The Good Life: learning not to run away

Tomorrow, it will have been a year since my first writing retreat.  It was, in two ways, the most terrifying thing I’d done since learning to speak, sitting my finals and defying my nan on the right way to tie shoelaces:

  1. I had to tell a whole room of people I was a writer.
  2. I had to escape from Miterdale forest pursued by ravenous wild pigs.

Ok, so these might not quite be the facts.  It would be more accurate to say:

  1. I whispered something about writing while a group of artists ate bowls of pudding in an industrial unit on the outskirts of Ulverston, Cumbria.
  2. Some wild pigs took a fancy to my spaghetti hoops.  Night began to fall and a whole host of animals appeared from the trees.  I ran away.

So, back in the industrial unit, two of the artists were Derek Tyman and Emma Rushton.  They were in town to complete an exciting, community-led commission from Lanternhouse and I attended the launch to see if I could get more involved with the arts in my new town.  They had built a copy of Henry Thoreau’s cabin for their installation, ‘The Good Life’, and were inviting artists to stay for a week at a time to investigate ‘the good life’ through their own practice.

We stood awkwardly by the cabin while I explained that I would like to stay in it to write.  What sort of things do you write?  They waited patiently while I mumbled about animals and the sea.  They explained that they already had a full schedule of artists booked in but there was a weekend block still free.  I was signed up and I turned to take my own portion of pudding.  It was made following Thoreau’s own recipe for ‘hasty pudding’, described in Walden as a hilarious guest banisher.  It tasted sweet and herbal and bold all at once.  I stood near the artists, chewing and nodding with a conspicuous anxiety.

With books and pens and a camera I turned up to the cabin, now relocated from Lanternhouse’s workshop in Ulverston to a shady spot by a brook in a forest near Eskdale.  There was a sign in front of the cabin explaining the project.  I installed myself as a mobile component of the exhibit, adding my pens to the table and framing myself in the doorway.

Alright.  So, there I was.  There I was about to start a micro writer’s retreat.  About to do some writing, I guess.  I took out a map and started to collect names from the local area.

Through the window of the cabin, I eyed a collapsed log pile nervously.

Lanternhouse had called to alert me to the fact that just before I was due to arrive at the cabin, some locals had discovered that a long-standing bivouac had been dismantled.  Well, not dismantled.  Totally destroyed.  By kids, probably, they said.  You know kids.

The bivouac had been built by and was, from time to time, used by a local soldier suffering from PTSD.  I thought about his return, travelling back into the woods only to find his retreat reduced to twigs.  Oh god.  Oh god.

Ok.  Ok.  The sun was filtering softly through the trees and the little brook was gargling up a delicate old tune, so I started to relax. Ok.  I took my table and chair out into the clearing.  I started to write about something about antiphase waves and the gaps of light in a forest.  Ok – ok. 

Just as I was getting used to my new office, the sounds and the smell of the forest and the fact that my phone was outside of signal range; just as I was settling into ‘the good life’ the bushes exploded to the left of the clearing.  Dog after dog burst out into the space between my desk and the thickening of the forest.  A pack of eight whippets, like slick bullets, hit the undergrowth to the right and it was all over within seconds.  I waited for about ten minutes for an owner, perhaps in pursuit on a quad bike or walking leisurely with a whistle, to appear.  No one arrived.  In fact, I didn’t see a soul all day.

Somewhere in the forest, I was sure, was a deeply distressed man, wondering who had wrecked his shelter and now eight muscular blurs travelling at fifteen metres a second.

I decided to take a walk and take in some other sights – like this little rock cloud.

On my return, hungry and still wary of dogs and soldiers, I decided to break open my spaghetti hoops.   A feast, served on a sturdy boulder laid with a fine moss table cloth.  The light began to fade.

I wrote a little more and, following my elders’ advice, took a little constitutional through a cathedral of trees.  Dense moss growth, packed leaf litter and the height of the space seemed to absorb all the sound.  As if I had my hands over my ears, all I could hear was my own breathing, swallowing and every so often, the sound of an animal moving through the trees.  I sat down in the strange anechoic arboretum and waited for night to fall.  I felt very odd and very alone.

As dusk arrived, I heard their snuffling.  The wild pigs had come to claim some of my tea and biscuits.  I rushed back into the cabin, followed by trotting and excited snorts.  As I stopped to open the door, the bravest stepped forward to have a taste of my leg.

Perhaps this was a friendly greeting amongst forest swine.  Perhaps I was unforgivably rude shaking him off and sitting in the cabin with the door shut.

The darkness that came was silent and whole.  Everything suddenly seemed very close.  I could only see as far as one candle allowed.  I sat in the shrinking forest with the soldier, the whippets and the wild pigs and I realised I couldn’t write.  Or sleep.

I drove home under a full moon that glazed the fells a deep blue.  I stopped for a deer and five sheep, a rabbit and one other person on the hour’s journey back to Ulverston.

I arrived back at the cottage I shared with colleagues and brewed up cup of tea, explaining my early return with raucous gesticulations and exaggerated stories of the pigs that invited themselves for dinner.  I still wonder if I should have tried to brave the night.

But a year on, I realise my exposure to ‘the good life’ that day was as much about my journey to and from the cabin as much as it was my consideration of a cleaner, closer relationship with the wild.

Since that panic in the forest, I have had to do many more terrifying things.  I have had to say I’m a writer to strangers and film crews, writing groups and publishers.  All in pursuit of ‘the good life’.

And I haven’t run away from any more wild pigs, in any of their incarnations.

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