Mazégue, Arrien-en-Bethmale, 09800, ARIEGE

Mazégue, Arrien-en-Bethmale, 09800, ARIEGE

In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau posited the existence of ancestral aboriginals who lived happy and free in the forest, centuries before their descendants succumbed to a modern nightmare of urban alienation. Ten years ago, in headlong flight from my own metropolitan misery, I sought the shade of the trees to rediscover what we’d lost so long ago. 

Text and photos: Dominic Munton, Historie-Engelsk Lektorgrad 

Through a glass darkly 

At the ripe old age of 24, I decided that I’d had enough. I’d been living in Bristol, south-west England, for the previous six years, and despite the comforts of a stable job and an established social network, I felt permanently agitated. I longed for a sense of connection that, despite its many pleasures, city life couldn’t provide. 

Six years in town and the constant grinding of traffic, the solitary helicopter buzzing perpetually overhead as I tried to sleep and the endless procession of faces in the street that I wasn’t supposed to look at had finally worn me down. Over the previous few years, I’d gradually become more aware of how afraid I was of being alone. In turn, I began to suspect that the essence of my friendships was not a sense of mutual connection, but rather a shallow farce in which I avoided my fears of solitude by surrounding myself with people, unable to appreciate them beyond the simple fact that they kept solitude at bay. Even worse, it seemed as if everyone else was doing just fine; it was only I who was incapable of authentic relating. Despite all my best efforts, surrounded by people, I was alone. I yearned for change yet feared that taking time out would mean being left behind, watching from the side-lines as my compatriots walked well-worn tracks of comfort and opportunity denied to me by my own foolish restlessness. 

The catalytic moment for my departure came when a friend, Pete, visited me for dinner one evening. Pete was many years older than me, a man who’d suffered through much and yet remained as kind-hearted and irreverent as any. At a certain moment during the evening, I was struck by the perception that this amazing Pete considered me to be his friend. I felt unworthy. I was incapable of appreciating him fully and felt a gnawing guilt that this realisation also applied to all my other friendships. Later that evening, Pete went home, and the sense of an intolerable solitude bloomed within me. The way ahead was still hidden to me, but behind me the path was bright with flames.  

Rousseau’s rambler 

And then, through a sequence of serendipitous events unfolding over a span of seasons, my solitude metamorphosed from fancy to fact. The end of a relationship, a scrap of paper on a community-centre notice board “harpist seeks flautist”, an experimental foray into street performance, a free aeroplane ticket and someone’s grandma’s birthday party: that was all it took. I found myself the sole occupant of a mountain cabin in the valley of Bethmale, in the French département of Ariège high up in the Pyrenees. The cabin possessed neither electricity nor running water and was forty muddy minutes uphill from the nearest road on foot. Despite my deepest fears, life, with my grudging consent, had led me here, into the epicentre of solitude where I would remain for three echoing years. Every Saturday, I would retrace my steps to the road and hitch-hike an hour to the nearest town, St. Girons. A few hours of flute-playing dressed as a half-forgotten Greek god garnered me coin enough for vegetables and rice, and before nightfall I would retreat once more to my Spartan hideaway, there to remain for another timeless week. 

Pan: God of Nature and Fertility. Please feed.

Those first, long days, it was hard to believe that this too was reality. My life had become too surreal, too far-fetched to be true. Now instead of helicopters disturbing my sleep, I was kept awake by a loire (a kind of dormouse), brazenly digging around my food trunk. The constant roar of the traffic had been replaced by the hypnotic thummering of rain on the corrugated iron roof overhead. There was no longer anybody’s gaze to avoid in the street: there were no bodies, there was no street.  

However, my arrival in the cabin was not entirely unanticipated. For all the apparent normality of my life in Bristol, I’d felt myself tyrannised by unruly emotion. Ten years of private education had left me with an in-depth knowledge of the biochemistry of photosynthesis, yet quite unable to master basic impulse control; the barman of the Miner’s Arms was a close friend. My search for a satisfying sobriety led me far and wide. Counselling, therapy and meditation soon led to energy healing, acupuncture and candle-lit shamanic ceremony, but to no avail. I’d approached myself as a big game-hunter approaches a skittish lion, but at a certain point it seemed as if my life in the city was muddying the waters as fast as I could clarify them. In my youthful naiveté, I’d assumed that if I could just find a place that was still enough, the waters would clear, and the knots would untangle… and who knows what would happen then? It was a seductive tomorrow. 

Awakening alone to the remains of last night’s dinner frozen in the pan and that tomorrow was still yet to come. Up in my mountain eyrie, I was socially disconnected as never before in my life. Without my realising it in my previous life, I’d always been surrounded by people. Even if they weren’t talking to me, they were always somehow there, reachable in an emergency. Suddenly I had no one else to try and figure out, no one to entertain or beguile. Without a partner from which to elicit a response, I was overwhelmed by how uninteresting and unamusing I found myself. With no fellow to reflect them back to me, every action I did, every step I took echoed emptily beneath that thin metal roof. 

I wrote and read as if my life depended on it. Before I’d left the UK, I was already doing a practice called the morning pages in which you commit yourself to writing anything at all to fill three sides of A4 every morning without fail. In the cabin, these pages rolled on and on, filling ten to twenty pages and continuing from the last spoon of porridge to the first grumbles of my belly for lunch. A few hours wandering amongst the silent chestnut trees presaged endless hours huddled by the stove in the company of my favourite wordsmiths of the day: Terry Pratchett, Ursula Le Guin, Iain. M. Banks, and the barely sane ramblings of Mr. Philip K. Dick 

Everything I did, I did for myself. There was no one else to do it for. Every second day, I hauled a pair of 20 litre water cans down the narrow forest trails to a waterfall around the next spur of the valley. I’d rigged up an old plank against the rocks that allowed me to focus the flow of water such that I could fill my cans without completely soaking myself in the process. It can’t have been more than a hundred metres from the cabin, but my journey home was an agonising Farmer’s Walk as I stubbornly insisted on carrying both cans at once back through the forest whilst my hands and arms begged for mercy. 

If a tree falls in the forest… 

First the chestnuts and then the leaves fell from the trees. Mushrooms sprouted everywhere before leaving without a trace. Thick swirling snows confined me for weeks at a time, before racing down the mountainside in raging torrents with spring’s first kiss. Seasons kept at bay by asphalt and plastic surged about me in full force, the entire forest ripening and withering with the regularity of ocean waves on a wind-beaten shore. 

Half-hidden in the shade of the trees, my psychological knots were certainly looser, but they remained just as they had been: knots. I started to wonder if perhaps the real reason that I’d isolated myself was shame. I was ashamed that I needed other people so much, ashamed that my need for company blinded me to the depths of those I’d surrounded me with. I was ashamed that I couldn’t simply ‘solve’ life; learn the answers and pass the test. I’d hidden myself away in a Pyrenean forest so others couldn’t see that shame, so that I wouldn’t have to see it reflected back to me in the gaze of all who looked on me.  

Living in the cabin didn’t cure this shame, it didn’t make it go away. If anything, my unremitting introspection cast a harsh light upon my foibles, magnifying them to a monstrous scale. But over the years, as my French gradually improved, I made the acquaintance of numerous other hermits scattered through the surrounding valleys. It dawned on me that my situation was far less unique than I’d believed it to be. Though I remained a hermit, it became clear to me that despite my solitude, I was no longer alone. Many others had fled to this isolated corner of France for similar reasons to my own. In fact, it transpired that my flight to this region was far from original: the tradition of fugitives making their exodus to the area around the Ariège dates all the way back to the persecution of the European Cathars in the 12th century.  

Roots 

From early childhood, I, as most of my cohort, have been subject to constant moulding as regards the final shape of my adult life. As I transitioned from school to university, the reality of jobs, mortgages, taxes and insurance appeared all but inevitable. Yet in the course of these three years of solitude, for perhaps the first time in my life, I stopped. The rules of the game crumbled around me and I was left, as Adam, aware of my nakedness and not entirely sure what to do with it. Though I was living far away from the system’s chugging engine, the world did not end. My future ability to feed myself has not, as far as I know, been undone. Instead, there is a sometimes overwhelming feeling of possibility: I could go anywhere, do anything. The veil that separates my existence from something utterly other is shadow thin. I suspect it always has been thus, but confronting the possibility of the rest of my life as an isolated Pyrenean hermit helped raised the curtain on the infinite possibilities of life. 

If I wanted to, I could stay here. I could live out the rest of my days here, gradually turning back in upon myself like a fingernail left uncut. No-one would mind or care particularly, there is no right or wrong choice to make. I could clear the land below the cabin and grow my own vegetables. I could insulate the thin iron roof and buy a few solar panels and batteries. Who knows, some day it might even be comfortable? 

Tomorrow 

One quiet spring morning, after the snow had melted but before the leaves had come out, I sat at the table wrapped in my sleeping bag, pen in hand. I wrote: “The truth is, I actually rather like people. Not just because they give me a brief holiday from the arduous task of being me, but for their own sake.” Each new hermit that I’d met was an entire universe, dressed up in trousers and a hat. If I took the time to look closely enough, I’d soon see a host of insecurities and uncertainties, traits that I’d never really noticed in others thanks to my own anxiety. Yet somehow, when I beheld these things in another, none of them seemed shameful in the least. Three years before, I’d come to the cabin yearning to expel my inner devils so that I could be like everyone else. Instead I’d discovered the same devils living in everyone else and realised that my own were here to stay. As these thoughts dawned on me, my reasons for remaining in the cabin melted like the snow and now nothing remained but to stuff the tiny gas burner in my pack and hide the key under the eaves, there to wait for the next conflicted refugee in need of the forest’s generosity. 

I’d be the first to admit that all of this didn’t necessarily make life any easier. Living in Oslo, I still struggle with the same challenges that I faced in Bristol before my Pyrenean sojourn. I still fear the darkness of social disconnection that is ever the lot of the footloose traveller. But it is hard to take your demons quite so seriously when you’ve looked them in the eye and discovered that actually, there’s not one of them that you wouldn’t invite for afternoon tea with your grandma. 

There was a young man, 
Who lived all alone, 
In mountains quite cold, 
And places unknown. 

Some days the sun shone, 
And so did his heart, 
Some days it did not, 
And so he did start 

His work for to do, 
For which he had come, 
His dark parts to love, 
From pain and from numb. 

He watched himself fret, 
and worry and doubt, 
then picked himself up, 
with nary a clout. 

He breathed into his chest, 
His feelings to taste, 
And when they unfurled, 
He gave them their space. 

He watched them with love, 
With sadness and fear, 
He gave them a voice, 
Whene’er they drew near. 

And each time he did, 
Some magic arose, 
To the top of his head, 
From the tips of his toes. 

He started to grow, 
In softness and light, 
Dark fear and deep shame, 
He put them to flight. 

For we are not meant, 
To hold on to our pain, 
We’re meant to let go, 
As clouds do their rain. 

It does us no good, 
To hold it inside, 
It’s meant to flow free, 
Like wind or the tide 

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