See Smaller

In my ongoing quest for obscurity, I am working here for the month of June (or at least in the building that is out of sight behind me):

It is spectacular, and beautiful, and if I hadn’t followed my staggering path, I never would have found it. I never would have found myself running this boardwalk during my dinner break, and watching the fog roll in over the island, past the lighthouse.

I wander these lands, and I find myself overcome with both awe and grief. Awe because it reminds me that there are places in the world in which the human presence is so small that it can be washed away by a single large storm. And grief because it reminds me so of the place where I grew up.

The beauty is stark, punctuated by rocks and scrubby evergreens.

It is not one of the landscapes that is widely circulated; it does not feel conducive to human life. The houses and people in this part of the world remind me of these trees, clinging to a world that only grudgingly provides for them:

But it’s a life, you know? It still matters, this tiny village of 240, where lobsters rule the sea.

I walked the hall, and looked at the shiny school photos from the 1950’s and the 1960’s and the 1970’s… the classes getting smaller and smaller, until they closed the school and they started busing the kids to a nice new building (the one, it happens, that my kids go to also). Poked my head into the tiny museum. And my heart caught in my throat, as I watched the community slowly sliding into the sea over the decades.

We, from the small places of the world, we grow up, we go to university, we leave. We don’t come back. My existence here is aberrant. It’s like being a semi-anthropologist, an interloper, an alien. “Oh, are you from Sydney?” (45 km away, and what passes for city in these parts. The truth is so complicated, I just claim Albert Bridge and be done with it. I grew up in the city anyway, even if it was a different small city attached to a different small place. The relationship is accurate, if the facts are not.)

***

There is beauty in the small. “To see the world in a grain of sand…” On the edge of the ocean, the vast, there is this strawberry-in-waiting:

But behind it, there is the slipping away. The first afternoon I was at the library, somebody called asking for the phone number of the church, because the ones that they could find didn’t work. I popped into the cafe to ask, because I thought they would have that information… which they did, after a fashion. “Oh, you have to call the priest in [the neighbouring community]. We share the parish, now. There’s no phone at the church any more.” Just a statement, something else lost in the slow dismantling.

Let us not romanticize, here. Rural life is hard. Fishing and farming are dangerous, dirty work, from which people frequently don’t come home. The hours are long and the pay is dreadful, and all the risk is borne by the person doing it, and all the benefit accrues to the rest of us. But it was coherent. It was a Way of Life. And yes, people were oppressed by expectations, and they left, and they became the tellers of tales. But what about the ones who stayed, who wanted this for their lives? They’re bleeding to death, these small places, one lost dream at a time.

We glance at this and turn away, unwilling to see the slow erosion not of the past, but of the present. The traps are coming up empty, they tell me. And what they do catch won’t pay for the fuel to drag them out of the water, or the balloon payments on the boats. The fish are all gone where I grew up, and they aren’t coming back. People want their potatoes for 43 cents a pound even when it cost 73 to grow them. There is no way of making a living, here. Somehow, over the years, the dreams all went to town, and with them went the money.

***

What if you build it, and nobody comes? That beautiful boardwalk next to the sand has dozens of platforms, ideal for a picnic, or maybe a camp-out.

They should ring with laughter, and the long summer evenings of families at the beach. But they echo with emptiness. The grand plans have come to this:

And I cover my heart with my hand. Count my blessings at having been here. And try to encompass the loss.

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