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Drawn towards something more simple and elemental

On Unknown Paths
Forfatter: Sylvain Tesson
Forlag: Den Franske Bogcafés Forlag, (Danmark)
HIKING / Sylvain Tesson meets us with a harsh critique of everything modern and a tribute to the sublime simplicity of hiking. We rediscover how the local has lived hidden in the age of the global. This is a strong criticism of modernity and the authorities' eagerness to get the country on the modern bandwagon.


I have spent parts of the just-over Christmas holiday looking for country properties. It's a recurring thought with me. That at the age of 46, of which I have lived in the city for the past 25 years, I am ready to go to the countryside. That I no longer use the city's cultural offering, but instead am drawn towards air, light and seclusion. There is no doubt a not inconsiderable degree of romanticization about my draw courage country. I imagine a quieter life, where I am surrounded by nature: where my thoughts can wander to a greater extent and where, above all, I get away from the screens, which eventually make up such frighteningly large parts of my life. Where I can plant wine and produce my own goat cheese.

I imagine a quieter life where I am surrounded by nature.

Frenchman Sylvain Tesson does not look at country estates or dream of goat cheeses, but nevertheless there is a great commonality between his wanderings through France and my idyllic housing search. He, too, is drawn towards something more simple and elemental. He, too, is disgusted by the thought of how the screens have infiltrated our lives. He too seems rootless and in constant motion. In a slow motion, mind you.

Fatal fall

If you are into extreme and adventurous activities, the name Sylvain Tesson will probably ring a bell. For many years he practiced the adventurer's way of life. He has crossed Himalayas on foot, rode on horseback across the Central Asian steppes, climbed numerous mountains and lived as a hermit in Siberia. In August 2014, Tesson is in the process of climbing up the facade of a house, he loses his grip and falls eight metres. He is close to dying and is put into an artificial coma. Doctors warn him against any extreme activity, let alone hiking, but of course a man like Tesson can't sit still. That is why he decides in 2016 to hike for 3 months up through France. One hiking which of course happens «by unknown paths», which has also become the title of the work. Following the unknown paths is a mission to get off the beaten path. Get off the tarmac and away from all the routes that have signs and directions. Where it is all calculated for one and laid out. Tesson seeks the trouble. He painstakingly studies old maps with a high degree of detail to find out where a possible small path can lead him further through the landscape. He creates his own route.

Away from all the routes that have signs and directions.

It goes through forest edges. Under high voltage lines it goes. Over fences. Over bridges. Under viaducts. Up the ridge, down the slope, through the village.

And in all this walking, Tesson rediscovers his country. A country that seems to be suffocated by modernity and digitization. Where they so called hyper rural areas are considered problematic and something that needs to be fixed. The country must have fast broadband. Then it will all work out. A significant part of Tesson's work becomes a somewhat ironic but nonetheless firm critique of modernity and the authorities' eagerness to get the country on the modern bandwagon. The criticism is rooted in a report that specifically sees the development of rural areas as a central aspect of French politics. In Tesson's writing, the report gets tirades like this along the way: «In the report's arsenal of initiatives, you could read about things such as the right to perpetuate dynamic experimental enterprises and the demand for to modernize regulation and stimulate new contractual alliances. What was that strange language? What did the writers of such sentences fill their spirits with? Did they know the joy of wiping his mouth with the lapel of his jacket after a sip of Savoy wine, the enjoyment by lying down in the grass when the silhouette of a bird gives life to the sky?»

Yes, Tesson is romantically inclined. Yes, there can be problems in a dying rural area. But when you read On Unknown Paths, you also become convinced – or perhaps rather reminded of – the value of the very simple. That what does not develop can also have one value. Yes, that there is actually something to be preferred about the standstill.

Sylvain Tesson


Bogens reason for being er dog the movement. It is the journey that still fills its pages. For Tesson, it is a healing walk. He has come out of his coma. He has been close to death and has been warned not to venture out into life. And then he does just that. Step by step. Slowly it goes; one day he only manages to walk 12 kilometers in 10 hours. It's slow not only because Tesson chooses the difficult routes, but also because his body suffers with every step taken. And it's not because it gets much better as the trip progresses. At least not with his physical condition, but his mental health is enriched, and we are with him all the way into the close. We can feel the moisture of the grass. We can sense how it feels to spend the night on the layers of the earth itself. We disappear with him into the geography, into the cartography and into the very geological shifts that happen along the way:

«The shift from one world to another took place in Brahic, at an altitude of six hundred meters. The granite houses were covered with slate slabs. The chestnut trees formed a border that marked the change. It was over with Provence's noble marks – lime, olives, Roman tiles. From here we changed heraldry. We turned our backs on Provence, the sunny breeze to the east. Here on the slopes of the volcanic massif, an old fire smoldered under the rowan trees.»

As perhaps sensed in the quote, there is one proximity and degree of detail in Tesson's writing. This is the special quality of the book. We walk with him. And we meet the people he roams along the way; the shepherd, the innkeeper, the American tourist. Tesson rediscovers his own country, and we rediscover how the local has lived hidden in the time of the global, and how it is necessary to change this. To wander is to notice the smallest things, and the smallest is often the greatest in life. Thanks for that reminder, Tesson.

Steffen Moestrup
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

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