A Pelican in the Wilderness

“To our extremely gregarious species, the solitary is a challenge.”

I picked up this book after searching my library’s catalogue for Isabel Colegate’s works, and was curious about this non-fiction work of hers (ok I was curious about all her works as I have yet to read her fiction). This is a book about the solitary, about hermits and recluses, and I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt compelled to search it out, but I did, and I took it home and it sat on my shelf for a little while, as I sought out what I felt to be the more interesting books in my recent Library Loot. Then I finally picked up A Pelican in the Wilderness, and I was pleasantly surprised. This book is less a scholarly treatise than a collection of thoughts, a wandering, a pondering of a subject that is so obviously dear to Colegate. Her passion for this topic is very affecting. So while at first hesitant, I grew to understand her ardor. What makes a person leave society behind and live on their own? Why do some of these hermits naturally attract a following? What is living all alone like? Colegate delves into the lives of the well-known and the obscure, often quoting from literary sources such as Somerset Maugham, Geoffrey Chaucer and Alexander Pope. She discusses the lives of Thoreau, J.D. Salinger, Lao-Tse, St Anthony, and many more.

But if you are truly looking for answers about becoming a hermit, this isn’t exactly the book for you. Instead, this book is a little more like an exploration, a revaluation of the solitary, a kind of selection of character sketches (although character sketch doesn’t seem to be the right word – it sounds too vague). Colegate’s journey is a meandering one, and at times disjointed which can occasionally frustrate, but A Pelican in the Wilderness is a wonderful voyage through a surprisingly refreshing topic, with Colegate’s passionate voice as a rather suitable tour guide.

“The idea of the hermit’s life – simplicity, devotion, closeness to nature – lurks somewhere on the periphery of most people’s consciousness, a way glimpsed, oddly familiar, not taken. It is like one of those tracks you sometimes see as you drive along a country road, a path leading up a hill and disappearing into a wood, almost painfully inviting, so that you long to stop the car and follow it, and perhaps you take your foot off the accelerator for a couple of seconds, no more. Most of us wouldn’t like it if we did walk up the hill, we’d become bored, depressed, uncomfortable, take to drink. But the idea is still there: the path we didn’t take.”

Thanks to this book, I added several books on the solitary to my non-fiction reading list
Lost in the Taiga – Vasily Peskov
Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon – Peter Washington
Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo’s quest for enlightenment – Vicki Mackenzie
The legacy of Luna : the story of a tree, a woman, and the struggle to save the redwoods – Julia Butterfly Hill
A time to keep silence – Patrick Leigh Fermor
Rodinsky’s room – Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair
Howard Hughes, the hidden years – James Phelan
Emerson among the eccentrics : a group portrait – Carlos Baker
English eccentrics and eccentricities – John Timbs
The intimate Merton : his life from his journals – edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo
Road to heaven : encounters with Chinese hermits – Bill Porter

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