Author Archives: tylerbleeker

Living Vicariously: A Summer Journey through Letters

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I biked across the country this past summer.

No, I didn’t actually bike across the country this summer. But it felt like I was there. A friend of mine, a close pen-pal, was the one doing the biking. Every once in a while I would receive updates from a letter describing the places my friend had biked to and her thoughts on the adventure. If I was on the biking journey this summer, it was only vicariously, through her letters.

It wasn’t necessary to receive these letters in order to learn updates about my friend’s biking adventure. After all, she openly posted photos and statuses about her journey regularly through the democratic medium of Facebook. I followed along closely the progress of her and her partner’s trek. Add in electronic communication through email and text messaging, and I had all the modes of contact I could possibly need to stay in touch right at my fingertips. Why then go through the archaic effort of writing letters, especially when I’d be mailing them to a moving target?

In defense of the waning art of letter-writing, there is something incredibly personal and amicable about receiving a hand-written letter. There is something transcendent about it that quick and easy electronic communication can never replicate. A letter is a physical token, something tangible that puts weight in your hand. Even though far apart, the letter is something that both friends have touched and felt and handled; it’s an object that you both have shared in, that bonds you together. The scrawled handwriting on the pages is unique—artistic forms that can never be duplicated, stemming from the very hand of your friend themselves. Though the physical letter has little extrinsic value in itself, the intrinsic value it delivers is priceless.

Each letter received is a gift. Though you can anticipate a letter’s coming, you can never know exactly when it will arrive. Daily you may check the mail, waiting for the surprise delivered by the postman which brings with it a kind of fraternal pleasure. This hand-written letter, addressed exclusively to you, is a conversation between you and your friend alone. Unlike social media posts which have an extensive audience and beg for viewership, the personal letter has become subversive in our culture. It pronounces that some correspondences are meant to be kept private; some conversations are not meant to be laid out open for the wide world to see. And there is something incredibly special about a friend choosing words to write just to you, personally. Even though the content of my letters is nothing incriminating, nothing risqué, it nevertheless feels like they must be kept private to save the mysterious allure of the written conversation. The bulk of my mail correspondences are of absolutely no interest to the general public. But I like that. I like having people write to me and include in their curation of all the possible topics to write about, those things that they thought would interest me. It is their selection—for me.

I have a handful of pen-pals with whom I keep a semi-regular correspondence. Not all of them bike across the country. In fact, most of the time they are doing quite unimpressive stuff—the ins-and-outs of daily life: discussions of work duties, of visiting friends and of making food, of trifling hopes and dreams, of random thoughts. Though their correspondences may not regularly tell of events on the impressive scale of a cross-country bicycle journey, the content they write is nonetheless the fodder of an impressive life-journey lived by every one of my friends. No matter how quotidian the content of the letters may be, I still live vicariously through those words. My friends may benefit from hearing about my own journey which has taken me to many different places and through many different jobs (and I get a lot of feedback that people wish they were doing the things I’m doing). Still, the reverse is also true: my friends who are more settled, though they may not travel as much as me, are nevertheless leading lives that are incredibly interesting to me. They write about things that I too would love to be doing, if only I had the benefit of a stable household: beer-brewing, wine-making, gardening, home improvement projects, community formation. There are many different lives to lead, but not enough time to live them all. My friends are out living some of those lives, and I am out living others. With each letter I receive from my friends, I feel a bit more like I’m there alongside them sharing in the experience of all those different lifestyles, lifestyles that I too wish I could participate in.

Because I travel around as a transient, I don’t get to see a lot of my closest friends in person. Sending and receiving letters through the mail is one small way that we can physically interact via a shared object, something more physically expressive than mere words alone. And since my postal address changes every few months, those who put forth the effort into tracking me down and sending me a piece of mail are truly great friends. The thought and time put forth into writing each letter, despite the inconveniences, makes me value them all the more greatly.

So this summer, I got to experience a cross-country bicycle trip. I was there for the high hopes and growing pains at the start on the Olympic Peninsula. I felt the anguish and the subsequent relief after climbing up and over those grueling snow-covered mountain passes in the northern Rockies. I met good-hearted and welcoming families in our nation’s plains states. I was there through the forests and lakes and mosquitos of the Midwest. I felt the pressure of the trip through the monotonous crossing of flat Ontario, and then knew the relief at seeing mountains once again in the Adirondacks. Eventually, I got to experience the joy of reaching Maine and seeing the bicycle trip to completion. And I did all this without ever leaving Massachusetts.

You see, I value my friendships and still seek to deepen them even when we are apart. Perhaps I may never get to bike across the United States, or perhaps I never will live permanently in a place of my own. That’s OK. Through my friends, and our letter-writing experiences, I feel like a part of me has been along for the experience of it all.

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Martha’s Vineyard by Bicycle

A short distance off the coast of mainland Massachusetts lies a vineyard. It’s not just any vineyard, however—this vineyard is Martha’s Vineyard. And though the name doesn’t imply it, Martha’s Vineyard is an island. The peculiar name, as custom has it, dates from 1602 when English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold first sighted the island. Seeing wild grapevines dotting the island, he bestowed upon it the moniker ‘vineyard’; wanting to confer an honor to his family members as well, he also gave it the name ‘Martha’ after either his daughter or his mother-in-law. The Wampanoag peoples, however, the original inhabitants of the island, referred to the land as Noepe, meaning “land amid the streams”. And while it has never had many vineyards (and perhaps not many Marthas either) the island still has an abundance of offerings for the curious traveler. Though Martha’s Vineyard is most famous as an island retreat for the rich and famous (most notably the Kennedy clan), the Vineyard, as it is colloquially called, is neither a remote nor an inaccessible place. In fact, the proximity and ease of transport to Martha’s Vineyard makes this high-status resort island an open destination to even the common tourist.

From mainland Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is blatantly obvious in all but the foggiest weather. Just over three miles offshore from the nearest ferry port in Woods Hole, the ferry ride to the Vineyard clocks in at a rapid 45 minutes. Ferries come and go on a sub-hourly basis in the summers, and for just a few dollars you can secure your passage to the island. For a few dollars extra, you can even bring your own bicycle and take with you the finest mode of transportation for exploring the gems that Martha’s Vineyard has to offer. As I have visited the Vineyard three times by bicycle over the course of the past summer, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with the island. But at 88 square miles, the Vineyard will continue to surprise any frequent visitor.

Your trip to Martha’s Vineyard will most likely start in the port village of Vineyard Haven, as it occupies the most protected and accessible deep anchorage on the Vineyard. Vineyard Haven offers an excellent jumping off point for exploring the rest of the island. As the ferry is docking in the harbor, you will find yourself transported amidst a milieu of sailboats. Well known ships, like the Black Dog’s Shenandoah and Alabama tall ships make their anchorages here. Though Vineyard Haven is one of the three major population centers on the island, it is by far the smallest. Main Street is populated with bric-a-brac shops and fine eateries, but the commercial district of the town does not extend far from the harbor. Starting in Vineyard Haven provides a digestible foretaste of what’s to come on your next two city stops on the Vineyard.

 

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The protected harbor at Vineyard Haven, a safe anchorage for sailboats

 

It’s time now to hop on your bike and head east along the bridged road that separates Vineyard Haven Harbor from Lagoon Pond. After a few miles of pedaling you will start to see massive Victorian houses appear; you are reaching the outskirts of Oak Bluffs, the Vineyard’s largest town. Oak Bluffs is distinct among Vineyard towns with its unique built environment and its lively culture as well. Formerly known as Cottage City, biking into Oak Bluffs is like riding into a storybook. The ornate ‘Gingerbread Houses’ are cladded with cookie-cutter ornamentation all painted in vibrant pastel shades. These grand old houses line an expansive ocean-side park laden with fountains, flowers, and park benches. Ocean Park, as it is known, is always comfortably busy with families strolling about and children flying kites. It gives off the whimsical aroma of an all-American town.

 

 

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The prototypical All-American Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs

 

Before the Cottage City was built, groups of Methodists would flock to the Oak grove on the bluff to hold annual summer revival meetings in the early 1800’s. At first their camp colony consisted of a series of tents surrounding a larger meeting tent on the top of the hill. As the years went by, the Methodists gradually upgraded from simple tents to more and more elaborate buildings. Eventually, a large open-air tabernacle replaced the original meeting tent, and a village of Victorian cottages replaced the tents. The Gingerbread cottages then became a tourist attraction in their own right.

Methodists weren’t the only people attracted to Oak Bluffs. The island town has a long history of a community of color. The first blacks in Oak Bluffs were brought to America as slaves. By the 1700’s, freed blacks began moving to the town to seek work in the local fishing industry. The growing African-American population of the town then attracted black business owners to set up shop, adding to the growing community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, middle and upper-class African-American families sought out Oak Bluffs as a vacation destination. Unfortunately they didn’t have much other choice in their holiday destinations, as discriminatory laws in all other towns on the Vineyard prevented blacks from renting hotel rooms. Oak Bluffs was the only town that welcomed the presence of black vacationers, and to this day Oak Bluffs remains a destination for prominent families of African-American descent.

Beyond the sheer visual stimuli that is the gingerbread cottages of Oak Bluffs, the main commercial streets are always bustling with tourist traffic. Oak Bluffs was the only town on Martha’s Vineyard consciously planned for tourism, and the businesses on the main drags show it. Walking the streets of Oak Bluffs, one will encounter an unfathomable smattering of ice cream stores, candy shops, souvenir shops, and even a flashy arcade full of jazzy amusements and a carousel. In sharp contrast to the more tactfully hidden tourist nature of the other Vineyard towns, Oak Bluffs pretends to be nothing less than a destination for the masses.

 

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A row of Oak Bluff’s whimsical ‘Gingerbread’ houses

 

After getting overstimulated in in Oak Bluffs, it is time to stretch the bicycling legs again and take the scenic bike route six miles southeast into the Vineyard’s other most populous town, Edgartown. The trail to Edgartown rides smack between the open ocean and Sengekontacket Pond. This stretch of sand and water is perhaps the most scenic ride on all the Vineyard. Along the path you will cross the American Legion Memorial Bridge, made famous from the movie set of Jaws. Take a quick breather and re-create the shark attack scene. It is also a popular pastime at the bridge to jump into the water. Just when you thought it was safe…

 

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A pending shark attack scene from Jaws, with the famed bridge in the background

 

Continuing on into Edgartown, you will see more familiar Jaws scenery. The fictional town center of Amity Island was filmed here. The brick sidewalks and wooden buildings provide an olden-day feel to the town. Edgartown has a much more relaxed ambiance than Oak Bluffs. Its maze of streets are lined with shops and eateries which cater to the more refined traveler. Also in Edgartown, you can catch one of the world’s shortest car ferries. At a distance of 527 feet, the ‘Chappy Ferry’ to Chappaquiddick Island is nothing short of endearing. Endearing too is the island itself, lightly trafficked and abounding with beaches, forests, and the Mytoi Japanese Gardens. Continuing south out of Edgartown is another way to escape the bustle of the large towns; some of the Vineyard’s most popular beaches, South Beach and Katama Beach, lie just a short cycle south.

 

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The classic look and feel of downtown Edgartown

 

After completing the trifecta of the major Martha’s Vineyard towns, it is time to get your bicycling legs in gear and make the long trek to the far western side of the island where the landscape becomes increasingly rural. Out of Edgartown, follow the bike path west. Soon enough, after passing through the outskirts of the town and a few boutique farms as well, you will reach the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, a sizable patch of pitch pines and other scrubby trees that occupies the heart of the Vineyard. The bike path is far enough off the road and is adequately shaded by the trees so that it starts to feel rather isolated. After a good stretch of smooth riding, the bike path ends. To continue further west, it is time to venture onto the roads. Not to worry, though. Western Martha’s Vineyard takes on quite a different character than the populous tourist towns in the east, and not much vehicle traffic abounds on this side of the otherwise congested island.

To continue west at the end of the paved bike path, take your pick of either North, Middle, or South Roads. As you could probably infer from their names, these roads refer to their geographical location on the island. Once in the west, the hills on the Vineyard begin to get more pronounced. The forest, too, encroaches on the road; the continuous tree canopy is punctuated only by the occasional pastoral meadow. Old stone walls line the road and heirloom cattle graze in the pastures. After riding for a number of miles, you’ll eventually reach the small isolated village of Chilmark, whose claim to fame was a once-thriving deaf community with its own system of signing even before the advent of American Sign Language.

 

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The pastoral landscape along Middle Road on the west side of the Vineyard

 

The village of Chilmark is a one-horse town, occupying little more than a road intersection with a few boutique shops and community buildings. Take a quick break on your bicycle to look around, but then head north again towards the ocean. A few miles later you’ll reach the quaint fishing village of Menemsha, an aged relic from the days when fishing was still a mainstay of the Vineyard. Take a stroll along the docks and watch the fishing boats offload their catch. Small weathered clapboard shacks line the Menemsha basin and fishermen peddle their wares to off-the-beaten-path tourists. It was this village that served as the home of the salty shark hunter Quint from Jaws. As a special bonus for cyclists only, Menemsha offers the special treat of a bike-only ferry to traverse the stones-throw distance across the entrance of Memensha Pond. After seeing enough fish in the village, take the bike ferry and enjoy the short water transit.

 

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Menemsha, a quite charming active fishing village on the fringe of the island

 

On the other side of the bike ferry, you’ll find yourself in a land of sand and hills directly lining the ocean. Pause for a moment and think about the eastern end of the Vineyard just fifteen miles back—this has become a vastly different world. Rather than opulent vacation compounds, the houses here are beaten and weathered, laying spattered in the woods like an organic outgrowth of trees. It is here where you will enter into the Wampanoag Aquinnah lands, lands that are still held by the original peoples of the Vineyard. Also, at this point you should notice that you are biking uphill; this means that the spectacular Gay Head Cliffs are quickly approaching.

Once you spot the Gay Head Lighthouse in the distance you will know that you are near the end of the island. At its westernmost point, known as Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard abruptly drops into the ocean at the Gay Head Cliffs. These cliffs are made up of clay, a dissimilar material to the glacially deposited till that composes the rest of the Vineyard. As a geological phenomenon, layers and layers of the Gay Head clay—former seafloor sediment—were pushed upwards by the weight of the glacial moraine formed during the last ice age. Over time, the ocean has been reclaiming this above-water material and has formed the cliffs via erosion. Wampanoag legend holds that the god Moshup, a benevolent provider, lives in the cliffs. The red stains on the cliffs are from the blood of the whales that Moshup eats, and the black is the soot from the fires that Moshup cooks over. The Wampanoag peoples hold these cliffs and their mud sacred, and as a visitor it is easy to see why. This secluded end of the island is a special place, worthy of admiration. From the overlook of the cliffs, it is an easy enough walk down to Moshup Beach, where one can stroll along the sandy beaches under the towering cliffs. After such a whirlwind tour of the Vineyard, there really is no better ending.

 

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The Gay Head Lighthouse standing tall over the colorful cliffs

 

Vegetarian for a Summer

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Recently I completed a challenge with another friend, where, for a summer only, I would lead a vegetarian diet. Though the duration of the challenge was short in the scheme of life, it was still substantial enough a time to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the vegetarian side. I completed this challenge while working at the Adventure Trips program at camp, where I was responsible for planning and cooking meals with a group of up to 12 active teenaged campers. Thus, my vegetarian diet was lived in the context of daily sharing meals with others, and faced both the benefits and difficulties of communal food.

The summer transition to being ‘officially’ vegetarian was not hard to make for me. In general, my meat consumption has been pretty low ever since my junior year in college when I shared a house with six vegetarians. Learning to cook for myself in this household, I became accustomed to making a variety of satisfying dishes using just vegetables. In the years following, I seldom bought meat for myself, and just as often I would consume meat I salvaged from a dumpster. Bacon, perhaps, was my most commonly used meat, but only as a spice and not as a meal. On the infrequent occasions I would visit a restaurant, I did freely order and partake of meat on the menu, and I also would eat meat when it was served by company. Otherwise I lived a near-vegetarian lifestyle.

So what was my motivation to undergo this challenge for the summer? Part of it was just to see if I could completely do it—that, and the curiosity of what would happen if I did abstain from meat for so long. But when talking about vegetarianism, it seems common that others will want the vegetarians to justify the rationale behind their food choices, as if only vegetarians are to be held accountable for the reasons they eat the foods they do. Though many people go vegetarian for health reasons, this was not one of my reasons; I am convinced that meat can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. Many people also go vegetarian out of a compassionate welfare for the animals themselves. Again, this was not part of my motivation for going vegetarian. Biologically speaking, animals must die and be eaten in order for the ecological world to continue on, and humans have long participated in the tradition of eating meat as sustenance. Though I do not feel that it is immoral to consume animal products, I do feel like if you do consume meat, then you should be willing to see where it comes from—if not even kill it and prepare it yourself. Though a vegetarian this summer, I did watch in vivid interest as one of the camp’s chickens was cleaned and butchered. The transition from live animal to food is an interesting one, and one that not many people get direct experience with—meat-eaters included.

If there was an underlying motivation for my low meat consumption in the past, and for me to try the completely vegetarian lifestyle this summer, it would be environmental. This was my attempt to eat lower on the food chain, and thus limit the impact my diet has on the planet. Factory farmed meat, as it is produced commercially in the developed world, is resource intensive and wasteful. More energy goes into producing animal proteins that could more efficiently be converted into plant foods. This wanton use of resources—a byproduct of our cultural desire to have meat readily and cheaply available—contributes to even greater environmental degradation. Plus, this industrial scale meat system comes with the added externalities of increased chemical and antibiotic use, greenhouse gas emissions, land-clearing, animal mistreatment, and the like. In sum total, cheap meat comes at a high price. Becoming a vegetarian for the summer was my way of exempting myself from the corporate meat system. Perhaps, idealistically, just by reducing my demand for meat, the system will begin to change to offer more sustainable alternatives

So how challenging was going vegetarian? Overall, not too bad.

As mentioned above, it was not too hard of a transition to make practically. Being used to eating mostly vegetable dishes, I was able to feed myself and survive the whole summer. I found that I actually didn’t miss meat that much, if at all. Rummaging through the fridge for leftovers as I commonly do, if I saw a container full of meat, it actually began to look unappealing to me. True, the smell of freshly fried bacon did always tempt me, and I did eat a slice of pepperoni that fell on the ground. Otherwise, my vegetarian commitment was not terribly difficult to keep.

The more challenging part of vegetarianism was psychological. It was a challenge to see my identity as a vegetarian. Nor over the course of the summer did I ever feel that I realty owned up to the label either. When I had to explain my dietary restrictions to others, I would always try and qualify my vegetarianism: “it’s only temporary,” or “it’s just a challenge I’m doing over the summer,” I would say. Never was I just Ty the vegetarian. I was Ty the vegetarian*. But although it was difficult to apply the label to myself and feel authentic about it, it was easier when others applied the label to me. Campers at summer camp somehow found out without me telling them, and they would thus call me a vegetarian on their own initiative. Knowing me for only a week at a time, vegetarian Ty was the only side of me they ever knew, so they never questioned me about my transition to it. So only once other people started calling me a vegetarian and asking me all kinds of curious questions about what it is like, did I finally come to start feeling like I too could own the label. Nevertheless, I never fully felt authentic as a vegetarian, since my endeavor was only temporary and experimental. Though there is not just one kind of vegetarian, I never felt like I could fully own the label and subscribe to the identity politics of vegetarianism.

Additionally, and somewhat expectedly, being a vegetarian also made me think about food options a whole lot more. Previously, as a food opportunist and a not too particularly picky eater, I didn’t think about what exactly I was eating with a whole lot of thought. Back then, so to speak, all options were literally on the table. If it was edible, then why not eat it? But I found that excepting myself from any carnivorous partakings made me dwell on the limits of what I could and could not eat. Instead of always being assured of having enough food, I started to worry if there would be enough vegetarian options left over for me to eat; sometimes there were not, and I had less than my desired fill even when there were plenty of meat options left over. For perhaps the first time ever, I also found that I had to be a staunch advocate for my food as well. I don’t really like to make a fuss over food things, especially since I’ll eat just about anything. But this summer, in order for me to make sure there would be food for myself as well, I had to advocate for a non-meat option at each meal. This was challenging at times, especially because I often felt like a ‘fake’ vegetarian who was just being ‘picky’ about meat. Add to that, I’d much rather not encumber or inconvenience people by adding more dietary restrictions to the chefs, especially when I was the only professed vegetarian partaking in a meal. But at the same time, if my rationale behind going vegetarian was environmentally based, then causing a fuss at meal times would be a start to greater change. Abstaining from meat at one single meal might not seem like it makes a lot of difference, but it does work to challenge the assumption that every meal must contain meat. After continual meal-time fuss, eventually less meat will be demanded and ordered per meal, and the negative environmental impacts will diminish with it.

Unfortunately, though my rationale for going vegetarian was environmental (i.e., to reduce waste associated with food), going vegetarian seemed to have unintentionally increased my personal food waste. When defining the terms of the vegetarian challenge at the start of the summer, my friend and I both agreed that ‘Trash Meat’—that is, meat that was going to be thrown away anyway—would be within the bounds of our vegetarianism. Though Trash Meat was fair game, I felt like it would be cheating to partake of it. Rummaging through the fridge for leftovers, I often came across containers full of good, edible meals that just happened to have a little bit of meat mixed in. Out of vegetarian principle, I avoided consuming those leftovers. And, as my niche at camp was to finish off all the leftovers, those containers of food continued to sit in the fridge untouched until the food inside spoiled. Whereas previously I would have eaten a meal and simultaneously reduced food waste by eating other people’s leftovers, I was instead inclined to throw the food out. I began to realize that meals are more accommodating to all when the meat is served on the side, and not mixed in with the main dish. Thus, it would be less wasteful if meat were an opt-in thing, rather than an opt-out thing.

Now that the summer has ended, my commitment to being a vegetarian has elapsed. What has happened since that time? Well, I’ve gone back to the pattern of food consumption that I previously was in, where no particular food item is off limits. I have eaten meat again—though primarily meat leftovers. I still don’t eat a lot of it, but I’m a food scavenger at heart. If I can save a food item from getting thrown in the trash, whether it has meat in it or not, isn’t that the better option anyway? I’m fine leaving the label vegetarian behind too. I never felt fully comfortable with that label anyway. But overall, I will continue my commitment to eating low on the food chain and to reducing my environmental impact in whatever form that takes, whether it be going completely vegetarian again in the future or continuing to eat trash meat out of the dumpster. Perhaps a more suitable label for me other that vegetarian would be freegan.

As a timely thought-piece during my experiment, NPR published an article about how an all-vegetarian world is not necessarily a better world—or even a practical world. In any case, mindlessly consuming any type of food without thinking broadly about its impact is the worst way to go. Perhaps all it does take to make a positive change towards a more sustainable food system is a group of people who want to challenge the status quo by saying ‘no I don’t want your industrialized meat’. Vegetarians have their place, but it is not for only vegetarians to make a difference in the food system.

A Quiet Moment at Camp

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Swim Dock sits unattended on a glassy Triangle Pond waterfront

 

Through the din and the energy and the chaos and the pure exhaustion that exemplifies summer camp, it is incredibly easy to forget about the place where you chose to live and work. The long involved days with an endless to-do list of activities keeps one distracted from the distinctiveness of your location. You grow immune to the landscape of the place you work, gradually forgetting the immense beauty of the natural surroundings that drew you to camp in the first place. With so much to do outside everyday, it is easy to take this close access to nature for granted. The subtle beauty of nature often slips the mind…

As the last summer campers file out the gates, the camp staff can pause and breathe deeply, reflecting on the summer past. Then there’s this sudden realization. It is quiet once again. But not a silent quiet—a quiet absorbed with sounds. All around are the songs of the earth. The chirping of the insects, the shrill call of the birds, the gentle breeze rustling the tree-tops. Breathe deeply and listen closer to these sounds. They have been calling forth all summer long, but not until now have they received an attentive listener. It is the contrast from the clamor of summer camp that reawakens the ears to nature’s melodies.

The quiet moment encourages you to explore deeper. No commitments now. Please linger and understand what’s here. The forest paths that you walked hurriedly past all summer are now empty. Slow your pace. Look up and gaze amidst the trees. See the dappled light filtering through their leafs perched an immense height above the ground. Then look down, closely, all the way to the ground. Amid the brush lie flowers, the embodiment of the fecundity of nature. Stoop down close and admire their elaborate forms. They sprinkle the ground in all their intricate glory, yet are often overlooked by man; their complex beauty is but for their own sake. Through the air wafts the fragrance of the bushes. Breathe deeply, and take it all in. How many times have you been here before and not noticed this?

It is moments like these when it gets quiet, when life takes a momentary pause, that I begin to reflect on what brought me to this place to begin with. This is where I live. This is where I have chosen to stay. For me, an enticing draw of the camp life is to live and work in these beautiful places, daily immersed in the wonders of the natural world. In the busyness that life often rings upon us, it becomes difficult to take the necessary moment to realize the beauty that surrounds you. It is here all along waiting for your attention. The question is: will you stop and notice it?

Breathe Deep.

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Towering pines provide refuge on the path to the low ropes challenge course

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A pair of Pink Lady Slipper Orchids rest unperturbed by a challenge course obstacle

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The nodding bell flower of the a-chlorophyllic parasitic Indian Pipe plant is delicate and lacy, but easily overlooked

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Reflecting its gaze on Triangle Pond, the Jones Homestead adds a touch of New England charm, dating to the pre-camp days when this area was farmland

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The approaching sunset on the Spectacle Pond waterfront issues forth a compliment of contrasts

Are There Any Hipster Children Out There?

Hipster Child

 

After spending a summer leading adventure camp trips for teens, I have a perplexing question: are there any hipster children out there?

Being immersed in the experience of a camp counselor for teenagers was an ethnographical experiment. What exactly, constitutes the life and thoughts of these strange creatures, the standard American teenager? My observations led me to an archetypical picture of what makes the average teenager tick; I found a thread of common interests and mannerisms highly influenced by mainstream popular culture. And then I began to think further: was I like that as a teenager? Though I’d like to look back and think that I was unique in my youth, that I was a fiercely independent thinker, I wonder if perhaps this was not the case. Does hipsterdom—that blatant and intentional disdain for all things considered mainstream—emerge later than childhood? And thus, is the dominant teenage culture not a choice of the teenager themselves, but rather a product of the consumerist culture they are bombarded with?

I’ve been pondering over the similarity of certain interests for the teen-aged demographic to which I’ve born witness. With the vast amount of driving campers around which I was required to do this summer, I acquired keen insights into their musical tastes. The music that is sure to please is easy to find; the campers all know the frequency and call letters by heart. The sure crowd-pleasers, the jams that get them all pumped up are the American Top 40 songs on the local pop station. AT40 songs are absolute earworms. Not only are those songs engineered to get stuck in your head and stay there, radio stations will play the same six songs at least once an hour, every hour to ensure that they do. Fortunately, just to keep things fresh every couple months, the old songs will be replaced by a batch of new, similar-enough sounding songs that will be all the craze for the next few months. For me to save my own sanity while driving at camp, I sometimes tried to introduce my underground indie jams from the local community radio stations. Vetoed right away—always. If music is just not similar enough to what they know already, they seem quickly repulsed by the musical difference.

And what about the shopping interests of teenagers? They are fascinated by chain stores and name brands. Driving, as we often do, down the busy suburban commercial strips, the kids will look out the windows with excitement as they shout out the chain-stores they see flying past in the Big-Box landscape. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-11, Cumberland Farms. They salivate at the chance to go to those stores and buy their products. Even though the campers haven’t been to this particular location before, they know nonetheless what every store on this commercial strip will offer. The cultural homogeneity of chain-retail stores leads to a predictability about the products each store sells. These teens know what they want—and not only are they entertained by the thought of visiting a chain-store to get it, they are in fact motivated at the chance to spend their money on it. And mostly what they buy is just junk food.

And then there’s the speculation that kids often offer about what profession they would like to do as adults. The teens I was with did have high aspirations; they talked of becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers when they grow up. But, they seldom noted that their motivation was a passion for the job duties or the desire to help others. Instead, the dominant motivation for these high-end jobs was to earn money—lots of it. They talked about how they want high-paying jobs so that they can afford to travel and to own nice things. I was disappointed by how seldom a teen would talk about desiring to enter a profession based on a sheer passion for it, no matter the pay. These teens are far from the hipster stereotype of following their dreams of doing what they love in a career path—even if the consequence for the hipsters is working for minimum wage at a coffee shop in spite of their fancy liberal arts degree.

Was I a hipster teenager? Even as a child, I was fiercely independent and more likely to do my own separate thing rather than follow the crowd. But did my tastes reflect my temperament at that age? Perhaps, but maturing is always a process of becoming. As I grew older, I began to develop some of the interests of hipsterdom: underground music, obscure foods, and a penchant to avoid commercialized mass-produced mainstream culture. Maybe I was a hipster child all along, but it only took a fair amount of time for this attribute to manifest itself in my behaviors.

To be fair to teenagers as a whole, there are a handful of teens who break the mold of the unquestioning follower of consumerist appetites and media-conceived notions of entertainment. There are those teens who loathe American Top 40, preferring instead classic rock or foreign instrumentals. There are teens who not only can pronounce the word ‘quinoa,’ but enjoy eating it as well. There were those teens who weren’t overjoyed at visiting a gas station convenience store to buy candy and soda. There was even a contingent of campers, I found, who were quite interested in learning more about my home-made sprouting jar and eating the ensuing vegetable sprouts. Actually, most of the teenagers at camp exhibited at least some form of cultural independence apart from the mainstream stereotype (albeit some more strongly than others).

But even for the masses of teens leading indistinguishable lives, there is some hope. At the very tip of Cape Cod, away from the influence of mainstream America lies a place distinct from the popular culture known as Provincetown. Though not even remotely a hipster destination, Provincetown is a place and economy that revels in its unique, off-the-cuff identity. During the summer, most trips at camp include a visit to Provincetown. Often it’s a highlight for the campers. In Provincetown, the conventional teens can revel for a spell in a town like no other they’ve been to. There are no big box chains here. Instead, the main Commercial Street becomes a narrow pedestrian mall flooded with people milling about the business district perusing the town’s counter-cultural offerings. Here you’ll find Hippie stores and stores of the Occult. Tucked around the corner is a musty used book store, a palm reader, and a costume shop. Street performers, drag queens, and artists freely roam the streets. Even though in Provincetown the kids will still go for the junk food, at least they’ll buy it from the quirky Donut Experiment or the exclusively pink cupcake store. Maybe in a place unique as Provincetown, that tiny part of us that gets excited by difference can start to peek through. Maybe, after all, there is a little hipster in all of us, even the teenagers.

Cast Away

Wilson Castaway

 

It all began with a quiet evening pontoon ride on a glassy pond.

*Crackle, Crackle*

Radio traffic breaks the silence.

This is Base Camp! Do you read? Do not return to Base Camp! I repeat, do not return!

The seven campers riding on the pontoon boat turn their heads in abrupt curiosity at the surprise emergency call.

A situation has arisen here…something has invaded camp…lurking in the woods…glowing green…

The campers become more perplexed at the emerging crisis.

I repeat, do not return to Base Camp! It is very dangerous here—ALIENS!—ahhhhhhhhhhhh!

*Crackle, Crackle*

I turn to the driver of the pontoon boat and give a knowing nod. “Since we shouldn’t return to camp, I can drop you off on the island in the pond,” he suggests. A moment later, all seven campers and their two intrepid leaders step off the beached pontoon onto the island carrying nothing with them. “I’m going to investigate this situation, and I’ll come back for you later,” says the driver as he pulls away, “I’ll be back shortly!” As the engine noise from the pontoon slowly fades away, we realize that we are now left alone on the island. Left alone to fend for ourselves and survive in isolation for the unforeseen future.

So starts the summer adventure trip known as ‘Castaways’ at YMCA Camp Burgess on Cape Cod. The campers who sign up for this trip come knowing that they would be spending time surviving on a ‘deserted’ island sandwiched between two very active summer camps. They bring their sleeping pads and their mess kits and they mentally prepare to spend a week ‘roughing it’ in the wild. But—they weren’t prepared for all the surprises and pranks that we trip leaders would pull on them.

To be fair, staging an alien invasion on camp as a premise to get the campers onto the island early is a pretty farfetched idea. But, the bigger surprise was that none of the campers knew they would be getting stranded on the island that night. Leading up to the trip, all the campers were told was that they would be spending their first night at Base Camp back at Burgess, heading to the island on their second day. Even once they arrive at Base Camp, they are shown the platform tent where they will be ‘staying’ their first night. But then the surprise occurs: we convince them to go on an evening pontoon ride as a pre-island team-building activity, and next thing they know they are dropped off on the island. The trip has begun.

“Are you serious right now?” asks a camper freshly on the island. “Where even is our stuff?”

Good question, kid. Now go search the island.

~~~

Earlier in the afternoon, before the boat ride, we trip leaders held a brief meeting with the new castaway arrivals to address an unexpected situation at camp. A problem had arisen, we told them. The fire inspector had stopped by camp this afternoon, we said. The platform tent assigned to the Castaways was deemed structurally unsafe. We’ll have to send you all to an empty cabin somewhere else on camp tonight. Better pack your bags, kids. Sorry about the tent…not!

Little did they know, but the fire inspector story was just a hoax. While the campers were out on the boat, other camp staff had secretly nabbed their packed bags and transported them undetected to the island.

~~~

Back on the island, the search for supplies takes full effect. Pinkham Island, as it is formally known, is not a large tract of land to search, though it offers many good hiding places. An ovular shape approximately 500 feet long by 200 feet wide, Pinkham Island is a sandy forested plateau rimmed entirely by a rocky beach. A few clearings exist for campsites, otherwise the island is primitive.  It is barely an island, too. Camp, back on the mainland, lies only 30 feet away, a simple wade through ankle deep water. But the campers don’t know this about Pinkham Island. And right now, they are too pre-occupied with their own survival in the waning twilight. The island is scoured, first haphazardly, then systematically. Supplies are found one by one: coolers full of food, tents hidden in the bushes, military surplus ammo cans filled with coveted essentials. The campers all eventually find that even their own bags have mysteriously appeared on the island.

By now we have spent only a few hours on the island. Our tents are set up and we have settled in to stay a spell. An abundantly prepared camper has brought a flint and steel and is busy trying to light a fire, unsuccessfully. The nine of us gather around the dull campfire circle to discuss what we know about our situation: aliens have invaded camp; the island is the only safe spot left; the U.S. government is keeping us safe and provisioned while they battle the alien menaces; we must use our own wits to stay safe and survive.

Goodnight, kids.

~~~

The shimmering morning sunlight wakes everyone up early the following morning. They don’t know it’s earlier than six am—we leaders took all of their watches before the trip. Everyone has made it through their first night. The Castaways now mill about the campsite assessing their situation. More feeble attempts at lighting a fire are made before the campers give up in frustration. I was hoping for a hot breakfast, I tell them, but unfortunately there is no fire. Sorry kids. I reach into the food cooler and pull out some hard dry bagels for breakfast. The look of disappointment is priceless.

After the first morning’s ‘disappointment breakfast’, we commence our first challenge on the island. A fire competition—Burn the Twine. The Castaways are divided into three teams. Which team can start a fire with a handful of matches and burn through their suspended twine first? The competition will reveal the victors. Though the campers know that a desirable reward is on the line, little do they know that the winners and losers also get assigned to different island chores. Losers of Burn the Twine—well, they get to carry the groover (our much maligned industrial-strength porta-potty) off the island.

After Burn the Twine, the Castaways have completed their fire challenge and have now learned about the principles of making and sustaining a fire. All the meals from now on will be hot, cooked, and delicious. More challenges await the campers in the following days: tree identification, knot tying, raft prototype building, tribal dancing, scat modeling, Leave No Trace ethics. With each challenge completed, the Castaways learn more about surviving in the backcountry with limited resources. Life on the island keeps getting more luxurious too. With each successfully completed challenge comes a new reward: playing cards, Frisbees, ice cubes, lemonade mix, a hammock, a radio. Life is getting pretty good. We could stay out here for a while…

All the while off the island, the war between the alien invaders and the U.S. Government has been raging on. The battles become especially more pronounced at night, with colorful armaments exploding over the horizon. The climax came on our third night on the island, the night of July 4, when the bombing campaign reached its zenith. Military planes flying low overhead to nearby Otis Air Force Base added to the plausibility for the extraterrestrial scenario. And even though hundreds of people can be seen from the island, it is not safe to approach the others. Their minds have been taken over by the alien invaders, brainwashed into being slaves to their conquerors.

The morning after the epic battle of July 4, we receive no new supply drops from the government. Things seem quiet around camp—too quiet. A spattering of extraterrestrial goo is found around camp. Wait! Does the goo form a trail? Follow it, kids. Where does it lead? At the end of the goo trail is a clutch of glowing green alien eggs. Looks like the invaders are closing in on our whereabouts. Better eat those eggs for breakfast before they hatch…

With our faith in the success of the U.S. Government waning, we decide to take matters into our own hands. Clearly, judging from the eggs, the aliens know where we are. We can’t expect the island to be a sanctuary any longer. We make a plan to build a raft to escape the island. In a feat of unity, the seven stranded Castaways put aside their competitive differences in constructing a raft to hold them all on their escape from the island (in a foreboding omen, however, the raft is held together with nothing but nooses—also lesson for me, if you show a group of young teenage boys a dozen useful knots, the only one they will remember how to tie is the noose). Raft complete! Ready for imminent departure!

Awaiting any further communication from the U.S. Government, we retreat back to our central campfire to enjoy a hearty meal and some group bonding time around the fire. When the daylight fades, I introduce one of my favorite nighttime camp games to the group—Body Body. The premise of the game is that there is a group of townspeople and a few clandestine mafia whose goal is to secretly ‘kill’ the townspeople off without getting caught. The game involves trodding the now-familiar paths on the island in the dark, trying to detect which players are the mafia without getting killed yourself. Round after round of Body Body is played, and the campers get absolutely into it. They feel confident trouncing around the darkened paths and hiding in the bushes in ambush. Nothing scary is going to get them on the island, right?

It’s already late at night, but we gather around the radiant embers of the dying campfire to start yet another round of Body Body. But then, an unexpected rustle in the bushes. Calm down kids, we leaders reassure them, it’s probably just a raccoon in the brush. Let’s keep playing our game. But—more rustles follow. Could the aliens be lurking in the shadows for us, the campers begin to wonder silently. I approach the suspect bushes and shine my flashlight. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. You kids, your imaginations are running wild. But then, spooky music arises from the bushes. And unexpectedly, more quick rustling behind them. The seven boys huddle in a tight circle, sticking close to the fire and to each other. Even the bravest in the group is biting his lower lip in a nervous fashion. More rustling and running figures emanate forth from the bushes. The alien invaders are here! A foreign voice cries out from the shrubbery “You have twelve hours to leave the island or you’ll meet your demise!”

The rustling disappears and the eerie music fades. The once joyful campers are left in mortal fear of their impending doom. In the aftermath of the alien scare, the campers try to decide what to do next. One camper mistakenly heard the dark figure say that they have two, not twelve, hours to leave the island. All seven Castaways then eventually agree that this was the warning that was given. No time to waste now…in the dark several campers start packing up their belongings. They are ready for an immediate departure. For as much joking around that they had earlier about aliens, suddenly this is no laughing matter! Eventually the frenzy that arose during our arranged ‘alien scare’ settles down. The Castaways make a plan to deal with the invaders. They will take shifts to watch for when the aliens come back for us. Some will sleep, while the others will stand guard. Around 12:30 am the call comes to switch shifts. A tired sleep begins to fall upon all the campers. Eventually they all fall into a restful slumber, unconcerned about any alien invaders.

The morning after the alien scare, our fifth day on the island, we conclude that we have lost all hopes for our salvation. The government has been defeated, and we are on our own for our survival. In the clarity of the morning sunlight, we pack up our camp and cook our final breakfast together—fittingly, alien-green pancakes—over the campfire. We then bring our most valuable supplies to our makeshift raft which we will use to escape. Will the raft float? Will we make it across? The mainland lies two-hundred feet away through deep water from this end of the island—but here is our only shot at survival. While we make our final preparations for leaving our island home, a visitor has slowly been creeping up in the bushes behind us. Dressed in all green, our alien visitor from last night has returned! He pops out of the bushes to jump-scare the campers. In the daylight, the Castaways can tell it’s just another camp counselor dressed up, but they happily play along with the fright. They run laughing and screaming back to the raft and clamber on. The raft sinks and falls apart under their weight, but they keep swimming to reach the mainland. They have made it off the island at last, learning and having fun along the way. Another Castaways trip in the books.

Good job, kids.

Friends of Circumstance, Friends of Intention

Social Networks

 

In an era of social networks, the word ‘friend’ is used pretty casually to describe the mere association of different people in the same social circles. Think, for example, about how many ‘friends’ you have on social media. But even before the advent of Facebook, the word friend was used loosely in everyday conversation. “Hello, friend,” is used as a welcoming but generic greeting. Losing an acquaintance in a public place, you would describe them to others as your ‘friend’ rather than your ‘stranger.’ Even in a group of people you don’t really know, outsiders would refer to you collectively as a group of ‘friends.’ Regardless of how close people are to each other emotionally, it is still the more polite thing to refer to each other as a friend rather than a more categorically appropriate word: acquaintance, colleague, co-worker, housemate, to name a few. Since the level of your friendship with those in your social network varies according to the situation, doesn’t it also make sense to describe those particular friendships with more diverse terminology?

According to one theory I’ve been told about, people only have enough emotional capacity to be close to 8 different people at any given time. This group of eight would then comprise your close friend circle. Would that mean everyone else is a non-friend? An acquaintance? A near friend? If it is true that only a limited number of people can ever be among your close friends, then how many of these people are in that circle based on the unanticipated circumstances of your life, and how many are from your own intentional keeping of them as a friend?

As an introverted person, I tend to prefer a smaller friend circle anyway, with those few being the ones that I know most intimately. I just don’t go out and seek to be in the company of strangers very often— it’s out of my comfort zone to do that. I find it incredibly difficult to go anywhere on my own time, hang out with unfamiliar people, and come back with some new friends. In order for me to really interact with strangers, I need some sort of external driver to be the reason behind our initial interactions. Essentially, I need to be forced into socialization. I find it nearly inconceivable for me to go up to someone unsolicited and tell them I’m interested in getting to know them (not unlike all those stories of walking up to a stranger at the bar). Instead, most people in my extended social circle come from external situations where it was first necessary to spend time with them in the first place. In college, those circumstances included being in the same dorm, classes, or clubs. In post-graduate life, those situations come from work, rental arrangements, or the combination of the two (especially since I often live at work). These situations and activities often provide the impetus for the initial social interaction with the people I have in turn gotten to know.

With all of these external situations, you don’t really get much choice with who you end up with. For school assignments or dorm placements, the choice is made by the professor or college administration. For employment, it is your supervisor, not you, who chooses your co-workers. Fortunately for me, I find I can work fairly well with just about anyone, whether it be performing job duties or sharing communal living arrangements. As colleagues, we might even do some stuff that is beyond just work or business. Together, for instance, we might hang out, travel some places, or do some fun activities on our time off. But our primary interactions will still come from our assigned duties or daily chores, and most of my conversation in this arena will revolve around practical logistics rather than casual chit-chat. In any case, when performing these required duties we do get to know each other a little bit better each time we interact, and gradually the relational bond between us is strengthened. We become closer from the sake of familiarity and congeniality in our shared circumstances. We might, and probably will, even refer to each other as ‘friends’.

But are all these friendships purely circumstantial, or is there more substance of intention behind them? While personally I can find it easy to be close to people in the moment, I wonder how much of our closeness is due to our circumstances of required proximity and how much is due to our mutual desire to be with each other?

Hence my classification of friends into friendships of circumstance versus friendships of intention. To test this classification and find out if a particular friendship is intentional or not, the experiment is to see what happens to the relationship once the mechanism that initially brought you together passes. It might be that the semester ends, you move housing, or you switch to a new job. Do the people you grew close to in your old situations still remain close? Or, since there is nothing external to force you to interact together anymore, do you slowly drift apart?

Even if a friendship was determined to be more circumstantial in nature, it is far from a negative thing. I have many friends of circumstance everywhere I go. These people are extremely important—invaluable, in fact, to daily life. These friends of circumstances are the folks in your social circle whom you interact with on a day to day basis. Just because these friendships may have developed through required interactions doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful or authentic. These friends of circumstance are the ones who are there for you throughout the average day, providing many critical roles. They are there to shoot the breeze and provide banter. They are also sometimes there to vent to and debrief with, to console you or to give a hug. But the distinctive thing about the friend of circumstance is that they change quite readily. Whenever people come or go, there are always new faces to fill the important role of this type of friend. The rapidity that people come in and out of your life, especially in transient circles, does not negate the impact that these friends may have on you. A short time together can mean a lot. The circumstantial beginnings of these friendships do not reduce the pain and difficulty in saying goodbye either. Though former friends of circumstance may linger in active memory for a while after parting ways, all too quickly they are relegated to an inactive part of your distant memory.

The friend of intention is different though. Friendships of intention are based upon the two parties involved mutually agreeing to keep each other’s company after the circumstance that initially brought them together ends. It is the other person themselves that becomes the attraction for the friendship to continue. These friendships go deeper than just a superficial working relationship needed to get through the day. These relationships shift to getting to know the other person themselves, instead of just figuring out how to accomplish tasks together. Interactions with the friend of intention are imbued with meaning, rather than just a focus on output.

The friend of intention might stay a friend almost indefinitely, even after geographically parting ways. Maintaining the relationship looks a little bit different after you’re no longer in the situation that kept you externally connected. To some friends of intention, I write and receive letters. Other friends I make sure to visit when I’m in town. Still, I have some friends of intention who I don’t even interact with that often; yet, I know they are always there if I need them, no matter how long we go between interactions. These friendships of intention exist on a different level, and I have confidence in their security. Though much time may lapse between personal visits with these friends, spending time together feels like we’ve never really had much time apart.

Though I have had many friendships of circumstance, I never know when one might become something more. I, personally, have few friends of intention. And most, if not all, of these friends of intention started off as friends of circumstance. But somewhere along in the circumstance phase, we were able to go deeper and transcend that superficial relation. We began to see more in each other that compelled us to keep in touch. This deepening process takes time, though—a long time for me. It takes a while for me to warm up to other people, to accidentally discover interests we have in common and to form the small memories that we’ll share together in the future. Even then, it is difficult to tell if a friendship of intention is taking root. Will I come visit you in the distant future? Will I send you a piece of mail? Will I think of you in my head when we’re apart, wondering what it would be like if you were here as well?

Ever since college, I have made few new friends of intention. In those years, it’s been a transient lifestyle for me. The roots of an intentional friendship may begin to take hold, but all too early the roots are viciously cropped by the compulsion to move. How many of my former friends of circumstance could have become friends of intention if only the relationship was allowed to grow?

Whether by intention or just circumstance alone, individuals in either category are considered friends nonetheless. Though the depth and length of the particular friendship may vary, both my friends of circumstance and my friends of intention play an invaluable, though distinct, role in my life.

Nantucket, the Faraway Land

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Rounding Brant Point at the shallow entrance to Nantucket Harbor

 

Thirty miles off the Northeastern seaboard of America lies a distant land, one that is removed to both time and mainstream American culture. On a clear day you can squint your eyes and barely make out the remote island over the horizon. The Wampanoag people, the ones who first inhabited these lands, named it ‘natockete’—the Faraway Land. Today, the island of Nantucket is easily accessible yet remains isolated by distance and culture; it remains the proverbial faraway land.

To get to Nantucket requires intention; no one ends up there on accident. The ferry ride from the mainland itself promotes the isolation, requiring over two hours to traverse the expansive Nantucket Sound. This distance and isolation has produced the distinct identity of the Nantucketer; native Nantucketers, when they seldom do go to the mainland, feel so removed from it that they refer to it as ‘going to America’. The island’s 48 square miles makes it insignificant in area, but the island makes up for its lack of size with its depth of character. Charming and quaint with its cobblestoned streets and rows of simple clapboard shanties, the Nantucket of today appears as an island forgotten in time. Yet, underneath this unassuming appearance lies a cosmopolitan society fueled by a multi-billion dollar tourism and real estate industry. Retreatants from all across the globe call this island a home, either permanently or seasonally. Yet, the island has resisted the global corporate commercialization seen on the mainland. There are no fast food restaurants here, and no superstores. The businesses and development on the island are unique and independent as the island and her inhabitants themselves.

 

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Nantucket town, with it’s modest buildings sheltered by street trees. The most dominant feature of the skyline is the Quaker Meetinghouse. Nantucket’s many wharves stretch into the harbor.

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Main Street Nantucket: rustic and cobblestoned, yet modern and full of traffic.

 

In terms of natural resources, Nantucket itself has little to offer. The island is a relic of the last ice age, merely a pile of sand in the ocean dumped by a glacier some 20,000 years ago and continually sculpted away by the sea. Incessantly battered by the ocean, the natural environment of the island remains fragile and the blanket of ocean fog that often shrouds Nantucket has earned her the nickname ‘Grey Lady of the Sea’. Nevertheless, the cryptic island still supported much life, including a complex human culture. For thousands of years, the Wampanoag people lived sustainably on the island in small groups called sachems. Five to six thousand years ago, rising tides from glacial meltwater cut off Nantucket from Cape Cod for good, creating the isolation needed for the distinct cultural identity of the original Nantucketers to develop.

European settlers to the Massachusetts Colony, off-put by the island’s isolation and lack of resources, initially passed over the Grey Lady. Eventually, however, the island’s isolation proved an allure as well, and the earliest English settlers came in 1641 to seek a reprieve from economic and social oppression on the mainland. Those early settlers tried subsistence farming and grazing like they had known in their home country, but agriculture and livestock grazing proved unsustainable and dramatically changed Nantucket forever. The native vegetation was stripped from the landscape, and the already poor soil was lost. Looking to maintain their fragile existence, these early Nantucketers turned to the sea for their salvation.

 

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A rooftop view of Nantucket town’s skyline

 

And the sea, though violent as it may be to the island itself, provided generously for the settlers of Nantucket. The coastal waters of the Atlantic were rich in fish resources, in turn supporting an abundance of whales. The ongoing industrial revolution created an insatiable demand for whale oil products, and Nantucket capitalized on its nautical location. Nantucket’s proximity to the sea, instead of the isolation due to it, provided an advantage as Nantucket reinvented itself as a whaling port. With the seas as the roads and the primary mode of transportation being sailing vessel in those days, even isolated settlements on the mainland were effectively islands at that time; being a physical island was not much more of a barrier. Though poor in natural resources, Nantucket could easily ship in whatever supplies they needed from the mainland—lumber, food, labor—all financed by the profits of the whale industry. By the mid-1700’s, Nantucket was a booming city with a population surpassing 8,000, as well as being the nationwide leader in whaling. Though awash in wealth from the whaling industry, the Quaker values of the Nantucket settlers shunned displays of opulence and prosperity. Instead, Nantucketers lived simply and constructed economical dwellings for themselves in a society subservient to both God and the whales. Astute businessmen, earnings from whaling were re-invested directly into the industry.

 

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Waterfront Property: modest houses built upon Old North Wharf in Nantucket Harbor

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The Old Mill: built in 1746 as a way to grind corn meal for provisioning ships

 

Eventually, Nantucket’s isolation began to lead to the demise of the island community. The success and monopoly of whaling for Nantucketers meant that whaling was the only industry in town. Serving as a whaler was a rite of passage for the islanders, and an insular culture around whaling practices developed. Nantucket whalers were distrustful of technological advances and nautical knowledge from others off the island, even as the traditional whaling industry as they knew began to decline. The overhunting of whales in Nantucket’s backyard, the Atlantic, led to the development of the Pacific whale fishery. To accommodate for longer voyages, the whaleships grew larger and more technologically advanced, and the shallow sandbar at the entrance of Nantucket Harbor eventually prevented these larger boats from docking in the Harbor. As a symbolic tragedy of the demise of Nantucket whaling, in 1820 the Nantucket whaleship Essex was sunk in the Pacific by a sperm whale—the gruesome tragedy that would inspire the novel Moby Dick. By the mid-1800’s, the whaling industry in Nantucket was in its death throes. Nantucketers stubbornly continued whaling with diminishing returns while the deeper mainland harbor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, with access to rail transportation became deeply profitable. Nantucket’s status as an island had once again become a liability. The last whaleship sailed out of Nantucket in 1845. Then, in 1846, a fire on Nantucket destroyed 40 acres of the town. A great depression fell over the island.  With little economic opportunity left, the people of Nantucket began a mass exodus. The island’s population plummeted to under a third of its whaling peak.

 

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The red house was owned by whaling captain George Pollard, the captain of the ill-fated Essex voyage. Though they occupied the highest rank on the island, captains nevertheless built simple dwellings for themselves.

 

Nantucket Island would spend the next many decades unadorned and steeping in its isolation. Not until the turn of the 20th century did it see signs of revival as an island. In the roaring decades of the early 1900’s, artists and actors from the mainland began to turn to Nantucket for summer retreats. Lured by its quaint charm and rustic beauty, celebrities and wealthy businessmen alike sought refuge on the island. By the 1950’s Nantucket had become a popular enough retreat that developers saw the economic potential of a resort community. However, fearing the loss of the town’s character, great efforts were made to preserve the historic architecture and rustic charm of the island that had attracted vacationers there in the first place. Nantucketers, ever resistant of trends on the mainland, fought for the preservation of their island’s history and culture, resisting the post-WWII re-development and commercialization that was ongoing on the mainland and neighboring rival Martha’s Vineyard as well. Their efforts preserved the downtown core of Nantucket town and its outskirts, making it today the best-preserved pre-civil war era town in America.

Nantucket town today remains a maze of narrow streets densely populated with simple clapboard houses and sheltered by street trees. Main Street—the main commercial drag—is wide and cobblestoned, lined by old brick buildings, and leads straight down to Straight Wharf—one of the town’s many links to the sea. The sea is still the lifeblood of this island community, only today the harbor is frequented more by pleasure craft than by whaleboats. Outside of Nantucket town, the island is rural and rustic. Scraggly forests, instead of cookie-cutter suburbs, fill the isolated interior. On the fringes of the island, quaint shanty villages like ‘Sconset give off the forgotten seaside town aura. Today, more than 10,000 people call Nantucket home year-round, a number surpassing even the zenith of the whaling-era population. Though the island’s residents swell to over 50,000 in the brief summer months, the pace of life feels relaxed nonetheless.

 

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On the easternmost edge of Nantucket Island is the Sankaty Head Lighthouse. The waves continually erode away the island, forcing the relocation of the lighthouse in 1997.

 

I recently spent four days on Nantucket Island, exploring the island’s corners by bike. On a small island, there is nothing quite like exploration by bicycle, taking the slow route to the island’s fringes. Being on Nantucket, something inexpressible grips you. It’s a place you’ve been that’s like no other. Something on the island beckons you, drawing you in. Is it the salty air, the foggy mornings? Is it the predominance of the ocean, with the waves and the surf? Is it that the pace of life seems slower here? Unlike its rival island Martha’s Vineyard, there is not much human entertainment found on the island. Yet, in my time ashore, I found the days to be packed full of sights and sounds. The ocean beaches, the stars at night, they are the things that filled the time in all their gloriousness. Those four days seemed to stretch into an eternity yet flew by all too quickly.

Many people visit Nantucket each year, from all corners of the globe. The island—its mystique and aura—seems to leave an irreversible impression. Something about time spent on the island seems of a different caliber. For some, decades may pass between visits, yet Nantucket remains as a place near the surface of memory. The island always beckons you back. When you return, the enchantment of the island overpowers you once again. Nantucket whispers “forget about the mainland. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Linger for a spell, if only for this short while.”

 

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The former Surf Lifesaving Station in Surfside. No longer used for saving lives, the station has been converted into a youth hostel.

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The southernmost settlement on Nantucket, the small burg of Surfside, often covered in the misty morning ocean fog that shrouds the Grey Lady

Night Lights

A photograph is a modicum of truth as it captures an instant in time, a scene reflective of precisely how everything appeared the moment the shutter was released. True? Not exactly. The realm of photography is filled with all sorts of trickery and inexactness. In fact, as early as there has been photography, there have been those using the medium to alter the way reality is captured and presented. Images on film do not appear precisely how even our own eyes view them. This is because of the effect of optics—cameras, as well as our own eyes, are merely just optical sensors. Both take in light photons and use them to gather information about the world. For our eyes, photons fall upon our retinas and are manifested by our brains into our vision. For a camera, the photons fall upon the film (or in digital photography are recorded on a computer) and render what we call a photograph. Under most circumstances, the images generated by a camera are similar to what we’d view in real life. But when the level of light gets low, a whole new world of photography opens up, one where the varying levels of light can create interesting scenes through different levels of exposure.

The following photographs I took at night as a few experiments in capturing the scenes of light and darkness around Camp Burgess.

 

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The night sky is full of the light of stars. It’s beauty causes us to gaze heavenwards with wonder. Though our brain can process the combination of light and darkness just fine to render a starry image, a camera cannot simply point and shoot a scene from the night sky. The level of light is just too low to record anything but blackness. In order to photograph the night sky, the shutter of the camera must remain open longer than an instant. For as long as the camera’s shutter remains open, light falls on the sensors and the image being rendered is evolving. For this photo of the Big Dipper through the trees, I left my camera’s shutter open for 30 seconds. In the dimness of night, leaving the shutter open for that long enabled the stars, as well as the trees in the foreground, to appear in the scene. (If you’re having trouble seeing the images, then turn up your computer’s brightness)

The following four photographs all were shot from the same location.

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Here is the night sky again, with the forest in the foreground. The exposure time was set for 30 seconds, which allowed the stars time to emit enough light to be captured in the image. The outline of the Milky Way can be scene across the sky. This is pretty standard night sky photography.

 

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But I decided to use the optical sensing of the camera to my advantage to create some digital trickery. The night sky is great, but I wanted to see how some artificial light would look in the exposure. This is the same image as before, except that I shone my green star laser in front of the camera while it was recording the image. The streaks of green that were only temporary flashes in the sky look as if they were shining beacons from within the cosmos.

 

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Instead of adding artificial light to the sky, for this image, I added extra light to the trees in the foreground. This is a photographic technique known as light painting. The additional light shone on a nearby object is captured during the long camera exposure, causing a highlighting effect on that object. With this, the details of the trees in the foreground can pop out.

 

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For my final photograph of the series, I increased the exposure time from 30 seconds to a few minutes. The increased length that the shutter is open permits an accumulation of light to enter the camera sensor and be recorded in the image. The wonderful thing about exposures at night longer than a few minutes is the ability to capture star trails. Since the Earth is continually rotating, the placement of the stars changes in the course of the night. This change is below our threshold of perception, but not the camera’s. In a star trail photograph, the stars themselves appear to move across the sky, leaving a curved bright streak showcasing where they have been. I absolutely love star trails. Unfortunately, from my location in Sandwich, Massachusetts, the light pollution was too much to capture star trails. After just a few minutes, the light from the nearby city dominated the image. The resulting photograph looks like a foggy forest captured during daytime. But remember—this photograph was taken in the dark!

 

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Some more fun with artificial lights here, and some more light painting. Here, I used my high-powered green star laser to write some words on the trees in the foreground. The light emitted from the laser is strong and concentrated enough to appear like a neon tube-light in the trees. “Base Glamp” is the nickname of where I’m working this summer.

 

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More fun with lights in the dark. Similar to star trails, any moving artificial light that falls upon the camera’s sensor gets recorded as a streak in the image. Here I had a few friends walk through a field in the darkness as they shined a few flashlights and headlamps around while the exposure time was set for 30 seconds. The resulting light streaks and spotlighting effects always cause an unexpected result. Though the scene itself is nothing much, the very process of recording the image provides a good artistic flair.

 

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Low levels of ambient lighting at night provides an opportunity to capture scenes highlighted by a single light source. Here, the scene in the composition is dim and the only light source is from a single headlamp. Hence, the hands are illuminated while everything surrounding them fade into darkness of the nighttime.

 

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Fire can also provide a source of light at night. The beauty of flames and glowing embers is pleasing to look at as well as to photograph. Compared to the stars, the light emitted by a fire is bright. It takes an exposure of only a few seconds to capture an image like this.

 

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Finally, using my zoom lens, I can safely get close to the fire to photograph a macro of the glowing coals. Just a few seconds exposure captures the soft, glowing light of the embers but blurs the flames crawling from under the log on in the middle.

Privacy

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Base Camp: My place of work and my home

 

It should come as no big surprise to say that I am an introvert; by nature, I tend to keep to myself and be a generally private person. But my reservedness and hesitancy to join in on social situations does not equate to a dislike of spending time or sharing my life with others. Quite the opposite I’d say. Since socialization does not come easily to me, I tend to value the connections I’m able to forge all the much more. But as a rather shy and introverted person, forming those connections is often a monumental task. Though privacy is in my nature, it is a very obstinate part of me that is a challenge to overcome in order to know and being known by others.

But in regards to privacy, I’m not so much describing it as a physical need. I can easily do without a high level of physical privacy; I’ve lived with people in very close quarters in the past, and continue to do so unhesitatingly. Sharing bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens (and maybe even a ship’s hold) is no big deal to me. In fact, I currently live with three others in a giant platform tent. As one could imagine, a tent does not provide much personal privacy from those you share it with; all my personal effects and all my daily actions are on display for my tent-mates to bear witness. Nor is the tent even sealed off from the outside world, as the sheer necessity of ventilation keeps the flaps of the tent open for any gazing eyes. And, since the tent is my living quarters at the place where I work (a camp for children going on summer adventure trips), my daily life is exposed by close contact with many pairs of inquisitive eyes who I must interact with on both a personal and professional level. For all the lack of physical privacy, I’m very comfortable with the lifestyle. Limited privacy is just the unavoidable reality of living in tight quarters.

 

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Inside my simple living quarters

 

So when I consider myself a private person, it’s not because I seek out physical privacy to a higher degree than others; more accurately, it’s that I tend to be an emotionally private person. It is difficult to get to know me, and to those I’ve just met I may come off as cold, aloof, or disinterested. Maybe my reserve is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting myself from the perceived judgement of unfamiliar others. In any new social situation, I’m continually testing the waters to see if the temperature is right to expose just a little bit more of my inner self. Even the act of declaring an interest in something is risky for me. Always looking for social approval (and unfortunately, burdened too much by the need for it), I take relations with other people slowly and gradually, building off of the trust garnered from their acceptance. If I don’t perceive a sense of solidarity or acceptance from a group of people when I expose my inner workings, then it’s a hasty retreat back to my own private world. I don’t feel like people need to like the same things as I do; they just need to not make me feel less of a person for it.

As part of my private nature, I don’t put all of myself out on the table all at once. For me, the best is always yet to come, being saved away for when the moment is right. I am always holding something back, always keeping some part of my inner personality hidden and safe. These inner workings may be shared with others when the personal relationship has matured to an appropriate level. But that doesn’t occur until after so much of the hard groundwork of forming a friendship has taken place. I hate the phrase ‘instant friends’. I’ve never become instant friends with anyone. Instead, individuals who talk too much and share too much of themselves immediately are off-putting to me. Few things cause me to retreat into myself quicker than being in situations with many loud outgoing people. In a very social culture such as ours, I’ve found ways to manage my personal reactions in order to join in. In crowded places, I’ll seek out the quiet corners on the periphery. When not feeling a connection with the culture of a group, I’ve mastered the art of the slipping away unnoticed. Even living in close quarters with others, I have a knack for finding out-of-the-way places that are just out of sight. With all these situations, I’m usually lingering around with the hopes of forming connections with people, but am only just waiting for the right conditions to arrive in order to act.

Although it is hard to get to know me, I understand the extreme value of knowing and being known by others. I crave that longing deep desire for meaningful relationships in life, of having a circle around you of those who you can trust. This is as essential to me as food and water—a requirement for my psychological well-being. Though I do not make close friends with many people, the friendships I do forge are unshakeable. Forming new friendships and deepening old ones is essential. But given my shyness, it is also an extremely difficult endeavor.

I’ve found a way to combat my own shyness and reserve, though. Since I am a private person, the basis of my strategy is to structure my life so as to naturally reduce the level of personal privacy in my daily happenings. What I’ve found that breaks down the social barriers is living closely with other people, forgoing traditional ideas of privacy in order to form a communal life. It takes a long time for me to develop comfort around new people, and even so much longer for friendships to form to the level of depth that I desire. The formation of friendships is not by chance and not by chemistry alone, but rather as the result of the long-term accumulation of all the small, insignificant interactions shared between two people. Daily life may not in and of itself provoke the most meaningful interactions, but it does provide the framework for it to take place. I’m bad at small talk, but I’m great at sharing space. Doing so helps break down the barriers I have with getting to be known by others. Every time I interact with someone in a positive way, no matter how small, I begin to develop a deeper sense of trust with that person. The interaction can be as trivial as making breakfast at the same time in the kitchen—it doesn’t even really matter if we are making our own separate meals either—the important part is that I know you’re there with me and accepting of my presence just by being in the room. Seeing others act out their quotidian lives—making food in the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book—helps me feel more trustful of them. Those daily interactions, fostered by the lack of personal privacy, form the basis of what is needed for me to open up to others.

It’s not that I don’t trust strangers—it’s just more natural to place confidence in the people I know well instead. Once that level of trust begins being reached in any relationship, then I’ll feel more comfortable offering up more of myself to them. My layers will be peeled back and I’ll begin to share more of my inner thoughts and past experiences, my embarrassments and insecurities as well. For me, my sharings are offered up as a valuable gift. If I don’t feel like these gifts of myself are well-received, then I will become more reserved and less likely to share again in the future. I do not like to talk about myself freely; it is only to those who have shown enough acceptance and fraternity who I feel comfortable enough around. There are only a few people in my life with who I feel I have reached that deep level of personal honesty. To me, being known in that manner is an incredible form of intimacy.

And it’s all so hard to achieve that level of intimacy in private. For me to reach that level, a lack of privacy is often needed. Hence, I enjoy (and probably require) living with people so closely, and it’s why I find it so beneficial to put myself in situations where there is a lack of physical privacy. With less physical privacy, the inner-lives of those around you (and yours as well) cannot be so well hidden. Those who I know best are the ones whom I’ve shared situations where personal privacy was lacking—roommates, housemates, camping buddies. I’ve also found that being in compromising situations—in the right circumstances—also helps friendships to grow rather quickly. Since I desire and yearn for being known both emotionally and intellectually, yet I am so shy and reserved, I have found that I require this lack of physical privacy to boost me along in my relationships. Otherwise, I’ve found, it takes years for such a deep level of friendship to develop—if it ever develops at all. So, I’ll gladly take the trade-off of having limited physical privacy. I don’t need that much of it anyway—especially when what is gained in return is being known at a deeper interpersonal level.