IT is pouring. A steady downpour that is not torrential, just persistent. A greyness sucks the colour from the day just as it dampens all other sounds. It is a day for reflection, for introspection.
I look out on this monochromatic landscape and feel a tingle of anticipation. We are about to become unmoored and leave this place that has been home for some years.
Like a ship tied to a wharf, so we have been moored here, fastened by the needs of earning a living while at the same time quietly yearning for other places, other horizons. It has been a good place to be moored, so, no regrets. All the same it will be good when in a couple weeks we pack the few things we need into our minivan and turn north, then south for what… weeks?… months? Eventually we will end up in a new place to call home.
I know my life has been too moored lately even though we not all that long ago returned from the backblocks of NSW’s Mid-North Coast. Before that we travelled this now-familiar route to a friend’s place in the far-north of the state. Like today, it was wet up there, raining for the first couple days with that continuous kind of fall that’s heavier than a drizzle but lighter than a downpour.
That friend. Her life is moored, anchored to her place with which she has a deep identification. She is living-in-place, living Wendell Berry’s “If you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are.” Berry was a nature writer and, yes, like Berry said, she knows who and where she is.
So do many of the others who were there. Like her, the colleague from Victoria is anchored to place but, like her, he unmoors and travels. He explained how he recently bought a 4WD ute and has set up a canopy over the back with space to sleep. He went to the Nightcap after our gathering, out for a few days in the dark, dripping, subtropical rainforest.
My life has been too moored lately, but not completely. It unmoored briefly when my partner and I decided, more or less spontaneously one day, that we would go walking along a coastal track in a national park on the edge of the city. Treading those headlands and wide sandy beaches felt good, just as it did in times past.
Those past times are always with me when I wander in places I have been before. Images of past walks along the same trail came unbidden to mind as do the people I made those journeys with. Most of them are now living moored lives in places far distant.
I think of my friends and realise that most of them are not, nor have they been wanderers. They are people who have found fulfilment in the settled life. Some I knew in our shared youth did wander for a time. A few, like me, wandered up and down the East Coast, some to that southern island where I spent much time. Some are still there, firmly moored, wandering no longer. Soon I hope I will be there too, for if that island does only one thing it is to make wandering possible. There, you can live the unmoored life in a settled sort of way.
That’s the attraction. Having a home base from which you unmoor yourself for varying lengths of time offers the best of both worlds, the settled and the footloose. Different, say, to the young woman I met who was living in her van. She had unmoored, completely. Different, too, to that man in Triabunna with his ute with its slip-on camper. Now retired, his was the unmoored life with nowhere to be any time soon, just the land, the mountains, the coasts and the grey asphalt strip that pulls his home-on-the-road forever onward.
The cosmologist, the late Carl Sagan, wrote that we humans are wanderers at heart because that is how we have lived for most of our history. Although the agricultural revolution made us settled farmers and townspeople, our real heritage as wanderers is still there, buried deep. Sometimes, when it is quiet and the world is still, we can hear it calling. Carl Sagan put it this way…
“For all its material advantages the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled.
“Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls… like a nearly-forgotten song of childhood”.
… Carl Sagan, Wanderers
Coast and Mountain
The mountains attract the wanderers, the unmoored in life. Sure, some find the coasts more conducive. They are usually warmer and you can wander kilometer after kilometer along distant shorelines.
There’s a pleasure to be found in that, but there’s a sameness too. The coast is flat for the most part and you get your shoes wet. You get your shoes wet in the mountains, too, but there the wet comes with that sharp sting of cold water, not the gentle wash of the salty. Coast or mountain, whatever your choice we look to Gary Sneider to sum it up: “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”
Nature. Home. Home away from home for awhile. Sneider night have been talking in terms of human evolution but even in the short temporal sense nature the mountains, the coasts unmoor us from urban civilisation and take us back to where we came from. “Range after range of mountains. Year after year after year. I am still in love,” he wrote of his sense of returning to nature.
Wandering. The unmoored life. I look back over decades to when I first lived in this city, to when I was young and the world was still wide and open. Somehow, I came into possession of a book that grabbed my imagination and clarified that life didn’t have to be lived by the pattern I had learned from my parents. That passage went like this:
“I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution… thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.”
The book was called The Dhamma Bums and I learned later that it was something of a classic, a work of literature. I didn’t know that then and if I would have then it wouldn’t have mattered, for that book spoke to me. It appealed because it was about a footloose, unmoored band of friends and how they lived in the city, went climbing mountains and stayed in cabins in the countryside.
My friends and I at the time were also footloose and unmoored. We would wander from city to city, stay awhile then move on. Not all of us, of course. Some found a place, a partner, and took up the moored life. For awhile, anyhow.
I think that a reason that book appealed to me was because it spoke to my sense of directionlessness. That was something of a subconscious sense. It was there but running in the background. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it had I been asked to. I felt it as an openess to the world, an open-endedness. Was I a drifter in life? Directionless? Or as Dylan put it in a song of the time, “ …to be on your own, like a rolling stone”?
I have been both moored and unmoored in life. Being moored was to be rooted in a place or, in my case, in a number of places. Unmoored I didn’t experience as a continuous thing. It was more sporadic, shorter-lived. Sometimes, by myself, I would sit and feel the breeze on my face and gaze in an unfocused way towards the horizon. Then, I feel it all the stronger and would ask myself “Where now? Where to now?”. I got no answer because there was no answer.
There it is, that tingling, that premonition of a time and a place about to transition into something unknown. Gone is the sense of continuity and expectation that has followed us these past years. Ahead is that open-ended future to be written day-by-day, kilometer-by-kilometer, place-by-place. Into my mind flows those things we have yet to do — packing our belongings, shipping them to where we want to be — and of organising those things that early one morning we will load into our minivan, start the engine and take the highway north.
The rain is still falling, its hiss an even, unchanging tone. My mind is still in that reflective space where images and words come from somewhere and tumble into consciousness. I decide to leave the last words to Suzanne Selfors as she writes them in Coffeehouse Angel, because I realise that I am not the only one who feels this way about the moored life:
“Surely there were others like me, born without an inkling of direction. The wanderers, the amblers, the dabblers, united by our purposeless mantra — I have no idea what to do with my life.”