“You May Never Find the Forest if You Ignore the Tree…” Seeking Wellness in the Himalayas

“You May Never Find the Forest if You Ignore the Tree…” Seeking Wellness in the Himalayas

How the philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s vision of solitude and the writer’s retreat offers an antidote to our cluttered digital lives.

This article appears in Volume 27: The
Books Issue

M. Kethledge writes in his book Lead Yourself First:
Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, “Time is an unrenewable
resource. You can’t get it back… All these things we’ve done to
exchange information, to access information at our fingertips, have
actually taken away our time for restoring the soul. You’re giving
away your soul’s ability to be moved. If we spent more time in
solitude, we’d value ourselves more.”

We had it all for a little while, there. The world at our
fingertips, that backlit screen a ray of light for humanity. But
humans have an innate ability to break anything good – see data
breaches, hacking, Trump and Cambridge Analytica, all of which take
headline billing above the more worrying path the digital world is
guiding our mental health along. It is now common knowledge that
the attention economy sees developers integrating purposely
addictive qualities into their applications, and that too much
screen time can have severely negative effects on humankind.

But what do we do about it? Giving birth to the concept of “deep
work” on his Study Hacks blog, the computer scientist Cal Newport
thinks he has the answer – but don’t expect a 21st-century solution
to a 21st-century problem. What Newport tenders is a concept as old
as time itself: solitude. Buddhism’s most ancient texts talk of a
training of the mind that has seen a global boom of late, since –
ironically – Silicon Valley app developers took meditation
mainstream. However, Newport’s solitude doesn’t require countless
hours of practice, nor even considered effort, for his lies in the
simple of art of doing very little at all.

His definition of solitude is interesting, for it does not
subscribe to the notion of isolated cabins or decamping to the
countryside with a dusty tome to spend the weekend reading alone.
Newport’s solitude can be attained in a crowded city-centre café or
on the morning commute surrounded by hundreds. Describing true
solitude as “freedom from inputs from other minds”, his definition
is a return to the good old days before smartphones when the simple
act of waiting for someone without frantically refreshing
or listening to a
or two wasn’t riddled with feverish boredom.

Newport’s argument is that by filling every single void with an
act of mental processing, our minds are missing out on the moments
of nothingness they need to offer self-insight, to problem solve,
to improve and help us better ourselves as people. “You’re gonna
look at allowing a 13-year-old to have a smartphone the same way
that you would look at allowing your 13-year-old to smoke a
cigarette,” he ominously posits. The solution? What he calls
“digital minimalism”, which – aside from the obvious – is another
concept that is nothing new. Let us go back to the mid-1800s…

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” wrote
Henry David Thoreau, “unless I spend four hours a day at least –
and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods
and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly
engagements.” The American polymath was a pioneer of the minimalist
lifestyle and would surely have been an admirer of Newport’s
ruminations should he be alive today. Documenting his two years
spent living a simple and self-sufficient life in a cabin deep in
the Massachusetts woodlands, Walden; or, Life in the Woods has
become something of a manifesto for modern minimalists and has
served as a blueprint for the current wave of off-grid, tiny-house
living that has been adopted by so many in search of an answer to
the digital clutter Newport laments.

In the years since Thoreau embarked on his mission as a kind of
proto-Brooklyn hipster, the “writer’s retreat” has become somewhat
of a cliché – but the truth is that writers have always been
switched on to Newport’s brand of minimalism. The human mind
requires solitude to continue working the way it should, especially
in the case of creativity. Virginia Woolf wrote from a lodge at the
back of her Sussex garden; George Orwell lived just long enough to
finish 1984 in isolation on the bracing Scottish island of Jura;
Mark Twain wrote many of his works in a small hut on an upstate
farm; and both Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl penned iconic
words from their sheds.

In our times of digital maximalism, where decades of
technological advancements have traded access to information for
access to our inner selves, it is not solely scribers in search of
literary stimulus who should look to the writer’s retreat for
inspiration. We’ve had the digital detoxes, the off-grid getaways
and remote wooden cabins. But in evoking the sense of mental
solitude, one need not entirely cut oneself off from it all.
Rather, this is a case of choosing an environment that can both
feed inspiration and provide the moments of solitude our minds need
to do what they do best. After all, a lot of fine literature
intoxicatedly tumbled out of the rundown Parisian guesthouse they
called the “Beat Hotel” at the turn of the 1960s.

In seeking an escape we needn’t aspire to replicate writers’
retreats of the past – the simple living of Thoreau, the remoteness
of Orwell nor the pensive isolation of Twain – but rather look to
embrace the qualities that drove them there: the opportunity to
obtain both solitude and inspiration. Let us not look to detox from
our digital realm, but rather to discover a destination that
compels minimalism – somewhere removed from the hubbub, yet capable
of stirring palpable creative inspiration. You don’t have to be
working on a novel to need a retreat capable of fixing writer’s
block. You don’t even need to be a writer. But by following this
literary tradition – by finding your own Walden – you really can
unlock a little of the magic inside.


Stedsans in the Woods, Halland, Sweden

After founding the much-loved but short-lived Copenhagen urban farm and
rooftop restaurant Stedsans ØsterGRO, Mette Helbæk and Flemming
Hansen embarked on their own odyssey into the woodlands in the
autumn of 2016. Stedsans – which is Danish for “sense of place” –
presents the essence of Thoreau’s simple living with all the rough
edges smoothed off.

Deep in the remote countryside of Halland, Helbæk and Hansen
have created a paradisiacal sanctum of style that offers solitude
and time for contemplation by day and stimulation by night. Its
farm-to-table Nordic dinners are served family style for guests to
enjoy as a community and are dictated by the micro-seasons of the
forest, with almost everything harvested hours or minutes before
serving – much from within 100 metres, from the surrounding gardens
and forest, and the remainder from no further than 70 kilometres
away. Helbæk and Hansen’s commitment to an alternative lifestyle is
right there on the plate, delivering an invigorating post-Noma
approach to Nordic cuisine that plugs you directly into what you

Thoreau’s minimalism is evident here: “Spend only money on stuff
you need and buy it in a proper quality” is the duo’s number- one
rule and their woodland project serves as a laboratory researching
an idyllic lifestyle of the future. “We envision a world where food
is grown where people live,” they say. “That means more people
shall live and grow food in nature and more food production in the
cities. Some will say that it is utopic. We say that business as
usual is utopic.”


Folly, Joshua Tree, US

Out to the desert. The haze. Confusion. Peyote. The barren
expanse and dusty reds of America’s deserts have an enduring bond
with counterculture and the hippie movement. What Burning Man
continues was once a less structured blur of psychedelics and
outsider art – Hunter S. Thompson somewhere around Barstow, towns
where tumbleweed rolls by, intense, burning heat.

Counterculture connoisseurs are drawn to the mysticism of the
desert’s vast emptiness, to its spirit and lawlessness. It is
unsurpassable in its ability to offer solitude and inspire wild,
creative thinking. 800,000 acres of uncompromising, emotive,
utterly humbling desert, Joshua Tree National Park is as evocative
a landscape as the most creative of minds could conjure. It is
extraterrestrial, otherworldly in the truest sense of that word. It
is the place of dreams and dreamers, and in the heart of it sits a
pair of gabled structures built from weathering steel that visually
echo the dusty hues of the environment. Inside is an impeccably
designed home – a counterculture cum contemporary Walden, an
unconventional oasis.

As part of the Folly collection – an offbeat series of
design-led, off-grid cabins hidden in nature – this minimalist,
two-bedroom space designed by the architect Malek Alqadi is an open
invitation to get inspired. It is not just a reconnection to nature
but a reconnection to the soul, a place to commune with the mystic
haze of the desert by day and to gaze into other galaxies by night
as you wallow in the bathtub embedded on the deck. Strange and
brilliant, the Joshua Tree Folly stirs the true spirit of the


Villa Lena, Tuscany, Italy

Lena Evstafieva is a contemporary art curator and gallerist, her
partner Jérôme Hadey a musician and producer, their collaborator
Lionel Bensemoun a restaurateur and nightclub owner. Together they
own not a buzzing Brooklyn hotspot nor a concept space
in an emerging east London neighbourhood, but
rather a villa deep in the Tuscan countryside built in the
19th century by Italian aristocracy.

The Villa Lena logo was designed by Bensemoun’s friend and
co-club owner, the famed street artist André Saraiva, which gives
you a glimpse into the kind of world the trio are building for
themselves amid 500 hectares of greenery and rolling hills. Here
the romance of the Tuscan terrain is married with contemporary
culture, their Villa Lena Foundation a non-profit organisation
committed to supporting creative disciplines from art to music,
film and literature to fashion. The foundation runs an artist
residency programme, and time spent in this corner of the Italian
countryside is time spent in and around the buzz of creativity. It
is a place for intense inspiration, for rediscovering spark.

But there is a sense of minimalism here, too, with foraging
activities and organic gardens. Two hectares – and growing – of
plentiful produce dictate the seasonal menus and the
chef-in-residence programme means that culinary creativity is in
constant flux. A nightly farm-to-table communal dining experience
brings travellers and artists together on the terrace, those
seeking inspiration or creativity unable to avoid it. Rich in
community spirit, its owners’ acute understanding of culture,
sustainability and slow living confirms Villa Lena as a haven for
progressive thinkers.


The Old Schoolhouse, Eilean Shona,

The romance of classic literature weighs heavy on this wild,
rocky island off the western coast of Scotland. The escapism of
classic fantasy. The mysticism and wonder. “It almost taketh the
breath away to find so perfectly appointed a retreat on these wild
shores,” wrote J.M. Barrie to his personal secretary, Cynthia
Asquith. Barrie, of course, is famous for the classic stage play
Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and it is widely
believed that it is here where both its screenplay and the ghost
story, Mary Rose, were penned.

The essence of mythical Neverland is here. It makes sense.
Springy heather coats the undulating hills and the coastline is
craggy and unforgiving – you can imagine the mischief the boy who
wouldn’t grow up could cause here. Diving off the pier

into the immaculate, if bracing, waters; cooking on campfires;
attempting to navigate the Atlantic coastline; encountering red
deer, otters and seals in their natural habitat while roaming
across a car-free wilderness. Escaping to the private island of
Eilean Shona is like mainlining inspiration. It is fantasy
literature brought to life – a tangible, palpable fairy-tale.

A 45-minute walk from the jetty that welcomes guests to this
bracing island, The Old Schoolhouse is one of a series of cottages
dotted sparingly around Eilean Shona. Occupying its own bay, it is
remote but luxurious. Here you can channel Orwell, understand
Barrie’s magic and soak up the spirit of the island, while
revelling in the sort of elegant design sensibilities those
literary greats may have missed out on.

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