I’ve talked before about the logistical challenges of wilderness living, but I haven’t been prepared to talk about the emotional and mental challenges. Mostly because the first year was really about surviving the physical, the day to day.
After a year in this cottage in the woods, four months of those as a work from home publishing entrepreneur, there’s a lot to say about solitude, community, and resilience.
I’ve been living out of cell phone, and satellite range for the last year. I have access to a landline only, and no-dial up internet capabilities at the moment (cable and DSL are no-go for bandwidth this far out). The forest is too dense for any internet satellite provider, and all cable companies in the area have declined my address.
I’m on a well for water and have access to a creek. I have public utility power, which goes down regularly—the longest two and a half days last winter. My landline is consistently failing. Three times in the last year it’s been down for several days at a time.
Mind you, I grew up in Alaska. A-Las-Ka. And In the seven years I lived there my phone, and electricity never went down as often as it has in one year in Tillamook County alone. It’s embarrassing.
That’s all a framework to understanding the severity of my choice to live in relative isolation. It was an extreme decision, I understand that. Unreliable roads, wild animals (mostly cougars, bears, and coyote) lost hunters, etc. all lead to a combination of dangers that make many people uncomfortable when I tell them I’m a forest dweller.
Why did I make the choice?
Sanity. Beauty. Peace. Focus. Creativity.
Sanity: I’m too far off grid to be able to check my email, news, messages, and other chaos, unless by effort, choice, or planning. The limited access to social media, news reports, world chaos, and overall strain, has lowered my blood pressure, and stress levels significantly. (Also lowered in part due to leaving a toxic corporate job). When I go to town for supplies, internet access, and socializing, I have to prioritize what I focus on…so getting caught up in FB arguments, political fights online, or other snags—I just simply don’t have time for. All unnecessary drama is out of priority, and the recipe is reclaimed sanity.
Beauty: What’s not to love about the beauty of the forest? I’m surrounded by trees, mountains, wild animals, the sights and sounds of nature. I sleep to the sound of running water, and wake up to the sun filtering through the canopy. It’s serene. Don’t think that I’m unaware of the dangers because of the beauty, I’m fully aware. But the beauty and serenity offers a kind of peace I haven’t known in years.
Peace. So much peace.
Focus: As my stress levels lowered, my creativity surged. My ability to focus, hear my own voice, hear myself think, process emotional backlogs and needs, has all increased. My writing time is uninterrupted by the passersby, the phone rarely rings, and I can’t lose myself to social media or Pinterest for hours at a time. When I sit down to write, it’s actual writing time. Development and creative time is also super productive. Should I have been able to block everything out and find my center point of focus in town? In the city? Sure, maybe. Focus is focus, I should be able to rein it in anywhere, but the truth is, I wasn’t able to get a good grip on it until I removed myself from the worst distractions.
Creativity: The above positive points have done wonders to my creative energy and productivity.
Emotional and Mental Challenges:
With isolation comes the gift of inner voice. Unfortunately, too much inner voice and you start talking to yourself.
Perhaps it’s just with writers, but after a while, with little access to other humans or social rigor, it’s easy to blur the line between fantasy and reality. This is awesome, when you’re a fantasy writer. It makes the fantasy world real, immersive, and easy to capture in storytelling format. The difficulty is in remembering which side of reality you’re on when you close your laptop.
Isolation also breeds a stronger lack of interest in unnecessary melodrama and the pettiness of others. Which means, knowing your idea of peace means not engaging in dreck because there’s a calm, serene place in the woods waiting for you to retreat to—it’s tough to listen with compassion to people as they recycle their issues, unable to get clarity, unwilling to make the hard choices, when they’re willing to living in their self-induced, redundant victimology.
Living in the city and in regular social environments, listening to people recycle themselves becomes part of the accepted interactive dynamic. Community, and support expects compassionate commiseration with each other’s emotional needs, and complaints. When you start to hear your own voice again, let go of old injuries, heal old gaps, and find serenity—it’s literally exhausting, mentally and emotionally to listen to other people going through the rinse/repeat cycles of non-action.
Does it mean I won’t listen? Not at all. It only means, I’m aware my capacity to listen and sympathize is shortened, and my need to return to serenity will call me back home early.
People are always surprised to find out I classify on the scale as an extrovert. While I find the scale to be incomplete, as most labelling structures are—there’s something to be said about an extrovert who chooses the life of a hermit. Chooses, as in, on purpose.
It’s not unheard of. Many forms of study and reflection require solitude. I’ve been considering my time in this sanctuary as a form of study and healing.
Transitioning back and forth from woods to city, quiet to loud, slow to fast-paced can take some adjustment. Sometimes my trip to town leave me ragged and flinchy. Noises get to me, strong smells, colognes, and aftershaves, the reek of diesel, and so on can make me irritable and over aware.
My voice gets rusty sometimes from not talking much, then I’m raspy over coffee with a friend.
Most notably, touch can get to be a problem. I realize that when I’m alone too long, I can get flinchy about people touching me. I’ve tried to make a point to hug my friends often, when I see them, to keep myself familiar with their energy, and touching people I know. It helps ground me, but at the same time, makes me more aware of loneliness.
“I couldn’t live that far out. Don’t you get lonely?” It’s the most asked question, when people learn what part of the woods I live in.
The truth is, I’m in town three days a week, and on the phone with friends and family daily…so I rarely feel lonely. I wander the woods, the creek, and talk with my imaginary characters. I have a dog and a cat, and a shelf of books…how can one possibly get lonely?
Well, it does happen. Not often, but when it does it strikes hard and surprising.
Two types of loneliness:
- Not having others around, as in same space and energy. This type of loneliness hardly ever happens.
- Not having people in your circle to connect with on a mental or emotional level: happens regularly, even when I lived in the city, and was surrounded by people all day every day.
To combat the feeling when it does surface, I decide which of the two types of loneliness it is and make a plan. For the first type, I plan a trip to the local pub, restaurant or hangout. Sometimes I just need a loud, packed place to sit, and sometimes I need strangers to interact with. Depending on the mood, I’ll play it by ear.
For the second kind of loneliness, the moment I realize what it is, I call a friend and book a lunch, chat, or phone date. Schedule a visit, or an adventure. Sometimes just scheduling it does the trick. But when a deeper emotional or mental connection is needed, I go right to my long-standing community.
Living in isolation, the worst thing I could do as an extrovert, is ignore the ping when it happens. It doesn’t happen often, so it’s important to keep the balance and respect the emotional request when I notice it. This is also why I searched for a customer service position at part time status. Something to put me around humans on a semi-regular schedule so I don’t forget how to people.
Peopling can be hard, but it would be a whole lot harder if I lose the habit, and start avoiding it. It’s a muscle, and a need. So, I work hard to keep the balance.
“I’d be too afraid to live that far out. Do you have a gun?” This is the second most common response to my living situation.
Fear is an emotional reality of living outside communication and access of your regular community. Fear happens. Fear also happens when I’m on a crowded Portland freeway surrounded by California license plates.
I’m not unafraid. There are nights when I can’t sleep through a storm, or the phone has been down for two days and I imagine the worst-case scenarios. But I’m not afraid of the separation, the distance, or the unknowable forest.
The things that actually do scare the crap out of me, are not the things that you’d think would give me sleepless nights and sweaty dreams. The dumbest shit terrifies me.
Adam Copeland recently came out for a visit and as we chatted, he asked: “What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?”
“As in the one that scared me the most?” I asked, then without pausing for breath I said. “The Dark Crystal. I actually peed myself in second grade, because I was too scared to go the bathroom, alone afterward.”
“Wait,” he looked surprised. “The puppet movie?”
Are you kidding me? Those creatures were brilliantly created, and were horrifying! I loved it. Then pissed myself… literally. Hey, I was eight.
Anywhoo, the things that scare me out here are related to what gets trapped in my head, my imagination, only myself to listen to. Worries about money, being able to make house repairs on time, my car not starting so far from town, the power being out longer than my gas supply, etc. etc. These are all normal, human fears and worries. I’d have the same sets of concerns if I lived in town, in a city, and so on. The forest, and the distance doesn’t take away the fear, or make it worse—fear just is. Isolated or not, you just deal with it.
I’m happy to report, thirty years later, I can make it to the bathroom by myself after watching The Dark Crystal. See? Progress.
Mental challenges really range around the concept of fortitude. The constant self-assurance that when something isn’t going to plan, or an emergency happens, I can rally, or fix it.
Can I handle this? I can handle this. Have I got this? I’ve got this.
The mental challenge can look a lot like someone bobbing in choppy water. Head above the line, below the waterline, above, below.
Mental challenges also take place when I’m prioritizing needs. I’m one person, sporadic income, few skills—so I have to do mental gymnastics around the tasks and projects I can and want to do, what can I afford, and what is a critical emergency. The result is that it seems like nothing gets done. Dozens of half-done projects linger, and my need for order and organization is bothered by the constant state of incompletion. I scratch at them all like so many annoying mosquito bites. Slowly, like molasses in January, they begin to close out, take shape and in that they help me define capabilities, confidence, and the much-needed reassurance that there is some kind of progress being made, and that I’m doing the best I can with what I have.
All in all, I’m still deeply, madly in love with this place. Someday, I’ll actually finish the interior painting. Someday I’ll get the laundry room finished, and the carpet replaced, the deck sealed, and the leaning trees removed. Someday I’ll have a flourishing garden, and a guest treehouse.
Until then, I’m reclaiming my creativity and space. I’m rooting my serenity and peace. I’m writing like my fingers are on fire. I’m picking easy to finish projects to boost a sense of completion victory, and making plans to keep seeing people and maintaining balanced relationships.
Wilderness living is not without its challenges, but the rewards still vastly outweigh the difficulties.
Here’s to one year in the Alder Glade.