Category Archives: Place
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Where are you? Do you feel connected to the place you find yourself in this current moment? Do you feel an encompassing sense of belonging here?
There are some places that give you that special feeling. Places that feel qualitatively different to the individual. Places that feel alive and electric, a kind of synchronicity between person and place. Places that are energy-giving. Magical, almost.
I like to refer to these locations as ‘deep places.’ The adjective deep is used to describe the immensity of the feeling the individual has towards the place. It is something felt on a higher level, different from one’s experience of everyday locales. These deep places may be spots you already know, or the feelings may arise the first time you step foot into a new environment. If you’ve ever experienced these magical feelings, then you have discovered a deep place for you.
The North Shore of Minnesota, along the edge of Lake Superior, has been one of those deep places for me. Starting in Duluth and heading northeast towards Thunder Bay, the north shore follows a rocky, rugged, forested line for more than one hundred and fifty miles. Along the coast it is a vast forestland wilderness, punctuated only by small settlements and scattered tourist outposts. It is a place where land meets water, where human meets wild. It is a deep place for me.
My first real venture to the North Shore came in May of 2016, entering Duluth from the south just past sundown, being greeted to the sweeping vistas of the big lake in the fading daylight. The northern drive to Grand Marais that night was illuminated by the blood-red full moon rising to its own reflection on the calm surface of Superior. That night was crisp and cool. The moon was out. The stars were shining brightly. The scent of the boreal forests and the water encompassed my nostrils. It was an entirely magical entrance to the place known as the North Shore.
Could the magic of my first experience on the North Shore ever be repeated? I have since returned to the North Shore many times, and have found that the magic was not a one-off experience. The feelings I have towards the region have not been diminished through growing familiarity. Every time I return to the North Shore, I am still astonishingly impressed by the astounding physical beauty of the environment. Jutting rusty-color basalt outcroppings, small rivers torrenting their way through deep overlooked canyons, pocket beaches cobbled with a mélange of surf-smoothed rocks. The cultural resources too—lighthouses, cabin complexes, mining history. There is so much to do here—and to keep coming back for more. Every time I would grow claustrophobic from my land-locked residence in inland Minnesota, even a short visit to the shore—to the great lake vistas—would always be the cure I didn’t even realize I needed. My deep place has also served as a restorative space.
The North Shore, for me, is one of those places where I always find more to discover—and upon discovering, find it imperative to come back and revisit again later. Even before I began to explore the region, I had this convincing sentiment that the North Shore would be a special area to me. It is a psychological wonder, how, even upon a first glance at a place, one can feel the initial intimations of inherent belonging and connection to that place. The newly entered deep place is a landscape ever so tantalizingly unknown and discoverable, yet undeniably comfortably welcoming. It’s a place that beckons you to linger on in its space. This sense of fitting into the place is preordained, not earned. You don’t grow to love deep places through familiarity, though they will become increasingly familiar with time. Instead, there is an instinctual, primitive gut feeling that you are part of the place; that you already know and love the area though you have recently arrived.
Everyone has, or should have, a deep place of their own. Maybe you know where it is. Maybe you have one but don’t know that you know it yet. Maybe you’ve revisited your place multiple times, or have even come to live there. Maybe you’ve only ever visited once. Even if physical visits are infrequent, even just thinking about those deep places can still conjure those magical feelings inside of you.
It is possible to have multiple deep places too. How many places exist out there in the world where you would feel this distinct connection if only you could visit? Though the North Shore of Minnesota is perhaps my most apparent deep place and the one I’ve revisited the most, I have others places where I have experienced similar sentiments—the Owens Valley of California, or the island of Tasmania, Australia, for example.
The remarkable thing is that while some deep places are shared with others, a deep place isn’t universal. Everyone will find a different space or landscape that speaks to them so clearly. These spaces are simultaneously yours alone and are shared by a community of others. But no matter how many people claim the same deep space, it always feels unique, as if the area were speaking directly to you.
Find your deep place.
On a recent spring break journey, I drove 3,200 miles across the top the US and Canada—and all I did was take pictures of barns! But the rural country landscape does fascinate me, and I find it particularly compelling to photograph. As I drove across the land, the aesthetics of the structures changed with the landscape. Here is a photographic escapade of the rural journey and what I saw: barns, grain elevators, abandoned homesteads, and more.
And here was the route:
The rural landscape around where I grew up, in Ottawa County, Michigan, never seemed exceptional or particularly noteworthy. The real sites, for me, always laid at the coast, along the sandy wooded shores of Lake Michigan. Only recently, after spending much time away from my hometown, has the rural heritage of my landscape gripped me in a way it hadn’t before. The agricultural scenes that once seemed commonplace and went blithely unnoticed by me now stood out in a conspicuous fashion. I became captivated by my once overlooked surroundings.
Barns, as a subject matter, have long drawn me to capture their images in photography. Now I have felt compelled to turn the cameras towards the barns that I may have seen regularly since childhood, but now notice again with fresh eyes. Winter adds an extra element of beauty to them, lying dormant, coated in a thick veneer of white. They come in many different styles, sizes, and colors. Gambrel roofs, lean-to’s, reds, whites and weathered wood. Some are still working barns, others long since abandoned to the elements. Though common, their ruggedness and utilitarian aesthetic provide an unnoticed kind of beauty.
“There is no such thing as bad weather…only bad preparation.”
* Outdoors Proverb *
It’s %$@&£! cold up here in northern Minnesota in January.
But really, it’s not that bad.
The secret, of course, is preparation. With a healthy dose of realistic expectations. It’s no beach holiday up here.
Winter is not winter the same everywhere. Even though I grew up in the northern tier of states, west Michigan’s persistent 30*F winter temps and perpetually falling wet humid snow is no analog for the -20*F clear sunny days here in northern Minnesota.
The cold here is unparalleled in most of the lower 48 states. Characteristically clear skies during the day sparkle light and shadow brilliantly across the landscape. The Minnesota sun, however, is an illusion; though shining bright, it provides almost no warmth to the day. Clear skies at night open up a fantastic theater for star viewing, yet with no cloud cover, what little daytime heat accumulated readily escapes into the upper atmosphere. Temperatures plunge easily to 30*F below.
With the proper equipment and preparation, these polar temperatures can become a comfortable winter playground. With clothing, layering is key. Long underwear, pants, snowpants, sweaters, fleeces, jackets, coats, liner gloves, outer gloves, waterproof boots. All layered one on top of another, overlapping, in a style known as “shingling.” Exposed skin is a recipe for heat loss, especially at the juncture of clothing…not to mention the possibility of getting errant snow down your shirt or in your boots. Even with all these layers of clothes on, the frigid cold still seeps in quickly once you step outside. It’s best to keep moving. Stay active and have your body generate its own heat. When I’m dressed up in all these layers and trudging through a foot of powder snow, I feel like a storm-trooper marching to battle. Bracing for winter is preparing for a war with the cold.
But don’t expect everything to be easy in the cold. Low temperatures have their own way of letting you know they’re around. Frost readily forms on your hair and beard. Your eyelashes start to freeze together. An unprotected water bottle freezes shut. Batteries drain. Lighter flames grow weak and disappear. Knowledge of the extreme cold and its effects goes a long way in prolonging your own survival in these circumstances.
So even though it’s cold outside, go out and enjoy the day. A beautiful winter wonderland awaits for those who are prepared.
“Though your mind continually searches for order and pattern in the ocean waves, there is none to be found. The ocean is perfectly chaotic and achieves a deep sense of beauty which our minds recognize but are scant to understand” —Paraphrased from an Alan Watts Lecture
At times you may find yourself unsettled: angsty, pensive, unsure, angry. These emotions welling up inside of you need a reprieve, an outlet; they need an environment conducive to processing those feelings. Someplace gloomy, foreboding, immense; somewhere to connect with your mood. In times like these, you seek out water, wherever it may be—the beach, on the ocean or a pond, a raging river or gentle stream. Whatever it is, there is something special inherent about that landscape. Something in its sublime beauty eases the tension in your mind. In these over-bearing alien landscapes, there is solace, solitude. Sitting, strolling, or wandering aimlessly lost along the water’s edge, you can feel a change in your psyche. Your anxious thoughts lessen, your mind begins to process what conflicts you. There by yourself, you begin to delve into your inner being. The landscape you have sought has become your conduit towards introspection.
I am one who seeks the water when anxious. The primal nature of the powerful waves awes me, and I feel small and insignificant compared to their might. The calm reflection on a still pond reaches me too, and my mind is soothed by the gently undulating ripples on the surface. Alone in these environs I can recollect myself, dive deeper into myself, come away with a deeper understanding of myself. The water, I have found, is a prime landscape for self-reflection.
Yet angst and anger—that troubling slew of emotions—is not the sole reason one visits the water’s edge. At other times, you will be experiencing different emotions: tranquil, curious, joyful. In those moments you may not be alone, or even want to be alone. You may be with other people. Regardless, the sheer beauty of the waves and water still works on you and those around you. This environment is different, you can tell. You feel something tangibly distinct here, though you cannot name it. Somehow you feel more at ease, like the water is a trusted friend there to support you in your relations. You can feel yourself opening up to the souls of those around you. Maybe those you are with had been introspecting the same as you, and have now became ready to share these quiet ruminations outside of themselves. Whatever the cause, you begin to open up. The landscape has fostered a window of special extroversion among those you are with.
I have had many deep and meaningful conversations by the water. So too I have had many deeply difficult conversations in similar places. On these occasions, the bond between the people involved was challenged—twisted, wrenched—and yet ultimately deepened. It’s not that meaningful conversations happen exclusively by the water—it’s just that this particular landscape seems to coax it out of me more easily. It seems to coax it out of those I’m with as well. These landscapes serve as a catalyst for our human connection.
Maybe different landscapes serve this same purpose for other people—deserts, mountains, forests—all have some sort of special power to connect us. For me, it is the water that is most impactful. It is a landscape that lends itself both to a powerful introspection yet also opens me up to meaningful relationships with others.
To an American, the term Acadia (or in French, Acadie) will likely conjure up notions of an extraordinary national park in eastern Maine, but will prompt little more significance otherwise. However, the term Acadia is much greater than that, referring to a vast and rich cultural region beginning in the south with Maine and extending northeast to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. But Acadia is more than just a region—it is its own strongly identified culture. From the earliest French colonists in Port Royal on Nova Scotia in 1604, a distinct culture began to develop that is undeniable to the modern traveler today. The Acadians are a people hewn from their landscape of gentle agricultural valleys isolated by rough coastal waters. Their way of life is largely pastoral, tied to the land. Their self-reliance has also produced a culture of folk artists and craftspeople who produced goods for their communities. Indeed, Acadia is a region with its own distinct identity, and traveling around the region one will not fail to notice the abundance of Acadian Flags or hear the French language being spoken.
The name ‘Acadia’ derives from the Greek word Arcadia which was applied as a place name to maps of the Atlantic coastline by early European explorers. The early French settlers adopted the name Arcadia for themselves, as in Greek it meant “refuge” or “idyllic place.” As they were far from their native lands and seeking a better life in the New World, these French settlers were able to turn the Atlantic coastline into both their refuge and an idyllic agrarian society for themselves. The letter ‘r’ was gradually lost from the name Arcadia to become what we now refer to as Acadia. The French, relying strongly on the traditional knowledge of the native Mi’kmaq peoples likely adjusted the name of their region to align with the Mi’kmaq suffix -akadie, meaning ‘place of abundance.’ Indeed, the pastoral villages soon became prosperous.
Many of the original settlers to Acadia had been peasants in Europe, seeking a better life in the New World. In the absence of the rigid European social hierarchy, these settlers were able to use to own skills and talents to determine their rank in society. With little material support coming from France, the Acadians had to produce most of their own goods, and the skills and talents of the settlers became the basis of their culture of craftsmanship. Imperial France also showed negligible interest in governing their North American colonies. As a result, Acadian government was a system of village self-rule, where the communities were governed as a society of equals. The isolation of the Acadian villages, along with their essential independence from Imperial France, contributed to an independent spirit and a wariness about outsiders. However, the Acadians relied strongly on the native Mi’kmaq peoples to survive and prosper, using their traditional knowledge, intermarrying, and adopting many of their customs. In time, the population of the Acadians grew rapidly through high fertility rates and agricultural prosperity. Outside travelers to the Acadia region remarked on how tall, strong, and robust the Acadians were, with darker complexions and longer hair symbolizing their biological and cultural inter-connections with the native peoples.
The prosperity and independent spirit of the Acadians, along with their population explosion, soon was viewed as a threat by Imperial Britain. Territorial conflicts marked most of the history of Acadia, and the roots of this conflict stemmed from the long-held rivalry between the French and English, as it was played out in the New World. As early as 1613, a mere nine years after the founding of Acadia’s first permanent settlement, the British sacked and burned Port Royal in a territorial conquest. Decades of conflict would ensue, with the British militarily taking territory and the Acadians attempting to reclaim their lands. The last debate in the matter was the French and Indian war, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763; that resolution ceded the last French strongholds in Acadia and French Canada to British control. As the British gained control of more and more Acadian territory, they began a program of expelling the Acadians to neutralize any military threat. The Acadians knew this era as Le Grand Dérangement, or the great expulsion. Acadians, who had long since been settled and identified with their landscape, were forcibly deported to places like French Louisiana, the 13 colonies, Britain, or France. However, with their knowledge of the land, many Acadians evaded deportation by seeking refuge in the wilderness. When the culture war on the Acadians gradually faded, the Acadians came out from hiding and some eventually returned to Acadia, creating their own small Acadian communities. Their cultural identity and ties to their land could not be abolished.
Today, Acadia is a peaceful land once again, returning more in-line with its idyllic agrarian beginnings. Acadians still live fruitfully and independently off the land, cultivating their crops and producing their crafts. The region is a mix of cultures—Acadian, English, Native, and others. So too is the Acadian landscape one of contrasts. From the rough rugged shores of Nova Scotia where hardy fisherman eke out a living, to the gentle pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island where the soils are fertile and the climate is mild. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few weeks touring around Acadia taking in the sites. Though my focus was on the landscape and not the people, they are a people intricately connected to their land.
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“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth.”
On a calm October morning, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” And thus, I went to those particular woods—the ones surrounding Walden Pond—in a sojourn along the path of one of my intellectual forebears, the irascible hermit Henry David Thoreau, to see if I too could eke out the life discoveries which he had made upon the pond’s shores. This unassuming Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s most famous personal (and far-reaching) social experiment, lies an hour west of Boston amidst the regional forests and farmland. It is here where the entirety of the dissertation Walden takes place.
My trip was a pilgrimage to visit the namesake pond to visualize the setting of the lengthy tome I had just finished. “The scenery of Walden,” as Thoreau describes it, “is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach the grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore.” Walden is a simple pond indeed. A mere half mile long and only half as wide. Its perimeter is smooth and predictable; few coves or inlets add dimension to its waters. The landscape surrounding the pond, though hilly and thickly forested, does not strike an air of distinction. But as Thoreau championed in his many intellectual ramblings, “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” I could picture Thoreau finding no more an ordinary pond home than this.
Yet at the same time Walden Pond is entirely magnificent. In his personal rhetoric, Thoreau was a fiery exceptionalist, never shy of embellishment or hyperbole. The waters of Walden Pond, he described, were the purist and coldest waters around. He writes about how the quality of Walden’s waters rival the purist known springs. But for his continual exaggerations, he was correct about one superlative; at 102 feet deep, Walden Pond is the deepest inland body of water in the state of Massachusetts. The banks of Walden Pond drop abruptly off into azure oblivion; the water, in this deep watery well, stays cool and refreshing year round.Thoreau knew these depths well, for among his many intermittent occupations, he was a trained land surveyor.
I came to Walden Pond to pay homage to a man who has influenced my own thoughts on life and meaning, if not in words exactly, then by sentiment alone. Intellectually, we share many similar ideas concerning social progress and the higher humanistic yearnings for the species. Thoreau is loud and brash with a pen and passionately rants against the things he disagrees with. His words echo a fiery passion burning deep in his soul. He loathes the nearby railroad and laments material progress for the sake of a dollar. But he also advocates for his better society, seeking to improve the man in the culture; Thoreau preaches continually on freeing mankind from slavery to self and to society. The reclusive Thoreau rants against the ills of contemporary civilization in the mid-18th century and seeks his moral salvation in the woods. Though little appreciated during his own time, and living unwed, unknown, and with his parents until his young demise, Thoreau has become a prophet of the modern day.
Although I feel a tie of kinship to Thoreau, he comes off as a man one would not have wanted to spend time with, myself included. To his village contemporaries, his nature wanderings and isolated hermitage made him appear aloof, yet he was a keen observationist and a scientist at heart, daily making acute observations of the environment and human kind. Though he exquisitely bemoaned the lives of others with his words while simultaneously boosterizing his own noble endeavors—ones that he alone perceived he was discovering in an insipid sea of ignorance—he was quite sociable and gregarious with the right type of company. He lived alone, yet kept three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Though Thoreau the man may have been petulant, his ideas are familiar to anyone seeking self-improvement. His writing is at times very off-putting, egotistical, self-righteous, and even shaming and chastising (with way too many verbose phrases strung together with endless commas), yet his heart and ideals were with the people. His goal: to achieve in humankind a fierce independence and self-reliance to live genuinely and whole-heartedly as one’s best self in society.
I can see a bit of myself in Thoreau. I see a bit of myself in his perpetual longings and desires for something greater and nobler in life, Thoreau’s self-described ‘higher laws’. I see myself wanting to live deliberately and intentionally to the fullest extent, where I can ‘suck out all the marrow of life’.
I can also see myself venturing down the path of Thoreau, whether intentionally or by unplanned drift. Simplify, simplify! A one-room shanty seems plenty accommodating to me. Living independently off the land with little money but lots of means—that too I can see. Work, for Thoreau, was never a major priority either. He spent his days in idle employment ranging the forests, the self-appointed ‘inspector of snowstorms’. At its roots, Thoreau’s Walden experiment cuts to the heart of a desire to break away from society and to live a true and unconstrained life, unhindered by the bonds of artificial society. Like Thoreau, the unpretentiousness of nature provides the means of escape to a better existence.
The Walden Pond of today looks different than in Thoreau’s time. Shortly after moving out of the woods, Thoreau’s shanty was relocated to the village of Concord. The forest lands around the shack as well, harvested many times previous to Thoreau’s day, grew thick and dense, obscuring the very foundations of Thoreau’s presence. Thoreau’s expansive bean field, too, has reverted back to forest. The Fitchburg Railway, the rail-line skirting the pond that Thoreau so loudly laments, has been upgraded to a busy commuter line to Boston. The lands surrounding Walden Pond have become protected as a state reserve. No longer the spot of solitude and isolation, Walden Pond has become a popular destination for recreation in Massachusetts, for both its natural beauty and the outdoor recreation aspects.
Do the many visitors to Walden Pond on a sunny day think about the ideas that were developed here? As they sun-bathe on the beach or swim across the cool waters, do they ponder the intellectual history of this place? Do they know the historical significance of this parcel of land where they are picnicking? Is it perhaps that the modern-day visitor to Walden subconsciously accepts Thoreau’s importance of nature without even realizing it? Surely they must have internalized some of Thoreau’s ideas, given the crowds of people who come to spend time finding themselves in nature.
Alas, after paying my pilgrims’ visit to this important site, the time to leave had come. After all, “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
As an avid cyclist (but only an intermittent mountain biker), I decided it was finally time to try my hand at riding a fat-tire bicycle (or a fat bike, or a ‘Fattie,’ as some would say) just to see what all the hype around this new bicycling trend is about.
And so, I rented a Fattie for the weekend to throw my all at it. It was easy enough to do; I even got the idea when I was perusing my local outdoor sports store and asked if they did rentals. At a rate of $80 per 24 hours, it was a pricey commitment but still do-able, especially considering the cost of a new fat bike. The shopkeepers ended up fitting me out on the Specialized Fatboy. Its bright orange color was flashy and just begging for rugged adventure.
As I drove back to camp with the bike securely stowed in my hatchback, the thought that this bike cost fifty percent more than my car itself crossed my mind just a number of times (read: $3,000). I really didn’t want to risk damage to such a pretty penny merchandise, but to heck with it—I was ready to see what this bike could do.
There was a steady drizzle in the air the afternoon I picked up my rental, and that rain meant mud—and lots of it. The trails back at camp were profusely waterlogged, leaving plenty of puddles to splash around in as I got acquainted with the Fatboy. Getting prepared to ride by unloading the bike from my trunk, I really noticed how unexpectedly light the bike was. It’s the carbon fiber frame that reduces the weight, but also substantially increases the price.
I eased into riding my new Fattie by starting on some simple double tracks in the woods behind camp—just to get acquainted to the feel of riding. Much like any other bicycle, the fat-tire bike is simple to operate. Just put your legs on the peddles and go. The fat tires though, as one would expect, do make a noticeable difference in riding. Acceleration is markedly slower, and on a flattish surface my peddle strokes seemed to be transferring more energy into bouncing the entire bicycle up and down on the balloon tires, rather than adding to ground speed. Yet, the Fatboy plodded on like a tank. The single front chainring is small, which allows lots of torque to be put on the chain. That makes the Fatboy easy enough to start riding in difficult terrain, but it also makes it easy to spin out the tires when starting out in a lower gear. The rear cassette offers 12 speeds—plenty of options for any riding conditions, but way more than I needed for my simple jaunt.
After a warm-up on the double track (including riding through the pervasive mud puddles), I was ready to move on to the advanced single track—tight curves, sudden drops, and a variety-pack of obstacles in the way. The Fatboy handled it all like a champ. No obstacle seemed too obscene to mow over. The ubiquitous Cape Cod cobbles littering the forest floor were obliterated without a hesitation. Downed logs, even girthy ones, posed little challenge to surmount. Whereas lesser mountain bikes would have backed down and buckled, the four-inch wide tires on the Fatboy conquered any challenge I threw at it. It seemed that the only limitations I encountered on my ride were from my own skills (or lack thereof). Additionally, the front and rear disc brakes came quite in handy for easing my way down steep hills, and when encountering the unexpected obstacle in the slick terrain.
An afternoon of testing out my first Fattie was a success. Uphills, downhills, rocks, logs, puddles, sand, mud, and even riding through Spectacle pond proved no challenge to the Fatboy.
With day one in the books, I took the Fatboy out to one of Cape Cod’s most popular off-roading destinations—the Sandy Neck Conservation Lands in the town of Barnstable. As a prominent feature of Cape Cod geography, Sandy Neck is a long, continuous beach lining Cape Cod Bay comprising a stretch of dunes separating the Bay from the expansive saltwater tidal marshes of Great Marsh. The only land access to Sandy Neck begins, remarkably enough, at the Sandy Neck Gatehouse. On a cool and overcast October morning, I set out to ride the entire length of Sandy Neck, all the way to the fabled Cottage Colony at the tip.
Riding the Fattie on Sandy Neck was a challenge in endurance, both physically and mentally. It’s a seven mile haul from the gatehouse around the tip to the Colony, and with the expansive ocean views, the scenery—though stunning—changes very slowly. Though the terrain is flat the entire way, the beach is a loose consolidation of sand and ocean-rounded cobbles. My peddle revolutions on the ride were just enough to keep me balanced upright, and speed was never a priority. With its fat tires, the Fatboy is very inherently stable, and that stability was the only thing that got me through the beach sand with no wipeouts. All along the ride I had the challenge of adjusting where I was riding to find the optimal traction for the various beach surfaces. And since the ride was on the ocean, it was rather nice to be able to frequently stop and do some beach-combing along the way.
It took about one and a half hours to finally reach the Cottage Colony and its lighthouse, which put my ground speed at just over a measly 4.5 miles per hour. I could now take a break and explore this cryptic summer destination. After all, I had earned my right to be there, and had gotten there it fat-bike style too. No maintained roads lead to the colony, so only 4-wheel drives, horseback riders, and boaters can reach the colony. From my observations, I was the only one who had arrived by bicycle.
Being October as it was, the summer cottage colony was practically deserted. I took a break and looked around. Pure Cape Cod right there. A spattering of a half-dozen clapboard shanties springing from the sandy dunes. Weather-beaten, rustic, coastal. The mist blowing into the colony from the Bay and gloomy gray overhead skies created an ambience of a rather sea-beaten place to live.
Eventually I left the colony. It was time to head back and complete the round-trip trek. My fat bike had proved me well, and had gotten me places I couldn’t have otherwise. For one weekend, it was quite the experience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…