Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills
By Neil Ansell. Kindle Edition, Penguin, 2011, 207 pp.
When he was thirty, Neil Ansell undertook an extreme adventure. He moved into an old Victorian gamekeeper's cottage, situated in one of the least populated regions in Britain. Without electricity, gas, running water, or plumbing, Penlan Cottage—uninhabited for decades—had only some basic furnishings, and Ansell brought nothing with him beyond some clothes. "I wanted to know how lightly I could tread on the earth," he writes.
Ansell remained for five years, and Deep Country is the story of those years, a sojourn during which he experienced droughts, torrential rains, being snowed in, both mild and serious illness, and intense isolation. At one point, when he hiked to the village shop, he found that when he spoke to the shopkeeper, his voice cracked, and he realized that he hadn't spoken a word to anyone in at least two weeks. But this isolation was part of the challenge: He wanted to find out "who I was when I could no longer define myself in terms of my relation to others."
For most of the book, we accompany Ansell on his daily rounds and he is such a good storyteller that I found myself engrossed in the details of his life—his walks to his postbox, or to get wood, or to check on his 120 bird boxes, one of the research projects he took on each year. And his storytelling encompasses the wildlife he sees, especially the diverse population of birds—goosanders, goshawks, redstarts, woodpeckers, owls—who become his main company. He so focuses his attention on them as they go about their lives—hunting, eating, displaying, mating—that the stories become solely theirs.
This outward-looking viewpoint is one of the remarkable and surprising aspects of the book. You might imagine, he says, that all this time on his own would lead to self-examination. But this was not the case. "Solitude did not breed introspection, quite the reverse," he says. "My days were spent outside, immersed in nature, watching…I certainly learned to be at ease with myself ...but it was not by knowing myself better—it was by forgetting I was there. I had become a part of the landscape, a stone."
Ansell's vivid descriptions made me long for photographs, and I recommend a YouTube video Ansell made for this excellent book, which offers at least a glimpse of the cottage and surrounding Welsh landscape that he made so fully his own.