THOMAS RAIN CROWE lived a self-sufficient life in the Appalachian mountains and woods for four years in the early 1980s. He kept notes while weeding his rows of beans and meditating upon bees, birds and brushwood – and now he has decided to tell all about it. There is nothing especially new about finding in wilderness a pensive means of escape from civilisation, although his escape was more astringently basic and baroquely self-regarding than it needed to be. Indeed, to go off into the woods and make a life – and then write about it – is a recognisable literary sub-genre, ranging from the schoolroom fiction of Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain to the granddaddy in Thoreau’s Walden. But Crowe is interesting, and this book, despite its fault lines of narcissism, deserves to be taken seriously.

Zoro’s Field – the name is that of the farmer who let Crowe build a hut on his land – is craftily structured. Its very form cuts against a steady diary-style or calendar trudge. Instead Crowe transforms his ‘nine plus three’ formula for survival (nine months working outdoors for food and firewood, three winter months writing and thinking) over his four years at Zoro’s field into something more artfully episodic and filled with wonder.

Each chapter takes as a title a thought – ‘Returning’, ‘A Walk in the Woods’, ‘A Mountain Garden’ – and then weaves around it a more literary frame than the stripped-down life of a man in a hut would lead you to expect. Each chapter is opened by epigrams and then closed with a poem, verse in a sparse and Zen-influenced or contaminated tradition of Imagism. But what is vital to the success of Zoro’s Field is the atmosphere that floods into the writing despite, and not due to, the author’s stylistic scaffolding.

Crowe uses vivid and precise prose to delineate sensations: of being chased downhill by a snake; of crawling on his belly over moss towards a waterfall; and of the morally exculpatory knots he ties himself up in by owning a shotgun. However, he also has a need to find “significance”– a mode that can tire. Crowe spent time in California, styling himself as a “Baby-beat” until a formative moment sent him back to his boyhood landscape: “When Gary Snyder told me to ‘go home’ at first I felt insulted, spurned.” But he then recognised how “right” it was. Indeed, Crowe identifies Snyder as talismanic, and he haunts this book – authenticating a peculiarly American form of Zen: the ability to make the natural world, when focused on intently enough, say something about the individual doing the focusing.

Crowe’s relationship to Walden is also acknowledged – but so is a desire to move away “even more self-sufficiently into the deep woods”. It is such a loaded phrase, chiming off into the psyche: deep woods, deep time, these woods are lovely dark and deep. Such beliefs about the forest lead to awkward passages, such as where Crowe tries to rationalise his feelings: “it was there, I believe, that wildness became part of my own personal bloodline – part of my genetic coding.” Despite the cod-science and the Zen, there is rumbustious excess in several passages, reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang with his environmentalist as wise-cracking hero. For Crowe such moments especially concern alcohol: “While beer has been my first love as an intoxicating extracurricular drink, I have also tried my hand at making wine.” But even here is a certain boastful quality, authenticated as ever from the soil: “I have worked at premier wineries in California and the Bordeaux region of southern France.” Aspects of the style grate too; the staccato listings eventually near parody: “I never tire of potatoes and green beans for dinner. Never tire of cornmeal grits and honey for breakfast. Never tire of an apple and a piece of corn bread for lunch.”

But the issue of what he lost after he left Zoro’s field is stark in the Afterword, Crowe’s elegant attempt to make sense of what the four years of self-sufficiency meant. Returning to the site of his cabin leads to a moment of “horror beyond reckoning” – as it is now a storage yard for dumper trucks. So what is left? Crowe goes beyond despair with the entreaty “Every day I pray for a conversion experience deep in the psychic structure of the human population that will be a catalyst for the healing of the natural world.” Me too. •

Leo Mellor is a Fellow in English Literature at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. He is currently writing a book about the flowers that grew on London’s bomb sites.