The call of the solitary life: a look at the lives of hermits

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2004

In "A Pelican in the Wilderness," British author Isabel Colegate sets out to examine the intriguing question of why certain human beings seek a solitary existence, usually in an empty or wild landscape, with few or no comforts. Why does the spare "hermit's cell" beckon? Why hide in a cave from all visitors?

Colegate lists many possible motivations, including escape from the tax collector, from violent fathers or shrewish wives, from religious persecutions, from temptations of sex or things. Another motivation might be protest at the society the recluse left behind. Certainly some of these escapees are insane, but that does not explain those who are philosophers, healthy and happy in their retreats, or those who do work that benefits the society they left behind. "What one might call the hermit tendency," Colegate writes, "constitutes a thin but uninterrupted thread through history, a pull of the tide toward some other moon."

In tracing that thread, Colegate talks of hermits living in Ladakh, near Assisi, in the middle of a lonely Scottish moor, high on a misty Chinese mountain and describes a 1770 hermitage built in an estate in Wiltshire as a part of an eccentric landscaping plan. She undertakes to visit monasteries in remote places, such as Deir Mar Musa in the Syrian desert. She interviews ascetics with multiple degrees who labor in the heat to restore old stone masonry and cultivate their own tomatoes.

She also visits the valley of Mae Soi in China, where a monk called Ajahn Pongsak was trying to restore a forest devastated by logging. Pongsak was extraordinarily strong, and started to build weirs and lay water pipes single-handed to combat erosion. The villagers grew to understand what he was doing, and started replanting native trees. Colegate's son worked with Pongsak for a time.

A typical story in the book is that of St. Antony, prototype of all Christian hermits. He suffered temptations, was beaten up by demons and convinced wild asses to stop eating his vegetables. Antony went into the Egyptian desert in 270 A.D. "The idea of the desert as a place of encounter with God already existed in religious tradition," Colegate writes. "The Old Testament prophets had wandered there. Elijah had been brought bread by a raven and Moses had heard God's voice speaking to him from within a burning bush. John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, had foretold the coming of the Messiah. Jesus himself had gone there to avoid temptation after his baptism."

The poet W. B. Yeats, J.D. Salinger, Native American shamans, Idaho "Ridgerunner" William Moreland (last seen in 1964), Madame Blavatsky, St. Sergius of 14th-century Russia, Krisnamurti, Mondrian, hippies. Thomas Merton, the French Hindu-Christian Swami Abhishiktananda of India, Thoreau, Oscar Wilde and dozens of other historical figures come into play in Colegate's text.

She balances diverse elements with consummate skill, scatters homely details like rose petals and leads the reader gently on as a mysterious figure in a yellow loin cloth in the distance might.

An unexpected story in the book was that of Chris McCandless, whose body was found in April 1992 in an abandoned bus in Denali Park. The bus had been left to rust near the Stampede Trail, an unfinished road which followed the route first taken in the 1930s by a miner called Earl Pilgrim, who had antimony claims further on.

What McCandless' motives were for hiking into the wilderness with only a bag of rice are unknown. "He read Tolstoy and Jack London, gave away his possessions and began to wander," Colegate notes, surviving long treks in the Mojave Desert, Grand Canyon, the Oregon coat and Arizona before heading to Alaska.

Writer Jon Krakauer came to the conclusion in "Into the Wild" that McCandless died as the result of eating the poisonous seed pods of the wild potato. Colegate concludes that Krakauer's book became a bestseller, "perhaps because families all over America thought of their rebellious sons and felt a frisson of fear." She does not go so far as to call him a hermit, although he was certainly living a solitary existence at the time of his death.

"A Pelican in the Wilderness" was first published in Great Britain by HarperCollins. Colegate is the author of 13 previous books, including the novels "The Shooting Party" and "The Summer of the Royal Visit."

• Ann Chandonnet is a Juneau resident and author of more than a dozen books.

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