An Island to Oneself
In 1952, a New Zealander named Tom Neale hitched a ride to a small Pacific atoll, Suwarrow, that had been abandoned since World War II. He was well provisioned, with two cats, kerosene, bully (corned) beef, fishing gear, knives, various canned foods, baking staples, a basic medicine chest, and a few well-chosen books. When he got to Suwarrow, he found a badly damaged boat (he fixed it up using rope that he unraveled and made into caulk), water storage tanks, a few broken-down huts, wild chickens and pigs, and a protected atoll that held an infinite store of easy-to-spear fish. His diet consisted of seafood, chicken, eggs, pawpaw, coconut, and breadfruit. He constructed a native oven and a grill, learned to cook fish wrapped in leaves overnight, and just missed being attacked by a bull shark that was after the large fish on the end of his fishing line. He had to kill the wild pigs after they devastated his garden; this involved luring them in with food at night while sitting in a tree with spear at the ready. After he spent six months reconstructing a pier, a hurricane washed it away in hours. He returned to civilization after experiencing debilitating back pain from arthritis. He returned to Suwarrow in 1960 and stayed another four years. His final and longest stay began in 1967 and ended a decade later due to ill health.
A friend of mine, a landscape architect, now lives in Vermont but grew up in Connecticut. Just a couple of miles into the woods from where he lived, there was a hermit who had built his own shelter and furniture, made his own clothes, started his own orchard, and preserved his own food. And until about 10 years ago, there was a trapper who lived alone in a remote area of southern Vermont and made do on his own, selling pelts for a subsistence living. And even today, as I hike up in the woods, far away from any settlement, there are fallen-down barns and farmhouses, cellar holes, and plenty of stone walls and sheep fencing, evidence that many families lived far off the grid, up in the mountains, a good hike from the valley below.
In this new century, however, we are social animals. We have social media. We are afraid of being lonely.
Hence this paean to loneliness. To being in the woods and not quite knowing what lies over the next ridge. To riding a tractor in August, looking up, and seeing red-tailed hawks soaring on thermals. To waking up in the middle of the night, alone, in an old farmhouse, with the sound of pipes banging. To the disquiet of the unfamiliar. To what you don’t know and never will. To the phone not ringing. To the end of email. To standing in the falling snow in late afternoon, listening to the distant baying of a beagle chasing a rabbit. To trying something for the first time. To being unsure of yourself. To getting lost. To trying and failing.
I’ve never met a Vermonter who hungered for my approval. The old-timers decide on their own how far apart to plant their potatoes, when to put in their garden, or whether it’s a good day to cut hay. They know the best spot to hunt deer, whether it’s going to be a harsh winter, and whether to take the shortcut during mud season. And they don’t need any help figuring out when to pull maple syrup off the pans, which pie to choose at the firehouse dinner in July (the pink fluffy one), or whether to have a second cider doughnut at Sherman’s during early morning coffee hour.
Being alone is not the same as being lonely. One can be alone in a well-stuffed armchair, book in hand, surrounded by Oliver Twist, the ghost of Prince Hamlet, George Smiley, Peter Pan, or the trolls of Mordor. We are well-met with memories of friends departed, the stillness of twilight, the crackle of birch on the fire, and the company of a black Lab or a glass of wine. But we are not truly lonely.
Some of us have a true fondness for being alone. I have been alone in barns during thunderstorms so powerful that harnesses rattled on their hooks. I have fished alone in pools beneath waterfalls in remote pine forests with only half-light dappled on the water. I have driven the panhandle of Texas alone at night, jackrabbits and headlights for company. I have sat in tree stands, alone, before sunrise, in biting cold, the light above the mountains developing slowly, turning from sepia to watercolor. And I have been alone in the half-light of subway platforms in New York, midnight having passed, waiting desperately for the rumble of the next train. Loneliness is called a disease. But older generations understood that one is poor company without loneliness as a companion. Loneliness sharpens the wits, makes one discriminate in the choice of words, and increases the appetite for fellowship. It gives one pause before speaking, puts a spring in the step, quiets the inner voice, and gives one the balance needed to survive the ups and downs of life with equanimity.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, one should struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by the tribe. No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning oneself.