Story last updated at 3/13/2013 - 2:06 pm
The bush attracts people... a simple enough statement on its face. Short and sweet, as my father used to say. The most hard-headed realist among us would hardly argue it and yet in the poet's ear those same few words might kick off any manner of meandering philosophical quest. Lest we slide too far toward the mystical ourselves, let's agree that all places attract people. At least there isn't any place that I know of that hasn't attracted some people. There is, after all, hardly a place on our planet that some folks haven't claimed as their own and it's only our own (temporary) ignorance showing any time we look out over some barren landscape and think, "Who the heck would ever want to live there?"
If we persist along this line of thought for a minute it's only a small step to seeing that we humans seem to naturally clump ourselves together at different levels of density, from the high-compression of city life, squirming and crackling with energy, to the solitary hermit on the remote mountain top, with the rest of us strung out at all different levels in between.
Many of the other species make such choices; think ants at one extreme and bear at the other. So far as I know, though, we humans get to exercise more individual choice in the matter than any of the others. Do you thrive and feel the most alive in the pressure cooker of the exchange trading floor, or is it the sublime majesty in the nighttime telescope that lights your fire? Pick your field of battle. Do you grow and stretch in the steamy artistic turmoil of improvisational jazz or in the silent intensity of the monastery? Your call. The trick, it seems to me, is to discover the level where we fit most comfortably, get there, and then find our work. It isn't easy, though, like simple advice to "buy low and sell high" because the ground keeps shifting under us and we only get smarter gradually.
There's no getting around the fact that some folks in the bush have simply washed up, or been driven, here after a lot of tough struggle with the demands of more "civilized" places in the world. Before landing in the bush they had already been told plenty of times about how they needed to shape up, get in line and quit being so darned gnarly.
Years ago Charlie had found himself with a bunch of kids, no wife, no money and no means of support beyond semi-skilled grunt labor. A guy has it no easier in those circumstances than a woman does. In fact it's harder in some ways. But with steady work, many moves and one squatter-level home after another, he did a good job of it. He had just gotten those kids raised and stood up on their own, though, when the need for the specialty labor that he'd mastered began disappearing into the blur of modern mechanization and efficiency. He was looking at hard times coming when a fellow told him of a derelict cabin in a tiny bush community in Alaska where he could live for free if he could just get there. With little more than that to go on, he did get there all right, but only to find that the promised cabin was more compost than cabin. Right from the start he liked the place, though. It felt right and he felt welcomed, or at least safe, and surely that was a good sign. On top of that, he was a good guy and a hard worker, the two essential ingredients for success there.
He stayed. At first he lived under blue tarps down near the harbor, dug his own clams and harvested beach asparagus. That was all nearly 20 years ago. Charlie has his own cabin now. It's full of books and music and he is one of the quiet cornerstones of the community. Compared to the city, these little places have to get by with a lot fewer people to keep them propped up and there would be an awful wobble now if Charlie were to leave. Not much chance of that, though. Charlie looks to be holding steady right at his natural requirement for human density.
Another fellow arrived at about the same time as Charlie, and at just about the same level of financial non-existence. A few years before landing here, Barry had suddenly ended decades of wild motorcycle riding, hard living and determined mayhem with a wrecked Harley in one ditch and himself wrecked in the other. It took a long time for his brain to work its way out from that fog but when it did a different guy came with it. The Barry who finally stepped forward was a gentle artist and reader and music maker and conversationalist whose most prized possession came to be a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary and whose worst habit was fanciful boasting.
Just to keep us all on our toes, the Cosmic Comedienne had slipped in a good one, too. She preserved intact Barry's original full-on physical resemblance to Harry Potter's biker friend, Hagrid. All those old parts were still right there: the permanent scowl, the big ponytail, big beard, big belly and big voice, and oh, how he enjoyed them all! On the weekly volleyball court with the kids he acted out a one-man ensemble of intimidation and everyone had a grand time of it.
Over time in the bush, Barry had pared his life down to a level of economy that came pretty close to the monk in his meditation cell. He got by nicely in a two-room cabin with no running water and the outhouse across the street. He watched his health, ate a simple monastic diet and had a permanent place at the coffee table in the store. Scratching up few hours of work a month to support it all was easy. Mostly, though, he worked hard at his art, delicate mandala tapestries sewn up out of tiny beads. For Barry, it turned out that the bush was a good place to stop while all the changes worked themselves out. It wasn't permanent for him...if we even dare speak of permanence and human affairs in the same sentence.
Over the few years before he left, a new Barry-body had emerged like a print in the developing tray. First, the belly flattened. Then the big beard and the ponytail vanished under a progressive series of trimmings. Toward the end he even began to leave the scowl behind. This past spring Barry went off on his annual summer walk-about by bicycle and boot saying he intended to hang out up around Skagway for a few months. He never made it there and he never made it back. All we could piece together from a few postcards was that the Cosmic Comedienne must have kidnapped him somewhere along the way. The last word we got was a clipping from an eastern newspaper showing him in some fancy place, all barbered, trimmed and tucked up, posing alongside a show of his artwork. It also sounded as though the Good Woman he'd been waiting for had finally materialized.
In The Big Picture, a little bush community like ours fills the essential need for that rare place where a person can find the room to simply be left alone. For some it's a snug year-round nest under a big tree, for others it's a safe temporary pull-off from the main freeway, a place of few distractions and no sudden moves where, at least for a little while, not much is going to happen except growth.
So, yes, we sort ourselves out at different levels of intensity, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident, and no doubt we're fortunate to have that freedom of choice. It's good to have choices. In the end, though, growth and change keep on happening... and romance, of course, still trumps everything.
Brooke Elgie writes from Tenakee Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.