OSCAR GAYNOR: Self-Directed Residency, 2013

On the way back home, on the way to get the train, I went to the Alpine division of Waterstones in Aviemore and bought Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. On the journey, through the feet of the loafy mountains, the Cairngorms, to Edinburgh I inadvertently made the film adaptation of the book. The ground was heavy with water and streams were wrenched out of the side of rock in thrashing white spasms and wrested into glassy black lochs. Through the cinemascope window, a cut scene to decaying bracken in shades of bruise and spiky gorse, and then the bare arch of the mountain back, and moving to its descending nape. Flickering telegraph poles made a zoetrope-view that may well have never have ended if it were not for the peppering of buildings that became small towns, then towns fringed in industrial buildings and orange-lighted concrete lots.

Shepherd walked into the Cairngorms, through them, on top of them, saw through them to a vessel carrying shadows, and swam in lochan and burn. The top didn’t mean a lot to her. The summit is only a human invention, a measurement, and through walking across and in between peaks and sleeping on the downy moss, she sees, equally, with the eyes of the mountain:

“… As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the world.” [1]

The book is the crystalline form of a lifetime of seeing, of patterns and routines over land and time. She warns of hocus pocus and faeries, but cannot deny it has life – a skin, and an interior.

Day to day, I woke in darkness, I cooked breakfast which often led to lunch time, washed (occasionally), urinated, smoked a cigarette after chopping wood or fetching water and  darkness came quite quickly again. Never have I experienced a night lighter than the day but for when the full moon shone on the fresh snow, and then I couldn’t sleep but dozed through the dim afternoon.

With the exception of walks to find phone signal and visiting the Spey to see how it grows in the night, the bothy became more an observatory than an outpost for adventures on the ground. It is through the pages of The Living Mountain that I assimilate with my own wonderings. My imagination was given the sovereignty of experience, and the body could often feel unnecessary, unless of course it got too cold and skin started to tingle.

It was dark and it was quiet, and this is the basis of the retreat – the production of silence. Silence is a relative concept. For something so cerebral, so intentionally removed from action and friction all that remains is bodily activity on the scale of essential internal movements. Of blood coursing, joints under tension, squeaking, and a distant buzz in the head, not dissimilar now to the wind buffering the walls. In the act of retreat in any circumstance the movement is backwards, to where we have come from. In silence we are alone, and in that deliberate division are completely singular. In this space afforded by distanciation we can reign in our own kingdoms of radical subjectivities, removed from physical relations.

The monastic chamber provides a view of the world almost as if one is external to it. In the passivity of staring we can venture to observe things in isolation – a leaf falling, settling and blowing away. Olav H Hauge, the Norwegian poet and orchard-keeper lived in relative isolation in western Norway. The titles such as The Last Spider, The Sledge Hammer, Seed and The Log suggest space created around an object, examined and lifted from the world by scrutiny. They also suggest nobility in their humble natures – something earthy, honest and further irreducible from a complex system.

The summer was cold and rainy.
The apples are green and flecked.
Yet I gather and sort them
and stack boxes in the cellar.
Green apples are better than none.
Where we live is 61° north.


In the appreciation of place and object we seek to experience something as a singularity, which is the search for the ‘purity’ of nature, or moreover the logic of its appearance to us – as a thing without the complicity of complex social interactions or paths of distribution. Trying to grasp the abstract processes of the distribution of power, goods and so on can be an alienating experience.

To say what appears in isolation or silence is inherently truthful most be a misnomer as the differences in experiences of isolation are earth-shatteringly broad. Hauge earned his living as a gardener, leading a modest life, getting by, and buying books occasionally.  The monk deliberately denounces wealth and takes up chastity in search of spiritual purity. A lifestyle of asceticism is logically only available to those that feel weight of excess in the first place, itself then a privilege to those that can afford it. Weight meant perhaps in the sense of wealth, but also commitments, meetings, the obligations of work, and then manifest in feeling the need to ‘escape’.

Silence also springs from fear, from grief, from a lack of a political voice, as well as in historical patterns in which silence has been imposed. Lead by Ned Ludd textile artisans destroyed the mechanized looms that threatened to employ low-skilled workers instead. The Neo-Luddism of the Unabomber who lived in remote Montana living self sufficiently in a cabin was manifest in the letter-bombings of intellectuals and airline companies. Speaking in an interview before the killings on the island of Utoya by Anders Breivik killing 77 people [3], a confidant of Ted Kaczynski, and Anarchist author John Zerzan said in an interview with The Guardian:

“Will there be other Kaczynskis? I hope not. I think that activity came out of isolation and desperation, and I hope that isn’t going to be something that people feel they have to take up because they have no other way to express their opposition to the brave new world.” [4]

At best, the retreat allows for the production of unexceptional events; the effects of sunlight through glass; depths occluded by dark water. The phenomological observation and descriptive eye of Shepherd, is shared by the poetry of Michael Hamburger in From a Diary of Non-Events, Dieter Roth’s habitual cataloguing of the ephemera of daily life, or in Ellen Altfest’s meticulously rendered paintings of knees, plants, hair… But allied closely to the notions of beauty made by each, are those of shame, that can’t be rendered palatable with such a close gaze. Variously, bodily hair, arguments, changing nappies or idiotic or insincere thoughts – the embarrassing shame of the non-event, the almost nothingness, is emancipating when with them we come into close quarters.

“I gave up all the theories. Even the atomic theory. I don’t believe in them and it leaves me with a clear mind… When something comes into it you can see it.” [5]

So there I sat in the bothy, book in hand or Women’s Hour on the radio, picking my nose, listening to the voice of the eagle as it pivoted across the plateau. In washing up, peeling skin, and dangerously and amateurishly flailing an axe around to chop kindling was quietude that aids a wandering mind. This is a box for the freedom of mental travel by doing nothing, staring into space and fully entering into fantasy. For our desired return to nature, to places of meaning, for retreats, are as fantastical as any novel, memoir, children’s story, but that doesn’t really seem to matter at all.

[1] Shepherd, Nan (1977) The Living Mountain, Canongate
[2] Hauge, Olav H (2003) Leaf Huts and Snow Houses, Anvil Press Poetry
[3] http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/07/03/completely-without-dignity-an-interview-with-karl-ove-knausgaard/
[4] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/apr/18/mayday.features11
[5] Martin, Agnes, An Interview With, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-JfYjmo5OA