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Ansell, N. (2011) Deep Country Five Years in the Welsh Hills Penguin ISBN 978 0 141 04932 8

“I am an absence, a void, I have disappeared from my own story.”

“It is late February, grey and cold. The clouds have settled over the hills. It will be at least a month before the first of the spring migrants arrive; even the curlews have not got back yet from the coast. But there are still the first hesitant signs of spring. Woodpeckers drum continually in the forest, the garden is adrift with snowdrops. My fruit tree has its first green shoots and the bullfinches have already come to nip them in the bud. The local pair of red kites are circling over the copse of oaks where they nest. Every now and then one will stall in mid-soar and drop into their nesting tree, like an arrow pointing straight to their nest. This advertisement is not for me, but for the neighbouring kites, circling in further skies.

I am tired when I arrive, but I cannot put my feet up just yet. The house is stony cold and before anything else I must get a log fire burning, that will burn for the duration of my stay. Then I must haul water from the well on the hillside below before darkness falls.”

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Neil Ansell spent five year alone in this cottage:

“What I found was not what you might expect. You might think that such protracted solitude would lead to introspection, to self-examination, to a growing self-awareness. But not for me. What happened to me was that I began to forget myself, my focus shifted almost entirely outwards to the natural world outside my window. It was as if we gain our sense of self from our interaction with other people; from the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of another. Alone, there was no need for identity, for self-definition.”

Quotes above from Neil Ansell writing in The Observer 27 March 2011

The premise of Ansell’s book is a fascinating one, the story of five years spent living in impoverished isolation without the trappings of urban life. Just nature around him. And, that’s what the book is mostly about, the nature. At times it reads more like a bird-watcher’s journal than a journey of self-discovery. He watches. He observes. He learns. And this mindful, often achingly slow process of increasing invisibility, is the central theme of the book.

“Solitude did not breed introspection, quite the reverse. My days were spent outside, immersed in nature, watching…my attention was constantly focused away from myself and on to the natural world around me… I certainly learned to be at ease with myself in the years I spent at Penlan, but it was not by knowing myself better – it was forgetting I was there. I had become part of the landscape, a stone.”

Interesting though this idea is, there’s also something of a missed opportunity here, as we get very little reflection from the author on how his retreat from the world changed or affected him in any way. I had hoped to find out a little more about the experience of escaping from the conventional world and spending so long in isolation. What led Ansell to make this choice and what did significant people in his family think when he decided to do it? Did it make him re-evaluate the norms that most of us live by? Did he miss anything? Friendship, sport, books, music?

The answers aren’t to be found in reading ‘Deep Country’, as there’s little about this side of his experience, instead there are the extended accounts of bird watching. And whilst these can be interesting and informative in their own right, I’d hoped they might be balanced by a little more on the experience of solitude. What about the days when he woke up cold and tired and just didn’t feel like having to chop wood again?

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the Epilogue, where Ansell describes his final months in the cottage and the role that illness played in making him think again about staying there. But even here: why did it make him feel so bad when a phone was installed for him, what was the line of thinking which led him to conclude that he would have failed if he had used the phone for anything other than emergencies???

It’s a book that raised more questions than provided answers… Ansell’s prose expels both ego and narrator, and this becomes a book about slowing down, and looking outwards.

“Most monkish is Ansell’s almost Franciscan relationship with nature. A butterfly alights on his hand, a young hare sits on his doorstep as if expecting to be invited in, he even rescues a stunned raven that subsequently appears to encourage him to share its lunchtime carrion treats. His imaginative life literally takes flight: he ponders the “whirling rush of pure sensation” that is the consciousness of the hawk, and the synaesthetic echolocation of a brood of long-eared bats that roost under his roof: “it made me wonder how I looked in sound”.

Nick Groom review of Deep Country The Independent 22 April 2011

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