Today, I called an old friend with whom I had lost touch, Sherry Austin, who lives in Hendersonville. About five years ago, Sherry told her friends that she had decided to stop communicating with them. Indeed, she said that for a variety of reasons, mental and physical, she had decided to “become a hermit.”
Perhaps it should be noted that Sherry Austin has published several books and she is famous for her quick wit and an amazing talent for conversation. In fact, she was once something of a legend due to her knack for free-wheeling discussions on the Internet, frequently under the guise of several different “personas.” I have missed her presence tremendously, especially one of per personas who was an elderly lady named Trixie Goforth who attended church regularly, despised politicians and had a robust appreciation for young men. Sherry answered the phone and once she remembered who I was, she launched a lively conversation about writing, the state of the arts and the likelihood that she might begin publishing again.
When I told her about my own frustrations as a writer and a storyteller, she immediately said, “Well, Gary, I feel that you should be an ornamental hermit. I have always felt that this would be the ideal occupation for you.” That comment bewildered me. I reminded her that my hearing was whimsical and said that it sounded like she said I should be “an ornamental hermit.” “Yes, that is right,” she said and obligingly spelled it several times. “Pray tell, what is that?” I said.
Sherry then explained that in Europe, beginning in the 14th century, a kind of “garden craze” swept through Germany, France and Italy in which extremely wealthy lords, kings and popes designed awesome gardens, complete with lakes, domesticated animals, ornate (but rustic) buildings and bridges. Such places served as a backdrop for church services and royal entertainments. Eventually, it became customary to create a hermit’s dwelling in every garden, and although it was not absolutely necessary, a living hermit was usually in residence. Wealthy aristocrats selected hermits on their aptitude for learning. Most were elderly. In time, many gardens contained an ornate hut well-stocked with great books and the “hermit’s table” which always had a pair of reading glasses, a human skull and an impressive collection of books. If the wealthy owner did not choose to have a real hermit in residence, the room was always equipped to look as though the hermit has just stepped out, and would be back shortly.
Ornamental hermits became popular all over the world and gradually the job qualifications became more detailed. The most interesting qualification is: that hermits were expected to be “melancholy.” Most hermits dressed in black (like Hamlet, who is definitely a gloomy fellow). The image of hermits as depicted in art and philosophy, suggested that hermits were solitary and given to introspection.
This being the case, then the owner was free to be lighthearted. His hermit would be sad or despondent for him! If the world seemed dark due to wars or a bad economy, the hermit would ponder that fact. All of this, of course, sounds like an early means of dealing with depression. Also, the hermit was expected to be “on call.” If a dinner party was in progress elsewhere, the hermit was often summonsed to “entertain” the guests with stories of strange lands and quaint customs.
There are accounts of hermits living in forest reserves and there are accounts of benefits and disadvantages. Hermits were not required to bathe regularly and in some instances, were forbidden to do so. They were well paid and customarily signed contracts for seven years. They were always retired with benefits and the means of living well in retirement. They were allowed to marry and there are accounts of husbands and wives who served with considerable honor.
Have you figured out where I am going with this? I did a little research and it turns out that many aristocrats, aging popes and retired kings sought ornamental hermits for “companionship.” They wanted to sit in their garden and discuss interesting topics ... the transmigration of souls, free will and the sex lives of angels. They wanted to talk about ideas, art and philosophy.
I think Sherry is right. I would be an excellent ornamental hermit. Further, now bear with me ... further, I think the employment of ornamental hermits is the ideal solution to another growing problem: what we should do with creative people — writers, musicians, artists? Why doesn’t the North Carolina Arts Council take heed? Why don’t they gather all of our “economically disadvantaged artists” and distribute us to the state’s gardens and parks? There would be some real plums like Biltmore House in Asheville and the Folk Art Center. Why don’t we sing for our supper, or if not sing, then brood and ponder. Is it possible that there are some wealthy senators, retired ministers, generals who live on Beech Mountain, Linville Falls and the like, who need an ornamental hermit? Is there room for a hermit at nearby Tallulah Falls down in Georgia? (If I’m not mistaken, they used to have one!) Do the campgrounds in Cades Cove and Smokemont need an elderly gnome that could be enlisted to tell stories to the tourists? How about the Carl Sandburg Home? Maybe Cracker Barrel would cut us a deal.
OK, perhaps I am becoming a bit irrational and that the majority of our creative souls would prefer comfort, good food and wine rather than porridge and sawmill gravy. Perhaps they would prefer the Grove Park Inn rather than a hut made of mud and twigs. We could work it out, I’m sure.
But, I am still interested and would gladly settle for a house of wattles and some good conversation. So, If you are lonely this Christmas, hire a19th century hermit (Me, I can do that!). I would strive to be more than merely “ornamental” (like today’s garden gnomes which are all that is left of this once venerable tradition.)