many years. What is the common thread in these stories? They all involve the real life stories of men who have survived alone in a wilderness area for varying amounts of time. The books represent their reflections on their experience and how they relate to the wilderness around them.
I wonder about the source of my fascination with these stories. Perhaps it is their beautiful nature writing. Maybe I’m attracted to the conservation themes, or even their philosophical musings. I think I might be drawn to their stories of a focused, carefree existence.

Thoreau, who wrote much about solitude said, “I have never found a companion as companionable as solitude.” However, even in his time at Walden, Thoreau often received visitors and frequently travelled out to town. He also recognized that solitude itself is not always a matter of being apart. He said, “A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Solitude can be seen as a state of mind, something that can be attained anywhere.

Abbey was a fine writer and a bit of a crank. He loved the outdoors, particularly the Southwestern desert, and worked alone as part of the Park service. An outspoken conservation activist, his stories are filled with beautifully evocative portraits of the desert.

Leopold did not specifically live in solitude; his family shared his sparse cabin, usually on weekends. But his writing about his early life contains wonderfully told stories of his early years as a Forest Service employee in the West.

Proennecke famously (due to the films that he made) lived in Alaska for many decades. A skilled woodworker, filmmaker and diarist, Proennecke survived in the deepest wilderness, and most amazingly, never complains in his journals about the cold, the loneliness, or the hardships. He happily lived alone and accepted guests as they arrived. His journals are wonders of benign descriptions of weather, wildlife observations, or his sparse diet. Not given to navel-gazing, Proennecke simply states his life in the wild, letting other draw conclusions about it.
Perhaps the least known of my readings is that of Henry Beston. He spent a year in the mid 1920’s in a small frame house on the easternmost part of Cape Cod. He beautifully describes the changing seasons and a cape that is nothing like the busy tourist playground of today. Beston, who was a veteran of World War I, said, “Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man.” This nature may have helped Beston emotionally deal with the horrible conditions he experienced in the Great War.

For myself, I think I need a level of occasional solitude, not as extreme as Proennecke’s perhaps, but necessary to wellbeing. I don’t think I can ever live in the wilderness, especially alone. As I get older, I’m less inclined to accept the discomfort and privation. However, I can use a desire for occasional solitude to enhance my interactions with others. Humans are without doubt social creatures; interactions with others are necessary and affirming. While some may be better suited to living alone, most of us need a steady diet of social life. Thomas Merton, who lived a very special type of solitude as a Trappist monk said: “Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.” Perhaps we can search out the solitude we need in our daily lives and use it the way Thomas Merton did.

I am not about to move to a wilderness area alone and write. Occasional visits to wild areas satisfy me. But I can appreciate the drive that led these authors to forsake society and discover something deep and lasting about themselves, and the world around them. We may need some solitude and silence in our busy lives so that we can contemplate higher ideas and hear inner whispers.

We needn’t move to the forest in order to be open to solitary experiences. We need to calm our desire to be in constant movement, to be ceaselessly ‘doing’. Slow down. Step back on occasion, open your mind, look and listen. As Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”