Category Archives: Place

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

Permanent

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Like the shifting sand dunes, the seasonal worker rarely stays put for long. (Province Lands Dunes, MA)

If a college education and an advanced degree are supposed to lead to permanent full-time employment, then I seem to have missed the message. It’s been two years since finishing grad school, and I’ve yet to land a permanent job. Instead, my employment history over these past few years has seen me work formally in five different states and informally in one other country. Even the current job I hold, one that is projected to last eight months, will be the longest tenure I’ll have spent at one place since graduating (and that tenure will span three distinct hiring seasons too). While it is a nice change of pace to hold a job and not be actively searching for the next gig down the road, I know that nothing about my current situation will ultimately be permanent. Come October, my seasonal contract will be finished and I’ll be moving on to something as of yet unknown. Nothing about this arrangement is permanent; everything remains in flux.

As the near-future begins to become less cloudy in the magic gazing ball, it appears as though I’m headed to be a career seasonal—at least early on in my career. It’s not at all like fate has been keeping me as a seasonal transient. Whether it’s been highly intentional or not, I’ve ultimately chosen this lifestyle for myself. For me right now, considering a job with a year-round permanent status is a liability and not a benefit. Last winter while searching for future work, I began to flirt with permanent positions. I applied to a few and was eventually offered a year-round permanent position from a wilderness therapy outfit in Vermont. The job sounded great; I’d love to work in wilderness therapy, especially someplace as spectacular as Vermont. But I couldn’t shake that nagging specter of permanency that would have come with the job. Was I ready to commit my life to an unknown indefinite future that I wasn’t remotely close to 100% sure I’d absolutely enjoy? Of course not—at least, not then. So instead I opted for yet another period of seasonal work. It was just less risky to take an 8-month gamble on a job rather than one that could potentially last forever.

Part of my intentions behind choosing seasonal labor is a way to help me fall into a career path, especially early on in my career. I am quite choosy (and a perfectionist to boot), and trying out different jobs to see what I like and don’t like has gotten me much better at discernment for the perfect fit. Navigating the job market has become much easier with practice, and by now I feel quite adept at always being on the lookout for the next greatest gig. Perfectionism aside, I do realize that no job is ever flawless and that there can always be circumstances that could be improved about any given job. But then—at some point, I realize, there will be diminishing returns for trying out new and different jobs. As I’ve continually refined exactly where I find the most joy in my vocation, the list of potential jobs narrows. Could it be then that I would finally be satisfied with a permanent job?

Another draw to seasonal work is that I can try out living in many different places. I did major in geography in grad school after all, and place as a concept is critically important to me. I enjoy traveling, especially to the point of becoming acquainted quite well with different geographies. Though many landscapes hold an allure over me due to their uniqueness, to think about where I’d live permanently is a very serious matter indeed. Rotating through different seasonal jobs is like speed-dating with geography. I can have fling after fling with a variety of places and leave it at that. No strings attached, after all. But emotionally, I still consider myself a true Michigander at heart (even though I’ve scant been in the state in the past four years). I can’t as yet see myself claiming allegiance to any other state. And though I currently live on Cape Cod, I am only an outsider here. Perhaps instead I can consider myself an honorary Cape Codder for the time being. Doing so provides a relationship with much of the benefits but without all the commitment required to declare residency. I had similar sentiments about place when considering the wilderness therapy job in Vermont. Though I’ve been to Vermont and looked fondly upon what I saw there, I just couldn’t begin to even envision transplanting myself entirely to become a Vermonter. With a series of seasonal gigs, though, I know I can always return to my hometown between jobs. I can openly cheat on my beloved Michigan with as many places as I want to, but it is forming a permanent relationship with just one place that feels like a real transgression.

Being non-committal has definitely been a factor in my history of seasonal work. But I think a larger influence may be that I am just too committal—and sometimes too committed for my own good. I have a tremendous capacity for grit and determination, especially seeing things through to the bitter end. Personally, I feel great satisfaction in bringing things to completion and feel it a shame to give up before the natural termination. For better or for worse, I’ve learned to stick it out. The downside to my tenacity is that I can very easily end up sticking it out in a situation where it is better to just cut my losses and leave instead. Pursuing only seasonal work puts a natural limit on this tendency of mine. If I end up in a short-term job that I don’t particularly appreciate, I can stick it out and then take a stab at something else later. If I were to have a permanent position, I would likely keep at it for way longer than would be beneficial to me personally; there just wouldn’t be an intuitive end or an easy out to the position. Instead, I would be faced with the daily gut-wrenching feeling that I’m not in a position that I want—daily wrestling whether or not to continue to stick it out or to make a change, until many months pass by unnoticed while I was wondering the whole while.

Seasonal labor also puts a natural restriction on my all-consuming exuberance and dedication to my work. I’m a perfectionist to the core, one who takes great pride in work accomplished. My identity is in large part based around the job that I do, and thus whatever jobs I end up taking I take very seriously. This seriousness can easily allow me to become consumed by my work. Even when crafting my master’s thesis in grad school (a monumental task which I didn’t particularly enjoy), I became so engrossed in the task that I lost focus on the other pleasures of life. Though I take pride in my work and the ownership which I have in it, too much ownership can cause tunnel vision and blur my focus on what other things matter to me (and also make me lose track of taking care of myself too). To resolve this tendency, I’ve been taking only seasonal jobs, ones where my job responsibilities are of a smaller, daily variety. Any given day on the job could be good, or it could be bad. I can enjoy the good days and brush off the bad days, in either case going home at night to relax free from any further mental obligations of job duties. Since I’m not in a position for the long-term, I don’t have those additional lingering responsibilities of a higher-level job—that glowering cloud of complicated logistics and organizational politics. I don’t feel burdened by the specters of the long-term sustainability of an organization’s programs or other tricky institutional questions. Given my personality, I find enough even in a low-level job to invest in and worry about. I don’t need the extra responsibility laden down on me by a job description; I just go out and add more responsibilities myself.

Even though I’ve felt very satisfied holding only the status of a seasonal worker, I am not immune from the pressures of career advancement—of holding a job at one organization and rising through the ranks. I can sense the pressure to do so; whether such pressure comes internally or externally to me is still a mystery. Given my upper-middle-class upbringing and my level of education, somewhere inside of me I must be convincing myself that I’m letting myself and others down by not climbing the career ladder—that I should be aspiring for something greater in terms of status. Haven’t I, after all, earned a master’s degree to boost me up the employment scale? But two years after earning that degree, I have yet to use it formally. I have instead chosen to dabble in the realm of entry-level work. What was supposed to be a distinguishing mark now serves more of a trivial fact at best (how many people can say they’ve studied wildfire ecology for two years?) or an embarrassment at worst (Master of Science and still earning minimum wage). Shouldn’t I aspire for advancement? I’m at the point where my immediate supervisors are within a few years of my age—or even younger in a few recent instances. Since I’m a high-achieving person, I feel like I should be doing the same as my higher-achieving peers. I know I’m capable of doing so. But I’ve never had any supervisory experience for any job which I’ve held, and I have no desire for any. I’ve always been the supervised, the one being directed what to do. Alas, I feel the pressure to get a regular, permanent job. But so far I’ve been tremendously fulfilled by my seasonal labor; the positions I take are not a way to make a livelihood—they are in fact my livelihood.

I often really enjoy the seasonal jobs which I do find, and often I wish I could stay on for longer. The longing for rootedness and connection are strong within me. But the prospect of ever staying on permanently still seems daunting and unapproachable. As one friend, another long-term seasonal, put it, “I couldn’t see myself signing up for that job for four years all at once, but I can see how I agreed to work there for one year four times in a row.” With any job that I enjoy, more time would be a bonus, but it’s not realistically expected. I always keep open the possibility that I might return to a place I’ve worked before, and I always strive to be the worker that employers would have back in a heartbeat. But I also value the personal renewal and new experiences that come with taking a new seasonal gig in an unfamiliar location. Ultimately, with each of these temporary positions the season will come to a close. Savoring the good aspects of a job while they last can make each day on the job seem all that much sweeter. As for the undesirable parts of a job, they can be toughed out to the end. Though leaving any position has its necessary pains, the natural end to a seasonal job makes the pain of leaving all the more bearable. We can brace ourselves for the fatalistic closure of any given position, for they were never expected to be for eternity from the beginning. It may be taxing to start and stop so many short-term jobs and meet and then leave so many different people; but similar to a long journey, beginning with the inevitable end in mind makes the ultimate departure ever so slightly more bearable and meaningful.

Above all, the biggest draw to seasonal work for me has been the nature of the work itself. I am in this field full of seasonal positions because I enjoy the work that comes with each successive season. I revel in being out in the field as I perform my work. I enjoy the blue-collar aspect of my jobs (as blue-collar as the educational field can be), and a little manual labor now and then serves both the body and soul well. The variety of my job keeps me fresh, and I feel utterly free from not being tied to an office for administrative work (indeed, my greatest employment nightmare is getting stuck in an office job). What’s more is that I enjoy the comradery of my co-workers—multiple people in the same position, working the same job—an egalitarian crew by job description. As a low-level employee, you’re part of the pack and live and die on the teamwork you provide. I’ve found that I thrive on that aspect, relying on others as surely as I am depended upon by my peers. For sure, I’m competitive and want to perform better than my co-workers, but I don’t desire to rise in the ranks above them. Though I am envious of the benefits and respect that the permanents get and I lust for that kind of social standing among my peers, my greater desire is to be one of my peers as well. I like being a team member. As for leadership on the job, my style is one where I want to lead with the respect which I earn from my peers, not with reverence from holding a higher job title. And thus, I feel uncomfortable having a position of power above people. I want to be an everyman; I want to be one of the people. When I find the work that I love to do, then I’d rather do the work myself. Of what benefit is it to me to supervise people doing the things I’d rather be doing myself?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time as a seasonal, and for the near future, it looks like that will continue. If I could find the right job in the right place, then the prospect of becoming permanently employed wouldn’t scare me as much. But unfortunately, the opportunities to take a permanent job in the wrong place or in the wrong profession are endless. With taking any permanent position I would undoubtedly be left wondering if there was a better-suited job out there somewhere. I am quite picky, after all, and the prospect of not being able to change daunts me. If I were to take a permanent job, I would have to be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s the job I need to take. Perhaps it may just the word permanent that rubs me in the wrong way. Permanent. Not to be changed. But even a permanent job can be gotten out of fairly easily (though not as easily as seasonal gigs). Maybe instead we should call them indefinite jobs; jobs that finish when the end is appropriate for the worker, instead of when the season concludes. Even so, the costs of taking a permanent job seems more of a burden to bear than the perpetual onslaught of seasonal labor. So I’ll continue to be a seasonal. At least for now…

Is it Lame to Join a Book Club?

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“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book”

Jane Smiley

 

An existential question of our modern culture: is it lame to want to join a book club?

The desire about joining seems too old-fashioned. Book clubs are akin to knitting circles—full of graying genteel grandmothers politely gossiping (or at least that’s the perception). Who in their right mind would find interest in such a stodgy old meeting merely to discuss books? Especially in your 20’s when you’re supposed to be young, wild, and free? How lame! Bookworm!

Still, the thought of a book club holds great appeal to me. Admittedly, I am bookish. I spend a great deal of my free time reading. After college, I found that I greatly missed the intellectual discussions surrounding books and ideas. Aren’t college classes, in some sense, a kind of book club?

Maybe in fact I am the perfect candidate for a book club. My appetite for intellectual stimulation is tremendous. It’s a need to satisfy that I just can’t scratch in other ways. My mind needs the mental exercise, and it’s much better when the workout is shared.

But it’s not just the intellectual part I am drawn to…

Back in Australia, when I was living out of a van and driving around on a quest for fruit, I happened to overhear a news program on the radio that caught my attention. The news story was about a wave of young people joining book clubs. Contrary to my perceived notions that book clubs are for elderly women discussing harlequin romance, this radio piece detailed how a growing number of millennials are joining book clubs for both the intellectual stimulation and social comradery.

Me, driving aimlessly around a continent, had an epiphany: a book club is exactly what I’m looking for.

Well, not a book club specifically, but it does perhaps provide the best example.

For, it was not just the intellectual discussions inherent in book clubs that I’d been craving during my ramblings. Equally, it was the social aspect to the club. To have a group of friends who are interested in that kind of thing? How awesome! How radical to commit to doing something noticeably unhip like reading and discussing a book with a group of people. And what’s more, to follow through with the commitment. And then to keep following through…

Because joining a book club is not a one-off fix. It’s not solely just reading one book with a group of people to satisfy a craving. Fundamentally, it’s the longer-term idea of being part of a group through the long-haul. Through both the ups and the downs, through the Moby Dicks and the Twilights.

This need for belonging doesn’t have to occur solely through book clubs either. Fulfillment could be found in many places, like a service club, a volunteer organization, or sports in the park. For me, the point is to be committed to something greater than myself. Arguably, a book club might not be too much greater than yourself, but it is particularly symbolic of making a commitment to a group of people and then following through with it.

And what transient can dare make a commitment to something as far-reaching as a book club? Here today, gone tomorrow. Never in one place long enough to finish a good read. It’s the notion of committing to a club, that idea of rootedness, where the bulk of the appeal lies. Personally, I find it unfortunate that I seldom stay in one place long enough to make it through one book, let alone sustain a book club.

So is it lame to want to join a book club? Not in my book.

Back Where I Started

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I just moved back to Grand Rapids. I haven’t lived in this city for nearly four years, since the time I graduated college. In those intervening years I’ve lived in three different states and one country, but I’ve also lived in Michigan at my parent’s place in Zeeland as well. Though I’ve been back to Grand Rapids on many occasions for visits, I’ve never had the reason to call the city home again. Now, after a length of time away exploring other places, I’m back where I started—the same location I was as a fresh college grad looking to get out and explore the world.

Coming back to Grand Rapids wasn’t all that unexpected. I grew up, after all, in the far-flung suburban town of Zeeland. In between grad school, jobs, and travel, I’d always make it back to the small town my family calls home, and then immediately I’d make plans to visit the big city. To me, there’s a big difference between living in the town I grew up in and living in the town where I came of age. In reality, the physical distance between Zeeland and Grand Rapids isn’t very great—I have, more than once, biked between the two cities. Instead, it’s my personal associations with the two cities that constitute the realm of difference. Zeeland, to me, recounts a place of dependence, of conservatism, of childishness. Grand Rapids is where I went to college—the location of my coming of age, of my emergence into adulthood. Grand Rapids was the geographical context in which I began to understand myself and to shape myself as an individual, breaking from the mold in which I was raised. As a result, my perceived intellectual gulf between Zeeland and Grand Rapids is now as wide as it was back in high school—when I believed Grand Rapids was so far away that it required an overnight stay to visit.

Though I am back living in Grand Rapids for the moment, I’m not back in town indefinitely. I’m even hesitant to say that my projected tenure in the city—a mere two months—really even constitutes moving back. Very soon I’ll be leaving town again for the latest stage in life exploration. But even though this current move is rather fleeting, it came with an intentional purpose: I had to get back to the environment where I found I have thrived.

Is it just the physical geography of the city that lures me back? Is it that I know the landscape, the street patterns, the stores, and the bus routes? Is it that my social network is still based primarily out of this city? That I still have friends and connections living here? Could it be my associations with the past that continually draw me back in? That I have become educated, made lifelong friends, and found my independence here?

Undoubtedly, it’s a little of all of these things. Michigan, my birth state, is the place I’m most familiar with. But the most formative years of young adulthood took place in a city different than where I grew up. On a psychological level, familiarity breeds liking. And it’s no doubt I cherish Michigan and Grand Rapids simply because I’ve spent so much time here. But my connection to the city is so much more than that.

In the years I’ve been gone from the city, life for its inhabitants has gone on like it necessarily does. The relics of my time here have largely been consumed in the metabolism of the city. New people inhabit the house I lived in. Different patrons frequent the spots I hung out in. Grand Rapids has continued to grow and change, and though the culture remains largely the same, the city I left upon graduation has drifted ever so imperceptibly in character. Friends that I had in the city have either moved away—or moved on. I myself—I can’t deny that I’ve changed as well. So much time travelling and having new experiences has shaped who I am. Though I’m returning, it’s a different person coming back to the city as well.

Despite all the differences, things are enough of the same. I still know my way around this city. I can still find the nearest grocery store and I can still make a living. I still even know a little bit about cultural events that go on here. And though I lament all those who have moved away and changed, I still have many friends in the city. I still have those residual social connections that I formed when I used to live here—connections formed from investments in the past. It’s a network found only here that I really just don’t have anywhere else.

Moving back to Grand Rapids temporarily as I am, I’m here to see returns on investments I’ve already made in the city. Unlike my past few years of constantly moving to new places where I have no connections made at all, I’m looking forward to living in a place where I have networks already in place. This was a conscious decision, after all. I needed to move back to a place where I wasn’t a stranger. I needed to be where I could see the benefits of my past involvements and also know that time spent is not spent in vain.

There’s something about the old wisdom that in order to realize how much you love a place, you need to leave it and return again. After my years away, I’ve found, as I suspected when I left, that someday I’d want to return again to Grand Rapids. And though my stay this time is only temporary, I rightly suspect that I’ll keep coming back to this city many times. To come, as it may be, back to where I started.

The City and the Ship

 

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The Clearwater approaches her dock in Manhattan

 

The sloop Clearwater has a berth in New York City, 79th street on the west side of Manhattan. This is the southernmost dock for the sloop, and the most urbanized. While the ship’s surroundings can change drastically at different ports, daily life on the boat remains much the same.

The 79th Street Boat Basin sits beside a long stretch of parkland in the city, a thin insulating strip of green that buffers the recreational waterfront from the tumult of the city. Access into the city is by crossing through the open air Boat Basin Café onto the terminus of 79th street. Going through the arches of the café is like stepping into a rabbit hole; an entirely different world exists onshore.

A few blocks away from the docks runs Broadway. In the residential Upper West Side, the street is well trafficked but lacks the frenetic aura it is caricatured for. Continue along Broadway until it begins its southeast turn; the buildings soon become larger and more commercial. A few miles further on lies Times Square. At the heart of the city, the hustle and bustle grows to its climax here. Flashing lights and monumental billboards scream for your attention. The pace of life seems to quicken, and you can almost feel the chaotic energy of the square seeping into your veins. The metabolism of the city is high. It’s calling you to see and do and consume.

The big city is fun and exciting. There is lots to see and experience. Somewhere, at all hours, something is going on in the city that never sleeps. A diversity of people walk the street. New sights and sounds lurk around every corner. The smell of exotic foods wafts from street vendors. A lifetime of exploring could never discover all the corners of such a metropolis.

 

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Times Square at night

 

I find the city lively and exciting. Its abundant stimuli rouses the mind. But I can easily get overwhelmed by the city.

I prefer the simple life instead. The boat, though basic, is homely and comforting. The bounds of the ship are fathomable to an overworked mind, and the intricate corners and inner workings are knowable with time and care. The 76 foot length of deck serves as the bounds of my home, one that I share with 18 others. Down below deck, 36 cubic feet of space is all that I can claim as my own, which serves as my bed and storage space by night, but doubles as a couch during the day. Inside the ship, the spontaneous whims of the city don’t find their folly. Instead, a set schedule adds structure and predictability to daily life. Life onboard is a ritual of sorts.

It is a lifestyle of simplicity, not excess or extravagance. On the Clearwater there are no fancy restaurants or fine dining. Vegetarian meals are shared with the crew, who gather together to eat in the cozy main cabin, sitting on the floor or perching on bunks to make room. The fare, whole and nutritious, sustains the body after a day of labor. No fancy dress or designer clothing are required onboard. The dress code is one of practicality and pragmatism. Most of the crew onboard have just a few articles of clothing, second-hand flannel shirts and thread-bare workwear. The grassroots vibe emanates still from the earliest days of Clearwater. Crew all contribute their part to the internal functioning of the ship. Daily chores and tasks are shared among shipmates in this communal setting.

Far fewer people live on the boat than in the city. But instead of a metropolis full of people whom you never get to meet, the boat is full of people you quickly get to know. Working closely during the day transitions to hanging out later at night. We play music together, and share in conversational rabbit trails. Daily life on the boat is an exercise in communal bonding of the sort that gets a boat to run and sustains an idea of environmental activism.

On a night at 79th Street I can crawl up on deck from below. The lights of the big city surround me. Red and white glowing orbs from traffic continually roll past and the noise of urbanity lingers still. Looking up I can see the lighted spire of the Empire State building and I know that I’m in the heart of America’s most densely populated city. But things are calm and quiet on the sloop upon the Hudson.

I much prefer my little ship in Manhattan.

Do You Smell?

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Do you smell?

The aromas of life surround you. Do you smell them?

What is it about an odor that can take us back, transport us somewhere different? A subliminal scent registers deep in the brain, evoking connotations of time and place. Do you remember those smells?

The pungent acridity of freshly cut grass and the distant earthy wafts of freshly spread manure arouse memories of a childhood spent in a suburban town encroaching into the countryside. My nose fondles the familiar scents as precious childhood souvenirs.

Wherever I am, the scent of a warm spring rain causes me to linger. That smell—that particular scent—is the essence of my aromatic association with home. The warm humidity of spring rains coat my nostrils, embracing them in a comfortable caress. The very sensation of humid air is far removed from the arid climes where I’ve spent the last three years. Nostalgia overtakes me whenever that sensation of the rain presents itself.

I was always told that the smell of spring rain comes from the worms. But the scent of worms alone could never do justice to the depth of the aroma. The scent is fundamentally deeper than that, nothing less than Petrichor—from the Greek words petra for rock and ichor for the blood of the gods. The fragrance of earth pours forth from the bedrock. The scent of spring rain is none less than the blood of the gods flowing through the ground.

The earth comes alive during spring rains. Soil microbes thrive in the warm, damp soils of spring, producing geosmin, the scent of the earth itself. Again a Greek construction, geosmin combines the words for the earth and the word for smell. Over winter the earth’s biotic community slackens its pace of life. Metabolic excrement accumulates in the soils, waiting to be flung into the air upon impact by rain. Spring rains re-awaken the soil microbes from winter dormancy, releasing even more of the distinctive geosmin fragrance. This is the smell of life emerging once again from the slumber of winter. Do you smell the very scent of life stirring?

I’m in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area right now. I’ve never been to this place before, but the scent brings me somewhere familiar. Is it the smell of the northwoods forests? Pine, spruce, fir, birch and aspen, all mixing their pheromones together in a melody of fragrance. Spring fecundity spreads through the air. Prolonged exposure to the scent of these northern forests registers deep in my mind. Yes, I have been here before. Not the Boundary Waters specifically, but to this place in general. The scent here is as much about where I am physically as about where I’ve been emotionally before. I ruminate with the old familiar smells. Comforting, inherently wild but familiar enough to feel homey and lived-in. Yes, I have smelled that before; yes, I have been here before.

The aromas of life surround you. Do you smell them?

Leaving (Many) Stones Unturned

This is my first blog post back in the United States. Yes, that means my Australian adventure has ended. What I initially intended to be a year or more of work and holiday in Australia concluded after spending a comparatively short 187 days in the country.

In an earlier blog post, I summarized an outline of the itinerary I had conceived for Australia. It was an ambitious plan for sure—my goal was to drive around the whole country and experience all the best that Australia had to offer. Seeing how this trip would be my only working holiday visa in Australia (and in all probability my only visit Down Under), I wanted to make the most of it. With the naïve idea that I’d be able to see everything worth seeing in Australia, I calculated a very thorough travel schedule so that I wouldn’t have to bother coming back to the country. After all, it was a long 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney just to get to Australia. Below is a map of what I originally envisioned for my year+ Down Under:

 

Australia Route

 

Needless to say, things didn’t work out very much as planned. Good, equitable work was difficult to find; shady fruit picking contractors swindled me out of a good chunk of my meager earnings; and my campervan experienced breakdown after breakdown. The accumulation of adverse experiences in Australia eventually led me to abandon the working holiday dream altogether. Though fate didn’t seem to be on my side, I don’t regret the journey at all and felt like I learned many invaluable lessons that I couldn’t have learned otherwise. Practically, though, as a major consequence of the essential unpredictability of eking out an existence in a foreign land, my idealized Australian itinerary changed drastically. Here is a summary map of where I actually traveled:

 

Australia Route Actual Finished

 

Probably the most noticeable difference between my idealized itinerary and my actual itinerary is the extent of the travels. Though I put over 15,000km on my campervan, I still only covered a fraction of the Australian continent. Major destinations like Queensland’s tropical north and the Outback’s red center were never reached. Travels to Western Australia and the Northern Territory were scrapped from the plan entirely.

Though I am disappointed at not being able to see such remarkable places, I’m not distraught over the lost opportunity. In conversations about my Australian trip, people often remarked that my journey was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. And, while making my plans for Australia, I took that sentiment to heart. I preconceivingly figured that I would never travel to Australia again—that this particular Australian trip would be my only chance to see places of world heritage value like the Great Barrier Reef or the Outback. Thus, I wanted to make sure I uncovered every stone Australia had to offer, so I could forever check the continent off my bucket list.

Abrasive reality—and sheer practicality—saw through my meager attempt to see everything in Australia. It is an impossibility to overturn every stone and leave nothing new to see in a country. Even if someone were to visit every square meter of a place, they would still have more to discover in the nooks and crannies. Such a person would still need to see the same things again, but from a different angle. Such a person would still need to spend more time in the country just to understand how the incessant elements of time and change affect a place. Fully seeing everything a country has to offer as a visitor is an absurd notion indeed.

As it so happened, I left many stones unturned in Australia. Though I wish I could have stayed longer and traveled more, I’m happy to say that I still have many reasons to go back to Australia in the future. Though I have no definite plans to revisit, I can see scenarios of returning soon to my much favored Hobart town for graduate school, or of returning only after many decades have passed as a grey-haired tourist. It’s also quite possible that I may never return to Australia again. But one things for sure: I never want to think of my stay in Australia as only a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.

Home is Where the…(wherever)

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The skyline of Hobart, Tasmania nestled between the sea and mountains

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“This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, known or unknown, actual or visionary. There’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.”

-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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One challenge for my time in Australia was to come up with a definition of what home means to me. The origin of this question goes further back, though, stemming from several protracted conversations with friends on the topics of home and place. As part of a generation coming of age in an increasingly globalized society, the question of home is no longer as limited as it used to be. Instead, rapid global travel and communication technology allow for a more mobile and connected society. Our options of where to live, work, and play quite literally span the globe. Yet, the idea of discerning one’s home in the vast world still constitutes a fundamental part of our identity.

As for myself, I feel like home could be anywhere. That’s to say that home isn’t necessarily a physical location in particular, but an idealized interaction with a location in general. Though I have travelled through admittedly very little of the world and have not experienced substantially different cultures, I can see a trend in my interaction to new places. Foreign locations become less foreign with familiarity. Given enough time, I feel that eventually I could make a home on any corner of the planet and be content with that location. This is not a judgement of place, but a judgement of my interaction with places. Home, then, is a process. It’s the homing sentiment.

Fundamentally, to me the question of home comes down to the concept of rootedness. How rooted do I feel to a certain place? My answer to that question is that I’m yearning to be rooted to any place at all. I struggle greatly through my travels with feelings of transiency and impermanence—essentially a new kind of homelessness. I yearn to be connected to a place at a more than superficial level, and any place could ultimately fill that desire. This is why, among other things, when I’m travelling I feel the need to stop at interpretive signs detailing local history—about the actions of city residents long dead or buildings long ago razed even though it may have little personal meaning to me at the moment. Doing such is just one small tangible way of discovering more about a place that leads me to a feeling of connection—that I belong more to a place now that I know more about it.

Given enough time, my habits of interaction with unfamiliar places should lead to a greater sense of home within each place I stop. Along with my habit of learning local history, I also tend to eschew corporate retailers in order to patronize businesses I could find nowhere else, take ambling walks along city streets to understand geographical differentiations within the city, and take note if I see local faces more than once. In short, in each new place I try to understand the local identity. I try to live like a local. This, fundamentally, is the reason why I feel like I could find sentiments of home in any geographical location.

However, though I feel like any geographical location could ultimately become a satisfactory home, some places I visit certainly seem more likely candidates. As someone who studies the natural environment and geography, the landscape—physical and cultural—plays an elevated role in the homefulness of a place. In my Australian travels, some places lend themselves more readily to sentiments of home; towns like Orange, Tumut, or Hobart sparked a sense of rootedness in me quickly. Other places, such as Maroochydore, felt reprehensible at first but inevitably grew on me endearingly. If nothing else, my period of meandering travel in Australia has helped me refine the qualities of a place that most readily resemble a home for me.

In a globalized society, the whole of the earth could theoretically be my home. Such possibilities create a world of geography to navigate in finding one’s place. For me, home is still an ongoing conversation, and I still have a lot of geography left to navigate.

***

‘I cannot honestly say that I liked Canberra very much; it was to me a place of exile; but I soon began to realize that the decision had been taken, that Canberra was and would continue to be the capital of the nation, and that it was therefore imperative to make it a worthy capital; something that the Australian people would come to admire and respect; something that would be a focal point for national pride and sentiment. Once I had converted myself to this faith, I became an apostle.’ 

-Former Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies, reflecting on his changing attitudes towards Australia’s national capital Canberra.

Small Town Country Australia

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A view down Wynard Street, the main commercial avenue in Tumut, New South Wales

 

I’ve been passing through a lot of small Australian towns lately. Ever since leaving the tourist haunts of the coast and travelling inland, I’ve been encountering a new Australian geography. Up through the Great Dividing Range mountains and onto the western plains, Australian towns get comfortably country.

From the New England Highway to the west side of the Snowy Mountains, I’ve passed through towns more familiar with the rumble of a livestock truck than to the stamp of tourist feet. Populations in these towns may reach from a few thousand to a few ten-thousand—not necessarily tiny by Australian standards. Regardless of their size, however, these towns may be the largest settlement for an hour in any direction—and thus these small country towns serve as regional centers of commerce. Along the backroads and byways of rural Australia, a traveller will be rewarded with the very appealing character of the Australian Country town.

My experience of country towns is based on one I’ve spent a fair amount of time in recently: Tumut, New South Wales. Tumut, like other country towns, lies amidst a landscape of grazing, field crops, orchards, and timberlands. Roughly halfway between the major metropolitan centers of Sydney and Melbourne, Tumut sits 30 minutes off the main highway—and is largely bypassed by the hubbub of interstate traffic. With a population of just over 6,000, Tumut is the principle settlement in Tumut-Shire, in addition to being the largest town for at least an hour’s drive. Though Tumut may be nestled in the scenic western foothills of Australia’s highest peaks, the Snowy Mountains, tourist traffic remains light here largely due to hilly terrain and narrow town access roads.

Small country Australian towns like Tumut share a distinct geographic feel. At the heart of these towns runs the main street, lined with the town’s oldest and most elaborate buildings. Wide brick sidewalks traverse either side of the main street with store-front balconies and branching European street trees providing shade from the blistering country sun. The most prominent buildings along the main street just might be the hotels—in Australia, hotels are the place you go to hang out and drink a beer. Even in the small town of Tumut, there are no fewer than six hotels along the main avenue of business: The Commercial, The Oriental, The Royal, The Star, The Woolpack, and The Wynard. Banks, shops, public buildings, and churches complete the line-up of edifices on the main street. Further out from the main street, historic brick and stucco houses speak of early city residents who had a great sense of pride and importance in the place where they lived.Though individual businesses may change through the years, the turn-of-the-century street façade remains strongly characteristic of the country town.

 

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In Australia, you go have a drink at the hotel. Being common sights in country towns, hotels have a pub on the ground floor and accommodation upstairs. Large, sweeping verandas provide much needed shade from the Australian sun.

 

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The School of Arts Building, built 1891. In small towns, the ‘School of Arts’ was established as both a repository of books and a community meeting hall–an early multi-purpose community building.

 

 

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Elaborate churches add architectural character to the town’s built environment.

 

 

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Turn-of-the-century brick and stucco house, with a characteristic tin roof.

 

 

Scattered around the business district and residential streets of the typical country town is ample parkland, which lends an appealing openness and naturalistic feeling to the rural development. These parks provide shade, recreational opportunities, and amenities to resident and visitor alike. As a visitor to a new town, I often form my quality assessment based on the town’s parkland and amenities—for example, public toilets and electric barbecues are very appreciated. Civic buildings such as libraries are another important public resource that attest to a quality of life in a town, in addition to being very helpful to the traveller.

The physical landscape—the built environment—is just one aspect that is characteristic of the Australian country town. The other aspect is the cultural landscape. Though I originally only planned to pass through Tumut on my search for employment elsewhere, I’ve ended up staying for a week now. Having found no job leads further afield, I returned to Tumut to come up with an alternative plan, and I have stayed because I enjoyed the aura of the city. I’ve found the people to be particularly friendly here, and more apt to start a conversation with the town’s new stranger. This is especially true while I’ve been sitting outside the library after hours bumming wifi for my job search. One local man came right up and joined me on the bench I was sitting on, talking to me as if we’d meet long before. He really only came to the library for some half-smoked cigarettes in the ash-tray, but he wanted to greet the stranger as well. He gave me some advice for my job search, and then informed me that in a town like this, everyone will know your business by the time you leave. I guess that’s all part of the small-town life.

My one week in Tumut has given me a good sense of the nature of the town, and may be a good indicator of the character of the other country towns I’ve passed through along the way. With little in the way of tourist traps in Tumut, I’ve been living like a local instead. Daily, downtown Tumut is a bustling locale—at the shops and bakeries by day, and at the hotels by night. I’ve nursed a beer at one of the hotels, listening to live music from a nearby bluegrass band. I’ve been shown the river float along the Tumut river where locals go to cool off on hot summer days. My van radio has been tuned to the local radio station playing golden oldies and old-time country music. I’ve eaten local produce fresh from the weekend outdoor market. I’ve even watched part of a high-school cricket match, and I’ve seen the civic pride of the Tumuters as a large group volunteered their Saturday to pick up rubbish in the riverside park. All these little things I’ve seen and done here in Tumut add to the congenial character of this small country town.

 

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The Tumut River, as seen from the Old Town Bridge. The name Tumut is derived from an aboriginal word meaning ‘resting place by the river’. The river is a favourite local hangout.

 

 

 

It’s not that only small country towns have the kind of charm I’ve described—it’s that I find it easier to perceive in a small country town, where the bright lights of international corporate business and the McMansions of suburbia don’t obscure the local identity. Large towns, urban centers—these too have their unique geographies and contingent of dedicated citizens who make their homes resplendent with civic pride. These are the same people who pass the love of their city onto the wayward visitor.

 

 

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A view of Tumut from the highest point in town, showing the foothills of the Snowy Mountains

 

Moving On…

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Sunset over the Sunshine Coast city of Mooloolaba

 

Tonight I sit reflectively on the spit as the sun sets, watching the distant foreshore of the Sunshine Coast as darkness falls and the city lights come on. Tonight is my last night here. Tomorrow I will move on.

Lychee harvest ended today. We had a celebration cookout under the veranda with all the workers, celebrating the achievements our labour accomplished. Afterwards we began our goodbyes to the crew we have known for a few short but intense weeks. “See you around,” say some as they leave the farm. “See you in Stanthorpe,” or “See you Tumbarumba” say others, gaily announcing their next planned destination, as if we expected to run into one another again. Joining the trend, I dismissed myself to the crew with “catch you in Batlow!”

But as I watch the sun set over the hinterland mountains, I contemplate why it is that I am moving on already. I didn’t even plan to be out here tonight—I had planned to stay inland to prepare for my upcoming departure. But something innate drove me to the coast. I just had to be here for one last night.

I have only been on the Sunshine Coast for a mere 31 days—longer than a visitor, but far short of being a local. I’ve just begun to know this strip of coastline and the lifestyle it affords. For a while, this place was my home. Why, I wonder sometimes, must I constantly be moving on right when I begin to know a place?

Australia, of course, is a different situation for me. Here I have no opportunity for permanency. I am no more than a long-term visitor, with a definite end-date for my time. My transiency is based out of the necessity of economics, continually chasing employment to support my holiday further. With immediate job opportunities on the Sunshine Coast having dried up, the promise of bountiful harvest labour now beckons me elsewhere. And too, I’ve created a busy itinerary for myself to see as much of Australia as I can—the breadth of my travels could not be reached if I do not continually move on. My own disinclination to linger beyond planned has left me a drifting traveller.

But I look onwards as the gleaming lights come on the high-rises above the beaches of Mooloolaba and Maroochydore. I wonder if I’d have the courage to deny my pre-conceived itinerary and continue to stay somewhere—merely because I enjoy the place. Would I brave enough to stop my relentless pursuit of places unknown (and potentially better) because here I have found something I’ve enjoyed?

I come from the generation sometimes characterized as ‘The Young and the Restless’. We move around easily from place to place, seeking localities suitable to our young, sociable lifestyles. No place is stayed at for too long if there is something better to be found. Myself, I always seem to be moving on from the places I have known out of a vital curiosity—an instinct—that there is something new, different, better out there to find. I feel convinced that if I stay too long in one place, I might not discover something else that fits me better. But I question my own logic. I’m too afraid to lose the illusory opportunity of something more promising that lies just beyond the world of the familiar.

I am one of a generation of cropped roots. Transiency describes my lifestyle, but I wonder why I always must be moving on.