By: Lydia Crow
“At the right moment in time, at the point where I had finally secured a moderately average salary, in a city I loved which was filled with friends, and a freedom I had not felt for many a year, I decided to throw everything into chaos.”
– Alexander Michael Crow
On 14 September 2010, Alexander Michael Crow left the city in which he had lived for nine years to live in the wilderness for nearly three months. He didn’t go back. Since he returned to civilisation from the west coast of Scotland in December 2010, he has dedicated his time primarily to writing a series of novels and perfecting various craftwork and bushcraft techniques.
During his time in the wilderness he kept a journal and some of the contents of this can be found on his tumblr blog and on ShiverWriggle, where Alex writes about his adventures under the alias Vague.
To celebrate the third anniversary of his change of lifestyle, Alex agreed to be interviewed to reflect on his adventures in the wilderness, lessons learnt and plans for the future.
It’s fair to say that your outlook on life and how to go about it is significantly different than that which is often promoted as a twenty-first century existence in the media: the trappings, the holidays, the social calendar. How does looking at the rat race from the outside in make you feel now?
I always feel sorry for rats when people use this phrase. After all, they are hugely intelligent, successful creatures. They do well in almost every environment on earth and adapt quickly; it seems to me that the phrase is an injustice to all ratkind.
I suppose my outlook is different and I often ask myself why this is the case. All my answers seem to come across as pretentious, farcical or, worst of all, evangelical. This is not a good thing, and I prefer to address these questions in my work, cunningly disguised as fiction.
As you know, I’ve never been a fan of money. I’ll spend it when I have it, often on other people, then when I don’t have it, well, I can’t spend it. I have spoken about the skills needed to live comfortable in the wilder places, and how they altered my outlook considerably. Knowing that I can find food, water, shelter and make a fire, with very little in the way of equipment, has changed me. I do not really care for our established media, do not watch television as such, carefully choose what I buy into, yet I am well aware of the constraints this media machine attempts to enwrap the individual within. Again, it is something you will read more about in my novels.
And, in this Internet Age, We Are The Media – and this is something that is shaking our world, slowly and calmly at this stage, a soft breeze, but I predict this will change over the coming years, hurricane-like. Watch this space.
How much of yourself do you recognise from your life before you gave up work?
Interesting question, given that I now work more hours, and harder, than I have done before! I think this point is crucial – I know a lot of people view what I do as some form of easier option. It’s not. I am lucky in that I have support and love from those closest to me, but this can be a very lonely existence even so.
When I was living out on a hillside, it felt less lonely than sitting at a desk tapping out word after word, and arranging them into something I am ready to throw to the masses. It’s an odd thing.
In many ways finding differences in myself is harder than finding similarities. I suppose there are the obvious things – I’ve gone off drinking, which still seems odd to me. I’ve also been smoke free for some time now. I am in bed earlier, and up earlier. I love thinking how I am sitting at my desk working within minutes of waking.
I think my time in the city built me, prepared me, in ways that differed from my upbringing in Orkney. Now, a return to the sea, and to Scotland, has led me in a different direction – does it mean I am a different person? No, but I am growing, aging, maturing (like a ripe cheese? Or fine wine?) – and ensuring I have a lot of fun whilst doing so – I get annoyed by too-serious-writer-types.
Three years on, what was your defining moment of being in the wilderness? Was there something which happened (or maybe two or three things that happened) that have stayed with you more than your other wilderness experiences?
Difficult one, given that the experience as a whole was what I often think back to, the days blurring, the sunsets merging. If you have ever spent time out in wild places, you realise that it takes a small while (sometimes days) before you start to move at the speed of the nature. It is a slower speed in many ways, yet it is one that takes in everything around you, your senses start to pick things up that are otherwise missed in our modern hurry and haste.
Learning to keep this skill with me is perhaps the most defining thing that has stayed with me – it is with me in everything I do, so I guess it has to be that. I think more and say less now due to this.
In terms of events, I suppose tracking a wildcat was very special, and narrowly avoiding death by meteorite is something I often think of, as is building a home which withstood everything nature threw at it. Finding a woman, of all things! who was willing and able to share my love of the wilderness and get what I see in it (even with the ticks and the clegs) was also very, very, special – and totally unexpected.
How did your time in the wilderness affect your writing, both whilst you were there and afterwards?
It was absolutely crucial to my writing. Not only did it clarify my thinking, I actually scribbled page after page of notes, stories, ideas and plots, while I was out there. A big part of the reason I wanted to live out in the woods was to gain the experience of doing so, so this can translate into my writing. My wilderness novel set in a deep past, A Time of Trees, was the work I originally thought would be my first book, yet it has now morphed and become the third in a series. An odd thing, but one which fits – but you’ll have to wait to read them to find out if you agree.
I also found thinking about my time out there to be useful in gaining a calm mental state (rather like the slower speed I discuss above). Last year (2012) I put together a tumblr with photos, thoughts, and notes from my 2010 experience; this also kept me in touch with the wild, even when I physically couldn’t be.
Have you any plans to head out to the wilderness again for a significant period of time?
At the moment I have other plans afoot, ones which will require a happy tethering of sorts, but I am certainly not ruling out further adventures (likely to be had with company for some, or all, of them). Lars Monsen and Dick Proenneke remain great inspirations, as does the better known (in this country) Ray Mears, and one thing they all have in common is a love of the canoe – expect that to feature at some point.
Canada and Scandinavia are also calling; I would love to experience both by canoe and with snowshoe and pulk.
Finally, bearing in mind that I can walk out my front door and be out in what many people would class as wilderness within a short span of time, I do not feel hard done by. This part of the world is very wild at times.
What would you say to anyone who was considering doing something similar to you? What advice would you offer?
Know your limits. Know things; learn and practice them. Know when to stop. Know that if you enter these places with idiotically macho ideas of challenging nature, she will damage or destroy you – work with her, and it’s a different story. Above all, know yourself – and know you will not remain the same.
Since returning from the wilderness you have predominantly stayed north of the border in Scotland, spending nearly all of your time writing. You haven’t returned to conventional full-time work or the lifestyle you had before. Have you ever had any regrets about leaving your old life behind?
Not my old life or lifestyle, no, but there are people I really miss. I think choosing to abandon facebook has certainly helped me in many ways; I am no longer subject to a barrage of idiocy or inconsequentiality masking the odd enlightened, amusing, or interesting comment. However, this has been at the expense of not having a clue what many of my friends are doing, how they are. I think it is a shame that we are told social media is the best way to keep in touch – my email address hasn’t changed in many years, and many people have this address, but I rarely hear from anyone. Of course, I rarely get in touch with anyone myself. I have my reasons for this, but it doesn’t make it easy.
Your time in the wilderness saw you learning, implementing and mastering various skills and techniques. What new skill or craft would you like to learn or master next?
Furniture making. That’s on my mental list. As is the wiring of marionettes. Even more prosaically, I would like to learn more about plumbing…
As far as wilderness skills go, there’s the canoe and snowshoes mentioned above, I’m also hoping to custom design and make some cold-weather clothing. Many of the skills I use are ever-evolving; learning new knots, ways to light a fire, different uses for plants. Bushcraft is a vast and wide ranging subject, one no one can ever truly master in one lifetime.
Perhaps the most important skill at the moment is that of finishing the first novel. I am not far off this point, despite lots of diversions and distractions, and I cannot wait to learn how to sell it, how to get it out to readers. I’m weirdly looking forward to that.
Finally, what’s next for Vague and his travels, adventures and writing?
I intend to have The Care Industry (if indeed I do stick with this originally temporary name), the first novel of my series, finished by the end of this year. I’m also intending to launch my own website in the coming weeks or, more realistically, months, fingers crossed (1st of January at the latest!). I have another cunning project coming soon too – The Shorefolk, which ties together various skills and art forms. More on this soon.
There are exciting wheels in motion regarding some other (presently secret) projects, ones I wish I could talk about, but I cannot, at least not just yet.
As far as travels go, I’m afraid there’s little to be said on the subject. However, these days everything seems to be an adventure, and I don’t need to head into wild places to find it – but I do intend to explore more of the local area – there are materials I need to collect for The Shorefolk, and this is a good excuse to go on some long walks.
I love this time of year, when the temperatures are dropping, some parts of nature frenetically speeding up to gather their supplies, while other parts are slowing, or even gone, headed south for warmer climes. Being up here I notice the seasons more, feel more connected.
A Vague Quote
Warren Ellis, when responding to the question “What do you do when (if) you ever feel like giving up?” said this:
“There is no such goddamn thing. There is only getting up and doing it all over again, smarter and harder, until something ups and fucking kills you, because that’s the only thing big enough to stop you. This is The Great Work, and all you have to do is choose it, not look back and never fucking stop until you’re in your box, under the dirt and flowers are growing between your teeth.
And that is why I’ll never be asked to do motivational speaking. G’night.”
And I agree with him wholeheartedly – whenever I think I’ve made a terrible mistake choosing this path, I just think of this and get the hell on with scribbling some more.
Some Vague Numbers
3 – the number of novels that have substantial portions already written.
3, 4, and 10 – numbers of the novels in my series which are predominately written in the first person.
10 – minimum number of novels in the series I am writing.
29 – months I’ve been in a disgustingly happy relationship (despite the present distance).
49 – the number of novels I have read in the last year.
303 – the number of books I have somehow acquired, despite having no money, “normal” job, or income of any real sort. These are real books, not the e-variety…
1592 – number of posts on my various blogs in the past twelve months (many are just captioned photos though, so that’s kinda cheating…).
24089 – number of photos presently on my flickr account.
Alex’s adventures are currently being serialised on ShiverWriggle, with selected journal excerpts and photographs. Alex’s ShiverWriggle blog posts can also be found as early Vague Wanderings posts. You can read more about Alex’s adventures on his tumblr blog, A Fall in Time. The full set of his collected photographs can be accessed in his flickr gallery.