Reading reflection: Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest

I went to spend six months in a Siberian cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, on the tip of North Cedar Cape.

Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Tiaga

Sylvain Tesson is a geographer by training and a journalist by occupation, but most of all he’s an adventurer. He’s bicycled around the world, descended into caves in Borneo, crossed the Himalayas on foot, and ridden by horseback across the Central Asian steppes. But the ultimate test of his physical and mental abilities, and the subject of this book, was to live for 6 months in withdrawal from society in a tiny cabin in Siberia. The book reads like an annotated diary, packed with reflections of his thoughts during isolation, the many books he read, the copious vodka he imbibed, his visits with neighbors (who were many hours away from him), and interactions with the world around him.

Tesson attempted to bring digital technology on his adventure, including multiple electronic devices and the rechargeable batteries, solar panels, and cables to keep it working. But what he couldn’t control was the temperature, which often dipped well into the negatives—not a good environment for technology. His computer and satellite phone both failed, though later in his trip his phone miraculously started working again, allowing him to check the weather and touch base with the outside world in a minimal way.

But virtually none of his stories centered on the electronics, failed or otherwise. He wrote his thoughts out by hand in a notebook, and maintained some level of sanity by establishing a routine that was both simple and challenging. It’s a way of living that’s most of us only experience in some small way, like when our computer dies and our phone can’t find a signal. Sometimes we embrace it by going out into the wilderness, though even those opportunities are becoming harder to find, like the trail or campsite that lacked internet on the last visit five years ago now has coverage and is filled with people binging their favorite new Netflix show.

Many a hiker have lamented the loss of wilderness to technology. My favorite Bill Bryson quote from A Walk in the Woods is “How I hate all of this technology on the trail”. And when Wild author Cheryl Strayed visited Virginia Tech, she agreed that her walk of the Pacific Crest Trail would have been very different in the current era of ubiquitous mobile coverage. Maybe Tesson will be next, when technology takes over Siberia.

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