Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: SUCCESSFUL
AS I WANDERED across the paddock, down towards the old timber building near the narrow stream that flowed through the property, I realised it had once been a cow bails, a place where cows were milked. The condition of the building suggested that had been some time ago. It wasn’t decrepit, just… time-worn, I guess you would call it.
My travelling companion was up at the old timber farmhouse doing something. She was a member of the Eastern spiritual group that owned this property in the Upper Hunter Valley two or so hours drive north of Sydney. I wasn’t, not being spiritually inclined though not being hostile to such groups.
I have long had an interest in shacks and the people who live in them, and an interest in old, utilitarian rural buildings and houses. So I suppose ot was more or less natural that I unslung my heavy Nikon D4 — a big, solid camera whose toughness made it a favourite of photojournalists at the time — from my shoulder and started to walk around the cow bails to check it out and to find the best direction and how the light fell so as to photograph it. It was like so many other cow bails I had seen — I’ve known a couple families up in northern NSW who lived in converted cow bails. Two enclosed rooms with a roofed open section joining them.
Once, presumably long ago now, this is where the cows were milked. I got the impression that those cows and the farming family that had tended to them and milked them daily through the years, perhaps through the decades, had left quite some years ago. It was just a feeling, that’s all… something about the place that spoke of lives once lived here, lives now gone elsewhere.
On the drive up here my travelling companion had told me that a young guy, a hermitlike character, lived alone as a caretaker on the property. She didn’t know whether he would be there. He was. He had seen me wandering around and came out. He lived in the cowbails, he explained, and, yes, he had no objection to my photographing inside.
The simplicity grabbed me as I walked in. A table and couple chairs, a kitchen sink and cupboard, a bed and another cupboard. A small electric oven on a bench, a few kitchen utensils hanging on the bare plank wall. Bare cement floor. That was the interior. Nothing else. Light streamed through the north-facing windows along one side of the room. I noticed the open space between the two rooms was used for storage by the landowners.
He was a young man, bushy blond hair uncombed. He dressed in long, loose trousers, sandals and one of those collarless, pullover cotton shirts reminescent of traditional Indian attire. It was white and the light bounced off it that bright summer day. Somehow, the style and colour fit this young man’s surroundings to suggest simple living with simple food and minimum possessions. Appropriate for living on a property owned by an Eastern spiritual group, I thought.
One summer, some earlier time
It must have been over half a decade earlier. Another summer day, though not one of those hot and humid summer days you get in Sydney. We, my two female copanions and I, were making our way along the well-established bush track to where a less-noticable and much narrower trail branched off. That we found and as we passed through the shade of the low, coastal tea trees I welcomed the coolness. The track brought us to a long sandstone shelf. We followed it and, at the end, descended the short, rocky slope that delivered us to the first of the shacks at the cove.
We were here to record an interview with one of the residents. This we did. It formed the core of a radio documentary we broadcast from the radio station we were working with.
He, the shack-dweller, showed us around the cove and its shacks, the work of generations of fishermen who would come here to spend weekends. In the sixties and seventies the settlement had been permanently occupied by what was described as ‘hippies’, an inexact description, it turned out. We were introduced to a young guy, ‘young’ being in his thirties, living in the small shack close to the harbour’s waters. Dense vegetation hid his shack and we didn’t notice it until we emerged from the scrub in front of the building. Inside, a large window gave an expansive view over the seaward end of the harbour, revealing South and North Head at the Harbour’s entrance. Beyond, the blue waters of the Pacific sparkled in the afternoon sunlight.
Our guide and interviewee we spoke with in his own shack, a structure of salvaged timber and windows with a chimney of local sandstone. The shack stood higher up the slope than the others making up this small, spontaneous settlement in this rocky cove, necessitating a scramble and passage along a narrow trail to reach it.
Inside, it was that sort of simplicity I would later find in that caretaker’s cowbails in the Upper Hunter. Furniture had been found, all of it well used, and carried into the shack. A table and a couple chairs, a basic kitchenette, LP gas stove of the type used by car campers, a bed made of salvaged timbers. Not much. All of it functional. Nothing superflous. No refrigeration, of course, there being no electricity service for some distance from the cove. Outside, on the roof, a length of black-painted steel pipe ending in a shower rose provided solar-heated water for washing.
We learned how the residents of the cove were removing weeds so as to give the bush a chance to grow. We saw this young man’s tiny vegetable garden enclosed in poultry wire to exclude hungry native animals, and his small enclosure housing two chooks. Most of all, we learned how calm and self-contained life was in the cove.
That caretaker in the cowbails and that young man living in the shack by the Harbour’s waters — separated in time they might be at my encounter with them, they had much in common. That is, the lives at those two locations were characterised by simple, basic accommodation, a simplicity of possessions, a calmness to their days. Possessions were few and only the basics, what I can only inadequatly describe as a simplicity though not an inadequacy. I also realised they had something very special — control over their lives.
The northeast wind
A wind had come up earlier in the morning. A northeasterly blowing in from the sea not all that far distant, it cooled what was to have been a hot summer day. It rose and fell, surging through the trees down along the back fence, its sussuration marking the passage of its gusts.
It was years after encountering the hermitlike caretaker on that Upper Hunter property, that young man living in his shack by the cove’s waters. I had sat down in the backroom of our apartment to write one of the WordPress Daily Posts, a program I had been participating in since the latter months of the last year. From outside came the sound of my partner doing something in the garden. She liked gardening and the products of her labour (and occasionally mine) we would sometimes eat at dinner. It was the day’s writing prompt — ‘successful’ — that stimulated my remembering those people and setting out to write a rambling, almost-memoir-like piece loosely assembled from memories around the prompt.
I think my responding to this daily writing prompt had been stimulated by recent reading I had been doing about people living in vans, and about climbers and others who formed a coterie collectively known as ‘dirtbags’ because accommodation is their sleeping bags on the ground. Reading about those people, the question of what constitutes a successful life would sometimes come up. Some of them had lived the conventional idea of a successful life but steadily it had tarnished and now they were refugees from corporate life and its idea of how we should live and how we should all be successful. Theirs’, I now know, is a growing band.
Successful. Could that hermit caretaking the spiritual group’s property be considered successful? Could that young man living in his shack by the waters of the cove be considered successful too? No. Not in the conventionsl sense. They had neither the personal wealth nor the possessions, conventional homes and lifestyle that were part of the being-successful kit.
Irrespective of what others might think, I see those two young guys, the hermit and the shackdweller in the cove, as successful. Why? Because they were in control of their lives, a control made possible by eschewing convenional notions of success such as wealth and quantity of possessions. Deliberately or otherwise, they had asked the philosophical questions about life, the same questions asked two and a half millennia ago by the Epicurian and Stoic philosophers of Classical Greece. They conclusions had been the same as those ancient questioners — the good life, the successful life, is one of basic though good food, modest shelter, the sociability of friends and a sufficiency of possessions rather than a drive to have it all.