On land in the Appalachian forest, once owned by a homespun sage named Zoro Guice, second-wave Beat poet Thomas Rain Crowe settles into his hand-built cabin for a dose of Walden. I was expecting the result of this sojourn to be a treatise on solitude, or perhaps on remnants of vanishing mountain culture. The book, however, is not that at all. It is about community, the kind that stretches backward through time, the community of Emerson and Thoreau, which American writers often mine to help find their own contemporary voices.
In extraordinarily fast-paced and steely prose, Crowe runs through a library of possible mentors, including Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and the eponymous Guice, tapping them for advice on the upright life. Not surprisingly, it involves getting away from the world and living in the woods, which Crowe writes about convincingly and informatively. But, as he discovers, solitude does not have to mean isolation. In one lovely passage, he hikes through the forest to visit a friend and, with some disappointment, hears him talking and assumes he is already occupied. Crowe nonetheless peers through the windows — and sees that the friend is actually giving a sermon to himself. Neither man is ready for real silence, and they seek each other out for enriched and very human contact, not unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge crossing the moors by moonlight to one another’s parlors.
In Crowe’s world, the purpose of living “alone” in the woods is not the soul-shaping singularity of mysticism, but rather a pared-down conversation where genuine voices may be better heard. It is the solitude of a Beat poet, for the Beats have always taken a buddy or two into the wilderness, to experience the best of the sweet, small world one can handle, and to avoid falling into the sometimes disorienting abyss of real meditation.