I write a lot here, too much perhaps, about what is wrong with the world. Here are some words about what is right.
Sunday, I raced north to meet my father for a sail on the Gundalow out of Portsmouth. He was bringing lunch; I was in charge of cookies. Which didn’t get made, so I decided to hunt up some apple cider donuts en route. And so I got lost looking for the orchard, then was running too late to wait in the donut line at the scary Disney-like orchard. I sped off, worrying that I’d miss the boat, feeling badly that I had neither donuts nor cookies in hand, and mostly upset that here was something important to my dad and I was going to blow it.
Because it’s autumn in New England, I soon passed a no-frills tent in a parking lot that sold me six donuts in less than four minutes. The day was looking up.
When I rounded the last corner onto Marcy Street, I saw my dad jump out of the parking spot he’d been physically saving for me. I parked while he fed all his quarters to the meter. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father run, but he picked up his canvas L.L.Bean bag and I strapped on my backpack and we ran down the street, through the park, and down the gangway.
We weren’t even the last folks on board, but it was close enough to laugh and to feel like we’d won.
I’m partial to certain slants of sunlight. There is a clarity of light on fall afternoons—the air being colder, seems thinner, and so the light cuts deeper. That was the sun that came out as the gundalow maneuvered, via a discreet engine, away from its dock in Prescott Park. Being a smart-ass, I asked if the motor was historically accurate. Dad, who has molded and put up with my sense of humor for over thirty years, replied that, historically, they would have waited for the right tide and good wind, but that the Gundalow Company—which runs sailing tours of the Piscataqua River and does on-board education programs—needs the motor in order to run on a schedule compatible with paying for itself.
Once we were out on wider water, the captain cut the motor and passengers were invited to help hoist the sail. I’m not naturally nautical, but am fascinated by systems—that a line is pulled here, run through a pulley there, hoists up a triangular sail, which is connected by lines and to a yard, which is then connected to the mast in a way that allows the yard to drop horizontal, and by some rhythm unfamiliar to me, lines are held in way that keeps the sail taut with wind, and the boat goes forward. It is an impressive display of tactile knowledge, somehow timeless. Gundalows were used around the Piscataqua, in the Great Bay watershed from pre-Colonial through Industrial Revolution times. They’re flat-bottomed sailing barges, essentially, and are not designed for anything other than hauling stuff from place to place. The onboard guide said to think of them as the tractor-trailers of this place, in those times. The total lack of traditional romance, of simple and functional and sturdy, this is a singular kind of beauty. It is one of my favorites—this largely unsung beauty of doing the unglamorous work of the world. The sunlight on the water, the orange and yellow maple and beech trees amid the pines on shore, these would make anything look good. But maybe it does already, if you remember to look.
While not looking through binoculars or listening to my dad’s stories about his various adventures—from the Coast Guard to mistaking a lobster pot for a shark while out rowing—I was thinking about what it would be like to live with nature. To live not by a calendar and a watch but by what the tides determined, by what wind did or did not come your way. There are times when, in the mountains mostly, I have come close to this. There is something at once companionable and adventurous about not maintaining the illusion of human control. I’ve found this in the mountains, mostly, with finding that the mountains and the weather do not care about my plans or preparations. There is loveliness is in giving up control to the forces of nature. A strong wind anywhere almost always reminds me of this, and it seems that the windier it gets hiking, the happier I am.
I live in search of some combination of this happy-companionable-adventurousness-not-full-controlled state and of being rooted in a home place.
We sailed back, docking just as the setting sun force of nature were making it a little chillier than comfortable on board. After a good wander around Portsmouth in the deepening gold light of the late afternoon, Dad and I drove our separate ways. I headed down Route 1-A, hugging the rocky few miles that are New Hampshire’s coastline, and thinking only about the sunlight and the wind and the water, not rushing for a clock. I forget about the ocean sometimes, having spent so long and owing so much to the mountains. And so, when I pulled off the road and sat for a while on the rocks, listening to the waves and smelling the salt air, I was surprised to find that the wind on my face feels the same sort of wonderful.
That thing I'm looking for, it's already, always here, I think. And, I forget to look, there are gorgeous sunrises and sunsets every day, better than clockwork.
(Photo by David J. Murray of ClearEyePhoto.com, taken from www.gundalow.org--I highly recommend checking it out and taking a sail next season.)