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Reflective moments…

A life unmoored

It is 2019. We are about to become unmoored and leave this place that has been home for years.

IT IS POURING. A steady downpour that is not torrential, just persistent. It dampens all other sounds. A grey sky and landscape suck the colour from the day. 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 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.

Excitement and uncertainty comingle in my mind. Ours is to be a journey with no timeline although the notion we entertain is that it will not be all-that-long. We’ll see. We have set off on journeys in the past but they have always been time constrained by the necessity of returning to work. There was always that pull-back to where we set out from. To return was to suffer travellers remorse until we slid back into life-as-it-had-been. This time it is different.

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. A year or so before that we travelled the 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. It was the type of persistent rain that dampens everything—landscapes, interiors, people.

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.

I’m not sure I go along with what Berry said. He was talking about long term inhabitation of a place during which you get to know it in its detail. His notion was that person and landscape form some kind of mental and physical bond. Why, though, cannot you not know yourself without those bonds to the land? Maybe that would be knowing who you are in a different way to what Berry was getting at. Why can you not get to know who you are by travelling through a multiplicity of landscapes? Rather than the land, it then becomes the journey that is the key to self-knowledge.

But my friend? Yes, she has settled into the subtropical landscape, into the seasons and the community over the 28 years since she moved onto what was a degraded and treeless cattle paddock. Now it is a veritable jungle of giant clumping bamboo, fruit and other trees below which geese and chickens wander.

While I was visiting her I caught up with another visitor. He is a colleague from Victoria and like her, he is anchored to place but, unlike her, he unmoors and travels. He told me how he recently bought a 4WD ute and set up a canopy over the back with space to sleep in. 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. As well as those trips north, we 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. This was not a proper unmooring, more an excursion with a return to life as it was. Treading those headlands and the wide sandy beaches, being out in the open and breathing the salty air felt good, just as it had in times past. Those times are always with me when I wander in places I have been before. The past merges into the present as images of past walks along the same trail come unbidden to mind, as do the people I made those journeys with. One of those people is now living a moored life in a place far distant and has been doing so these past 30 years. She put down roots, created a livelihood and made friends in a small city, and has no intention of leaving. I contrast her life to mine over that time and find that, although I lived in-place for some time, in the back of my mind was the knowledge that one day I would pack and go.

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 whom 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. Now firmly moored, they wander 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, the scale of the place make is possible to 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. It 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. He reminded me of a lone traveller in a book I recently read, camped in an out of the way valley at the foot of the Victorian Alps. He too had a camper ute and in it he lived a life governed by periods in the mountains and on the coast.

I have met many people who live like this. Wendell Berry might have extolled the settled life through which over the years enables you to get to know a place in the minute detail of its geology, its landforms, vegetation, climate and human history—he was a farmer, environmentalist and writer, after all, and people like that inhabit a place in all of its vicissitudes and dispositions. But others hear the call of other places, distant places, and this they obey. Their lives might be peripatetic, yet they are as fulfilling as those who have settled in a place. Just as the hiker must climb that next hill to see the land beyond, so do they have to follow that great ribbon of grey asphalt or brown gravel to find what it is that lies along it.

A sense of superiority—is that what it is? That is what I find at times among the settled and land-based. I imagine they do not mean to come across as like that, however they assume their way of life to be a better way to live when compared to that of people without land. I understand where they are coming from and I hope they make the most of their privilege as members of the land-owning class, however I see people outside that class who for reasons of finance, opportunity or choice are just as happy living the mobile life.

New beginning at journey’s end

I should rank myself and my partner as members of the landowning class, although ours is just an average block in a coastal town. We are not farmers like Wendell Berry was, our agricultural efforts extending no further than a backyard vegetable garden and a few fruit trees. After our time on the road when campsites were our temporary home and the back of our van our kitchen, we are moored again, but in an environment of our choosing. We are by the sea once more, for it is the sea that calls us, not the vast plains of the inland. The mountains, too, when we venture away from the coast to walk among them. Although once again ensconced in the settled life other places still call, so we pack the basics of life on the road and set out. These are short journeys, not the longer that we took on unmooring ourselves from the big city.

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 original heritage as wanderers is still there, deeply buried. Sometimes, when it is quiet and the world is still, we can hear it faintly 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 have always attracted 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 beaches.

There’s a pleasure to be found in that, but there’s a sameness too. Beaches are flat, and you get your feet wet. You get feet 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, at least. Sneider might 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 that now-distant 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. The passage in the book 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 had it wouldn’t have mattered because that book spoke to me. It appealed because it was about a footloose, unmoored band of friends and how they lived in the city and went climbing mountains and staying 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 a reason that book appealed to me was because it spoke to my directionlessness. That came across as an openess to the world, an open-endedness, a feeling that there were other places to be. Was I a drifter in life, as Dylan put it in his 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 felt it all the stronger and would ask myself “Where now? Where to now?”. I got no answer because there was no answer. Other places where all places.

An end to continuity

It is the time before leaving. 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 followed us these past years. Ahead is an 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 putting aside 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 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.”

A little more reading on PacificEdge…



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.