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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
“Time is an unrenewable resource. You can’t get it back,” writes Raymond M. Kethledge in his book Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. “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 Instagram or listening to a podcast 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 New York 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.
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 eat.
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.”
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 counterculture.
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 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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