Escape the Urban Book Review: Robert Kull’s “Solitude”

20 Nov

In February 2001, Robert Kull took the concept of “escaping the urban” to its logical extreme: he moved to an uninhabited island in the glaciated fjordlands of southern Chile and lived alone for a year. On purpose. The only companion he packed in was a cat named Cat – all other kinship he discovered while there. 

The non-fiction shelf of your local bookstore is full of what my agent calls “stunt books.” Authors place themselves in gimmicky and often preposterous scenarios to create a new frame for an old story: reading the entire encyclopedia, living a year according to a strict interpretation of the Bible, walking or biking or kayaking across a continent. Kull is less stuntman than hermit. His quest was the oldest: spiritual, not contrived drama, more Coptic guru than Bear Grylls.

Robert Kull, according to his own description, is an ex-woodsman, part time scuba instructor, Buddhist/New Age fusion acolyte and (now) successful PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. In 2000 he managed to convince his dissertation committee to allow him to spend a year alone in the wilderness to research the affect of prolonged isolation on the human psyche. He would be both observer and subject, and kept daily journals to study and record his activities, mood, and ramblings. Because Kull is missing a leg and likes to sit and meditate, those diary entries contain more stream of consciousness than action narrative. The intimate (but fortunately edited, though a more forceful slashing would have been welcome) daily log forms the bulk of this book, broken by various interludes to explore themes of technology, scientific inquiry, and the Big Mind of creation.

I was initially entranced by Kull’s concept, and my own longing for remote Patagonia. The book’s front half moves right along as logistical concerns dominate: choosing the right remote island, procuring gear and supplies, planning a year’s worth of meals, building a cabin in the raging wind and rain, finding and stacking firewood for the coming cold, exploring inlets and isolated pebble beaches to discover ducks, dolphins, seals and limpets.  

But as he settles in to a long winter of isolation, as anxiety gives way to comfortable introspection, Kull loses all readers except the most devoted (trite?) spiritual explorers. I stubbornly stuck around waiting for the moment he would snap, smear gratuitous psychological carnage across the page, a sign of solitary induced dementia finally evident. Instead, Kull forms friendships with Butter Belly Diving Ducks, sees reassuring spirit faces in the rock formations on the mountain sides, and only seems to dread the expected depression that will come with reintegration into human society. He finds pleasant Solitude, not Loneliness, and his self-indulgent self-criticism aside, seems more content counting shellfish on the shore than facing bustling Vancouver again.

Most disappointing, however, was that despite his constant introspection, Kull could never see the irony of his entire endeavor: the human society he shunned produced the technology that made his mission possible. Kull did not paddle out to an island and build himself a cabin out of the materials he found there. The Chilean Navy shipped in pallets of gear for him: lumber and nails and screws and plastic sheeting to build his cabin, solar panels and a wind turbine to make electricity for incandescent light and his computer and sat-phone, a rigid inflatable raft with two outboard motors. While Kull asks himself whether he is really alone if he can email his pseudo-partner any time he wants, he never contemplates whether he could have traveled to his island in the first place without two tons of stuff.

Self-help junkies, rapt meditators and quasi-spiritual investigators will enjoy Kull’s quest into the self and the occasionally interesting insights into life it provides. Wilderness enthusiasts will ask themselves if they could pull of a year near Tierra del Fuego, may experience a momentary twinge of jealousy, but ultimately will only wonder how this book ended up in the outdoor section of Barnes and Noble.

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