The Way of the Hermit – Ken Smith (with Will Millard)

 

Pan Macmillan: isbn: 9781035009817

In review by Alan Dearling

This is a book endowed with musings on life, nature, what constitutes knowledge and skill. Ken tells the stories of his life simply, gently and with an old-fashioned warmth. He was very much a working-class lad who grew up in Derbyshire, but dreamed of another life. A life of freedom, travel and his own rejection of the strait-jacket of formal education. He suggests that: “…functionality and form, exactness and precision are rewarded over any semblance of imagaination.”

After being badly beaten up by eight shaven-headed young men outside of a disco in his home town, after two weeks in a coma and four brain operations, Ken’s travels took him trekking thousands of miles across the wild areas of the Yukon, the Rockies and the North-West territory of Canada. The book details his encounters with bears, honing his survival and foraging and water-skills, and developing his own personal philosophy. It’s not without conundrums. He’s a loner, an outsider, but he has never totally hidden himself away. He’s worked with others, but since the mid-1980s has lived in a legally-sanctioned, isolated, hand-built Canadian-style log cabin with adjacent other outbuildings on the banks of the ‘lonely loch’, Loch Treig, in the far north of Scotland. It’s 34 miles from the nearest post office at Spean Bridge.

He has often been more a tramp than a hermit, but has certainly lived outside of the usual conventions and his book explores and advocates for the benefits and liberation of ‘time alone’ and a closeness with the natural world. In fact the whole book is an invitation to readers to consider their own lives, their choices, life-styles and at the same time take more than a peek into Ken’s more solitary life. There are likely to be many stark contrasts.

Perhaps his philosphy is summed up in this extract: “It’s the chopping of the wood that underpins the truth of your life in the far reaches of the Highlands…Wood is your true friend, for wood provides light and warmth whenever you ask it to.”  

I much enjoyed the wry humour in Ken’s writings. You can almost see the twinkle in his eye as he recounts the challenges of an off-grid life and the foraging, fishing, growing crops, hunting and trapping for food and sustenance. There are some seriously hard times with gales, a chimney fire and plenty of snow. Yet he also enjoys visitors’ company and sharing his more than ample supply of home-made beer and birch-sap wine. That’s a part of the enigma of this particular ‘hermit’s life’. It’s a book about life’s choices, wisdom and humanity. It’s a step or three away from life’s merry-go-round, which Ken describes as, “…slow death through the grinding monotony”:

“Graft, drink, find a partner, graft, have some kids, pay bills, graft and die.”

The essential question posed by Ken, I suppose addressed to us all, is:

“You don’t ever stop to question it because you can’t stop.”

This quote, like many of the words in this book are offered with much humility. There’s nothing preachy here, which is one of its strengths. It reminded me a bit of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, who made excursions in and out of ‘civilization’, but didn’t see it as either ‘natural’ or necessarily ‘comfortable’.

Ken’s more vulnerable now in his mid-70s and he has a GPS tracker with an emergency button on it. One day he may have to leave his cabin permanently, his ‘life in the wild’, but not yet. He’s said he wants to live to be 102,

“Don’t let your life pass you by while you wait for some imagined ‘best time’ in a future filled with so many unknowns…Go and do it now.”

 

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Below is a shortish clip from Lizzie Mackenzie’s Scottish BAFTA-winning BBC film about Ken: “Ken Smith, otherwise known as the Hermit of Treig, has lived in solitude for 40 years. But can he continue to do so with ill health and a declining memory?” …“If you love the land, it will sort of love you back.”… “When I die Iwant everyone to get merry, getting pissed-up on my home-made wine…Anyone can come.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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