Silence, solitude and spirituality with Neil Ansell’s, The Last Wilderness

Neil discusses silence and solitude in his new nature book, The Last Wilderness, which looks at 5 walking journeys in North West Scotland. He portrays wilderness and wildlife working together in harmony. Neil’s passion for nature has always been with him, saying it was his “childhood obsession”, and that he “doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t love nature.” As the book remains a reflection on loss – of both habitat and his own gradual hearing loss – The Last Wilderness evokes an inspiring message of self-sufficiency. There was a strong sense of sadness as Neil detailed on his experience with gradual hearing loss in his right ear. And having lost his hearing in his left ear since infancy, the birdsong he so much admires is fading as there are fewer birds he will ever hear again. Neil’s individualism and raw appreciation for the natural world around him, illuminates the audience, sending them away from the blustery tent in North Cornwall, to the peninsulas of Scotland. Neil went on to talk about the metaphorical “backpack of life” which he always carries around with him. On his 4th expedition to Scotland, he suffered with serious chest pains, due to a heart condition – his take on this was simply; “You have to think about how much you want to do something, against the level of risk it may bring to you.”

Neil reads a passage from his book, describing it as: Me watching myself watching wildlife…
“Even if it was just a fleeting glimpse from the treetops. It is to do with the quality of experience. It makes me wonder what I am actually seeing when I am watching nature. I can see an animal in the zoo, up close and personal, yet it feels like it barely even counts. I can watch a television documentary and gain an intimate insight into the private life of an animal. And yet it is no substitute at all to the real thing. Nothing can compare to the joy inspired by even a brief encounter with a scarce and beautiful wild animal in its natural habitat. It is not about what I’ve seen it is about forging a momentary connection with the wild and finding a place in the wild for my own wild heart.”

Neil also describes how he chose to live in ‘voluntary poverty’ where he was homeless. The struggle and hardship through his words resonate with his peaceful demeanor. When discussing his sense of independence, Neil went on to say he lived for in Wales between the age of 30-35, for 5 years self-sufficiently. There was no electricity, running water or transport. He grew his own food and cooked with logs he had chopped himself; “Sense of self is dependent on having other people around you which reflects yourself back on you. I was physically busy, yet mentally I didn’t need to think, as I was more preoccupied with the natural world.”
Towards the end of his conversation with Lisa Cooper, an audience member asks Neil about his spirituality, to which his reply: “The natural world is my spirituality”.

By Hannah Glover