On Creativity, Isolation and Nature

The last few years have spawned many wellness buzzwords, including ‘biophilia’, which, put simply, refers to the innate human connection, and need for immersion in, nature. Scientifically, we know that it takes much more than diet and exercise to be in a state of health; the human being needs engagement with and in the natural world for primal connection to who we are. It’s hardly a revelatory concept. Two hundred years ago, doctors would send sick patients to the seaside to recover from various bodily and mental diseases, the combination of sea air and time away thought to conjure measurable and potent healing energy.

Like the ill in the eighteenth century, artists, writers and musicians have long sought isolation in the natural world. Their mission not healing or wellness, (although this may be a welcome side effect); but creativity. The Romantic poets drew upon the realigning quality of time alone in nature thematically for their work, as well as literally, for their inspiration. The notorious Lord Byron wrote: ‘There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not man less, but Nature more.’ Byron’s rival Keats was such a rabid fan of solitude in the natural world that he hoped to never find a partner; he had more than enough love and beauty in his life. At 23, he cheekily wrote to his brother and sister-in-law:

‘Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk; though the carpet were of Silk, the Curtains of the morning Clouds; the chairs and Sofa stuffed with Cygnet’s down; the food Manna, the Wine beyond Claret, the Window opening on Winander mere, I should not feel — or rather my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime. Then instead of what I have described, there is a Sublimity to welcome me home — The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children.’

It is not nature alone, or isolation, but their distinct combination that seems to be the muse of many creatives. It is in the inherent wisdom of undisturbed nature and the aloneness to indulge in it, that many artists of the past and present seek a connection to the elemental and the time and space to meditate on its meaning. Seeking solitude in nature is the fertile practice of entering the slower, entrenched rhythm of nature in order to indulge one’s quiet inner imagination.

The sheds and huts of famous writers, constructed for the sole purpose of providing an ideal space for creativity and concentration, at least for the literati, are often bucket list locations to visit. The common facets of most of these writing huts is that they are located in nature, often in the garden of the writer’s rural property, although sometimes further from home; and that they only contain space for the writer: one chair; one desk; one empty mug ready for the next cup of tea. We see this in Roald Dahl’s idyllic garden shed at his property in Buckinghamshire; George Bernard Shaw’s hut at his property in Hertfordshire (which, remarkably, was built on a turntable to allow the author to rotate with the sun throughout the day to negate the need for artificial lighting); and perhaps most famously, Dylan Thomas’ isolated and still preserved studio in Wales, which was built perched on a cliff overlooking the Taf estuary and allowed the (normally drunk) poet to gaze out to the sea of the Gower Peninsula for inspiration.

Closer to home, Richard Flanagan’s writing shack on Bruny Island, Tasmania, epitomises the idyllic writers’ retreat. Captured on film for The New Yorker, Flanagan reflects on his isolated location and its effect on his work. He says, ‘I do find the solitude here and the beauty of the place transcendent and when I really need to do the hard yards with my writing, it’s been a great place to come.’ Flanagan is shown kayaking at intervals throughout the day, alone in the ocean, and taking solitary beach walks. Without the interruption of family, co-workers, next door neighbours or the hum of manmade noise, he is alone to immerse himself in his reading and writing, to take his vocation and gift seriously and afford it the surroundings necessary for his storytelling to flourish at its own delicate pace.

As we see from Flanagan’s example, one perhaps obvious reason isolation in nature can be the backdrop to the fruit of creative labour is silence. Aside from the gentle sounds of nature (birds chirping; leaves rustling in the wind; the trickle of a creek), through silence the artist has time to think, to daydream, to enter the often productive state of half sleep.

While some artists, writers and musos work well in cities, inspired by conversations between strangers heard outside their window and the hum of urbanity, many have to escape for periods of respite in nature to reinvigorate a stale creative process.

When Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page finished a gruelling North America tour in the 1970s, they took a break at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage, a tiny and very isolated house without electricity or running water in the small village of Machynlleth, Wales. Their time alone as songwriters was fruitful, and they produced many of their best known tracks while living together, inspired by the countryside and panoramic views. Led Zeppelin’s now famous time at Bron-Yr-Aur is a memorable demonstration of the creative’s need for the sounds of nature over that of industry; of peaceful, distraction-free time to form their thoughts from concepts to something crystallised and communicated.

In 1992, American man Christopher McCandless left his burgeoning adult life to go ‘into the wild’. He abandoned conventional society to venture alone into the wilderness to seek an authentic way of living. He died only four months later of starvation, perhaps poisoning, leaving behind his journals and books. He wrote, ‘Happiness only real when shared’ in his copy of Doctor Zhivago, a line made famous in Sean Penn’s film adaptation of his perilous journey.

In many ways, McCandless is the poster boy for not venturing alone into nature. We like to think that the 24-year-old learned his lesson as he met his end; that he realised human beings in fact thrive on their relationships with others as well as themselves. In contrast to McCandless’ apparent lack of motivation (other than to escape), the creative who ventures into nature alone has a discernible and definable purpose: to make art; to have their innovative inclinations materialised by seeking time away from the noise of the built world. The artist does get to share their happiness with the wider community, does get to share the results of their isolation and time spent in nature. Inadvertently following McCandless’ hard earned wisdom, they seek isolation in the natural world in order to better connect with humanity.