Behind a wrought iron gate, just beyond glossily renovated King’s Cross, is a small nature reserve. On a mound of grass, looking down on low wooden buildings and the canal, The School of Life had laid out green and white tablecloths beneath a blue bell-shaped canopy. We were meeting to enjoy, ‘rich conversations about things that really matter in life’ inspired by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and led by Neil Ansell – author of Deep Country. Like Neil, our evening was unpretentious and memorable.
For five years, Neil Ansell lived in an isolated hillside cottage in Wales to learn how to be alone and find out just how little he needed in order to lead a fulfilling life. Neil’s experience of solitude and the natural world that he shares in Deep Country didn’t breed the kind of introspective thought that Thoreau shared over 150 years ago. Alone, Neil found no need for identity or for self-definition. The thread of his own story became so subtly woven into the countryside around him that it almost disappeared.
His book flows from one moment to another. Like the hawks he quietly observes, it soars, circles and rests with an easy, natural rhythm.
His days were spent outside, led by the seasons and the inevitable cycles of nature and not the, ‘requirements and expectations of others’. He invited us to imagine taking time out of life to slow down enough to reach a state of attentiveness, ‘a state of being free of thought’.
In Deep Country he says, “My attention was constantly focused away from myself and on to the natural world around me. And my nights were spent sitting in front of the log fire, aimlessly turning a log from time to time and staring at the flickering flames. I would not be thinking of the day just gone; the day was done. And I would not be planning tomorrow; tomorrow would take care of itself. The silence outside was reflected by a growing silence within. Any interior monologue quietened to a whisper, then faded away entirely.”
His message and his stillness were a contrast to our sociable chatter. But our evening was about both exploring solitude and sharing our thoughts. The School of Life is adept at creating the kind of casual intimacy that makes it possible for complete strangers to gather in a tiny pocket of wildness at the heart of a buzzing city to celebrate each other, the determined, delicate presence of nature and the delicate bonds that bind us all together.
With a glass or two of wine, we began to lose our inhibitions. A black cat sidled about. People cycled past on the towpath. The sun went down. Candles were lit in old jars. Neil read from his book. We leaned towards him to listen.
I think we all felt enriched by the evening we spent together; enlivened by the enthusiasms we reflected in each other and by the possibility of retreat from our busy lives.
I began to think about my long train ride home.
When it was time for Neil to return to conventional life, he carried a core of peace with him and the knowledge that he would, “always value those brief snatched moments of calm that can be found in any life if you look hard enough for them”.
The School of Life: http://www.theschooloflife.com
Neil Ansell’s Deep Country: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Deep-Country-Years-Welsh-Hills/dp/0241145007