the cost of a thing is the amount of life exchanged for it (Thoreau)
Between ski traversing the Hardangervidda in Norway, squinting at North Korea from the DMZ boundary in South Korea, stalking lions and zebra and elephants (oh my) in Kenya, roadtripping across Canada, hanging out in the wild west with pals, and now mountain adventuring in India, the year 2010 has been a pretty tough go. But hey, somebody has to do it. Many of these adventures will eventually surface in some form of writing, but for now, and in response to emails, I want to comment on the lifestyle of a starving writer/explorer/wilderness pilgrim.
When people discover how I spend my days these days, their reaction is usually something like “you must be filthy rich or crazy.” While I’m often filthy, I’m infinitely remote from rich. For proof consider my steady diet of salsa and peanut butter. Money, at least by my idiosyncratic economics, is worthy of pursuit only to the extent that it enables rich and transformative experience. Anything more – acquiring wealth for the sake of wealth – risks becoming its own form of impoverishment. I admire Thoreau’s system of accounting, which defines the cost of something as the “amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it.” And as a dear friend pointed out, this doesn’t simply mean the amount of your life, but life in general, and the planet on which all life depends.
So my answer to “how do you afford the adventurous life?” is simply this: I live simply. Rather chaotically, but simply. My life mostly fits into a backpack, with occasional spillover onto bookshelves and bike racks. I’ve pared down my expenses to the point of no rent, no cell phone, no car, and no monthly bills. With an unfaltering appetite for monotonous food, coupled with a fondness for tent living and couch surfing (facilitated by generous friends and family who actually own couches), I manage to squeak by on meager income – and explore the world.
That income mostly comes from the environmental reporting I do for the International Institute for Sustainable Development. As part of this NGO's Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) team, I get launched around the world to cover UN meetings and environmental conferences. Then I extend my work travels into "side trips," which are less tangential tourism and more field research expeditions. These excursions inspire and inform the writing I most love to do, namely the kind that explores the origin and expression of my various astonishments: natural wonders, far-flung facts, poetry written and lived, wildness in all its guises. Or as Annie Dillard puts it, “tales of grandeur, tales of risk.” In short, the kind of writing that guarantees, even in a world where almost nothing is guaranteed, that I will never ever in a million dog years get rich.
But what is richness, if not this abundance of time and space to wander and dream, to read and write? This unstructured but examined life, driven by curiosity and magnetized by mountains and other wildernesses, has provided my most intense schooling. Like Dylan Thomas: "My education was the liberty I had to read indiscriminately, and all the time, with my eyes hanging out." (That said, I owe so much of what I’m doing and who I am now to many years spent in an academic setting, educational opportunities for which I'm inexpressibly grateful. So to all the young kids out there: if you want to see the world, study hearty. It’s your ticket!)
As Ann Lamott frames it, "this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?" In answer I say fiercely alive. It’s a precarious existence, this business of becoming a writer, and by writer I really mean an explorer in the most fundamental sense: one who ventures into unfamiliar territory, whether physical or creative or metaphysical or emotional, and returns to tell the tale. It’s an impecunious existence too, depending on your system of accounting, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But as Evelyn Underhill wrote, “He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.”
Indeed. That said, if anyone out there has leads on potential salsa or peanut butter sponsors, kindly get in touch.
For me it is simply instinct, and perhaps that is all that a person can try to put into each of her days: attention to the radiance, a rise to the full chase of beauty. -Ellen Meloy