To take oneself out into the wilderness as part of a spiritual quest is one thing, but to remain there in a kind of barren ecstasy is another. The Anglo-American mystic Thomas Merton argues that ‘there is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality, for life is maintained and nourished in us by our vital relation with realities outside and above us. When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve.’ If practised as part of a living spiritual path, he says, and not simply as an escape from corruption or as an expression of misanthropy, ‘your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth’. It is a point Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and teacher, also makes. Solitude is essential to the spiritual path, he argues, but ‘we require such solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the streets and in palaces … it is not the circumstances of seeing more or fewer people but the readiness of sympathy that imports’.