280: How does “Solitude” feel? What’s the cost of “Wisdom in Extremes”?

ll this week, we’ve been looking at Americans’ spiritual values, especially our connections with the natural world.
    One of our most enduring American dreams is to find solitude in nature. Perhaps to find our own Walden Pond, like Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps to head down a river like Mark Twain’s characters. Perhaps to trek to the Arctic like characters in Jack London’s tales.

    This autumn, I started reading a graceful yet haunting memoir by Bob Kull, a rugged scholar of many talents. Bob has been a logger, a truck driver, a fire fighter, a travel guide and now he’s a professor. Years ago, he lost a portion of one leg in a motorcycle accident — but that didn’t slow him down much.
    In 2001, in the great tradition of Thoreau and so many other Americans, Bob set off alone into one of the remotest and most unforgiving regions of the world: the wilderness at the extreme southern tip of Chile.
    I was hooked by the tone of his book. There are echoes of Jack London here. Echoes of Thoreau, too. This is not a sentimental memoir by any means. Think of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” the story of a man simply trying to walk through the extremes of Arctic cold. (By the way, for Jack London fans, this year is the centennial of London’s final and most famous version of that classic tale.)
    Bob Kull is at his best when he’s writing about that same kind of edgy anxiety and daily struggles of trying to survive in extreme solitude. Very few of us will ever travel to the tip of Chile, let alone try to camp out there alone for a year. But what Bob really is writing about is a spiritual challenge as close as our own heartbeats.
    All of us feel isolated, sometimes. All of us feel drawn toward solitude. And yet, like Thoreau who finally left Walden because “I had several more lives to live,” Bob also is pushing us in the other direction. He’s inviting us into his solitude, partly to push us back toward community.
    Once home again, Bob writes at the end of his book, “I still struggle with feelings of isolation. In those times, a wall seems to separate me from others; a wall that begins to dissolve when I lean into it and treat myself and those around me with compassion.”

    Bob and his publisher gave us permission, today, to share with you an excerpt from “Solitude.” I chose the following entry from Bob’s journal. It’s about a third of the way into Bob’s book and it’s a good example of what you’ll find between these covers.


by Robert Kull

Journal: May 4, 2001

The rain stopped at dawn. It had been falling steadily since yesterday
morning. Just thirty-nine more days and we’d have been biblical. I
guess it sometimes rains like this in Vancouver, but I spend more time
indoors there and don’t really notice.
The blackflies were out in swarms today: at least a million on the
porch, and since I had the cabin door open, nearly half a million in
here. I lit the propane lamp to exterminate them, and my altar is now
covered with sacrificial corpses. Luckily, the lamp, not me, gets the
bad karma. I can see myself at Nirvana’s pearly gates talking to a
stern Buddha, holding a large illusory book.
    “Says here you murdered a
bunch of blackflies on May 4, 2001.”
    “No, no, it was the lamp that did
    “But you lit the lamp with blood on your mind.”
    “Oh no, I only
wanted to see the clear yellow light.”
    “Uh-huh. Back you go as a
    I get a creepy feeling as I write that. I mean, what if…?

I finally rigged up a fairly efficient boat-haul system. To pull the
boat above the high-tide line, I set a five-foot-tall tripod about
twenty feet ahead of the boat and tie it back to a tree. I attach the
haul rope to the apex of the tripod, run it through one pulley on the
front of the boat, back through a pulley attached to the apex, and back
through a second pulley on the front of the boat. I must pull in four
feet of rope to move the boat a foot, but exert only 25 percent of the
force I would if dragging it without the pulleys. Transom wheels on the
back and two plastic rollers under the front of the boat make the job
easier, but it’s still a strenuous process.
In the afternoon, I hooked up the solar panels on the point. I intend
to use them on a regular basis and the wind generator only when the
batteries get low. I figure that when the wind is blowing at least 30
mph, which it does a lot of the time, the generator will crank out 500
watts. If I lose 300 of them in the long wires coming to the cabin, 200
still arrive here. My lights each use 15 watts, so in one hour, the
generator should replace fourteen hours of light-use. That means it
would take about an hour and a half to recharge the batteries after
using both lights three hours a day for three days. Probably none of
these calculations has any relationship to what’s actually going on in
the physical world.

    From the point I looked west across the channel toward Staines
Peninsula and realized I’m getting hungry to go back over and fish
where the waterfalls pour into the sea. Southeast I saw, more clearly
than before, the exquisite mystic blue of the hanging glaciers. Nothing
else I’ve ever seen shines with that tender and intense glacial blue.
It slips through my eyes straight into my heart.
Tomorrow I’ll have been here three months, a quarter of my stay. That
matches the longest I’ve previously been alone.
    After that I’ll be in
new territory.
    What a silly idea. Each moment in life is always new
territory, for everyone.

    Bob Kull has his own Web site, which contains quite a lot of material about his year alone near the bottom of the Earth. If you’re intrigued by his story, take a look.

    Today’s excerpt is from the book “Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes” © 2008 by Robert Kull. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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