It seems crazy to be thinking about boats at a time like this. Not just with winter closing in, but within this climate of growing uncertainty as the imminence of collapse emerges into our everyday lives. The old patterns don’t work, and whether we are upset by this, or inwardly glad to see cracks in the insanity; the result is still confusing and frightening to contemplate. It’s no longer just the theoretical fate of the world, but our own fates that begin to unbalance. The worse it gets, I find myself ever more drawn to a contemplation of boats. This could be simply my falling back on a soothing area of familiarity, or it could just be my particular delusion as I look for a way to avoid inconvenient, and growingly uncomfortable, truths.
I don’t think either of these rationales cover it. There are other aspects that would be useful to unravel. I’ve written about futility and our difficulty grasping at enormity. We need forms to hold and carry our sense of meaning, to embody and sustain what we hold to have value. We need vessels of transformation to carry us forward. Boats do this. They have done this for an unaccountably long stretch of our human experience.
“In difficult times” – I use this phrase in the title of my new project in part because “hard times” is taken, already freighted with so much baggage. I also use it a little tongue-in-cheek. “Difficult” is a fussy word compared to “hard,” or “emergency,” or any of the other terms grading off into the openly Apocalyptic labels used to decry our predicament. What I particularly like about “difficult” is its dispassionate tone. It’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It’s not weighted towards ease or impossibility. It suggests a certain confidence that what is demanded of us is within our capacity to manage.
In difficult times it becomes not only imperative to clarify our values, but in a way, our difficulty dealing with increasing uncertainty clarifies the mind – if one has worked to prepare psychologically for the event. Difficulty helps us focus. We gain, not certainty – that chimeric appeal to look for heroes – but earns us a work-a-day humility that has lost its dilettantish squeamishness. Our previous embarrassment at appearing outside the norm, at losing our cool fades when the normal and the cool have so obviously dropped the ball.
A focus on boats brings other advantages. If we hold them in our mind’s eye they cost very little while they entertain us and tap into wellsprings of joy in relation to the physical world beyond our control. This isn’t trivial. A field of play is crucial to breaking old patterns and finding new paths.
Let’s remember that boats have had supreme utility for us since deep into prehistory. Their current eclipse into decadence. Their seeming irrelevance is a symptom, not of what’s wrong with boats, but of their marginalization. Today many remain focused on speed and efficiency. To them boats are mere excuses for consumption, vehicles for burning petroleum in the sacred rite of our era. These people are easily discounted as members of the hordes of Zombies that clog our world. To those of us angry at the general abuses perpetrated by powerful vampiric elites, boats are seen as obscene luxury items, a potent symbol of what’s wrong with extreme social inequality. Our frustration with these roles is healthy. It’s also a good reason to work to rescue something as fundamental as boats from these conceptual prisons. This culture rarely values anything rightly. It shouldn’t be surprising that it gets boats so wrong too. Finding ways to think about boats and potentially finding ways to fit them into our changing lives will be the actual work of this rehabilitation.
There are a few individuals, misfits without means, who insist on following a calling about boats. There are those from among the elites who have devoted significant portions of their “surplus” to help maintain a living tradition with boats. These people have provided boats with a privileged oasis within which what’s left of deep traditions have been maintained to the present day.
For me a personal clue has helped me see the need to make this connection. In my dealings with Systems Thinkers, and my fellow Dark Mountaineers, I’ve been asked where I developed my affinity for these subjects. As I look back it has all grown out of my experiences with boats. I’ve discovered a shared foundation of experience, a certain regard for the way we deal with assumptions, a questioning attitude towards hubris, and an acknowledgement of humility my new friends share with many of my old friends. It’s not a coincidence. If you’ve followed any of the currents I’ve written about here you’ll see how these equivalent habits of mind exist within the practice fine art, a relationship with boats, and a view of the world as a unified entity.
There’s an apparent gulf between these two related tribes. I think it is superficial. Each group’s language tends to be off-putting to outsiders. It’s easy to mistake certain trappings of the others manner as precious or self-dramatizing. Having swum in both pools, I know these differences shield deep, deep affinities.
It can be boiled down into a simple equation, though its elements must hold nuance and shades of particularity if it is to be useful.
What the boat tribe needs is a way to rediscover a greater relevance in our difficult times. We need to be able to answer the fair question, Why boats now, at a time like this?
What the theoreticians and poets and writers need is to find modes of contact with actual forms living in the world, to find things to align ourselves with as opposed to being constantly forced into defining ourselves in opposition. Instead of only being “Un-something” we need to be “about something.”
Boats provide a potent point of contact between these two related tribes. Boats can provide form to ideas, and boats can embody meaning within their forms.
I hope my new project, Boats for Difficult Times provides an entry for people who love boats into the kind of discussion this blog has been a part of. I also hope it may give those who’ve followed this blog a sense of how boats can be vessels of transformation, vessels holding deep meaning, and providing viable forms to carry our thoughts. Boats carry meaning. Boats transport us emotionally as well as physically.