I’m forever going absent to get present.
We all do it at this time of year, using a summer escape to find some space to think away from hum of our spin-cycle lives.
But the distraction of exotic surrounds, foreign aromas and new horizons are often just a distraction – not a solution.
As the philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The Art of Travel,
“… on the tropical island we learn that the state of the skies and appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy, nor condemn us to misery.”
To make the absence truly count, we need to embrace the art of being alone more than the journey itself.
The shepherds Thomas Hardy describes in his breakthrough tome, Far From The Madding Crowd, understood how to be alone.
The story’s protagonist, Gabriel Oak, breathes it with every exhalation of summer breeze, tastes it with every morsel of his handkerchief-wrapped meal.
Isolated in a limitless landscape, only the elements and their flock to commune with, the self-imposed exile of the shepherd is a true act of conscious absence.
Hardy observed these shepherds seeking refuge from the heat of the day and the demons of the night in their little huts. During the 1870s, when they liberally speckled the landscape alongside scarecrows and horse carts, Hardy described these humble dwellings as like a “little Noah’s Ark.”
These days the likes of young Gabriel are increasingly rare but their sanctuaries are returning to the pastoral landscape of Britain.
A new wave of living sheds, hand crafted from local wood and engrained with centuries of nomadic tradition, are appearing on fields and dales as places of escape of writers, artists, thinkers and dreamers.
They are places to embrace being the anti-establishment joy of being present in your act of absence – blissfully lost in nature. Better still, there are no airport queues or surly security guards to be negotiated.
Many are just a short drive from our own backyard. Rhydd Farm, a five-acre smallholding on the verdant fringes of Penyfford, Flintshire, was just 20 minutes from my own.
The shepherd’s hut [pictured above], handcrafted from red cedar and with furnished with thoughtful touches, offered me more than a simple woodland-shrouded home from home. It was a place to think and write.
That night, after a couple of pints of summer ale at the local village pub, I bedded down on a soft mattress to a lullaby of owls. My hosts were just across the fields in the farmhouse but I was wholly alone with my thoughts.
But the true sense of absence came the next morning. Beating the dawn chorus of farm livestock and domestic pets, I stood in the fields at 6am, a mug of tea in my hand and a gentle dousing of morning dew on my walking boots, to take in the view across the fields to Moel Famau.
According to Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, an inspiration for Hardy’s febrile passion for English rural life, I was at last:
“Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife … / Along the cool sequester’d vale of life.”
There would soon be bacon frying on the grill then daily grinds to return to but, in that moment of delicious calm, I knew the isolation of the shepherds and made peace with it.
My absence had, at last, delivered me to a place of pure presence.