Listening notes: On farmers, sailors, and farmers who sail

A while ago I listened to an episode of The Path Less Pedaled called “The sailor and the farmer.” It’s a podcast about bikepacking hosted by Russ Roca and Laura Crawford. In this episode, Russ meditates a little on their recent decision to settle down a bit. He rented an apartment with Laura. He found himself staying put in a way he’d never seen himself doing. As he tells it:

Back in 2009… I sat down with a colleague and we had coffee… He said, ‘Basically, in this world, there are two types of people. There are farmers and there are sailors. Farmers are those people that are really deeply embedded into their community. They see joy in seeing the sun rise and set over the fruits of their labor. And really, watching things that they invest in grow. Sailors, on the other hand, what brings them joy is the prospect of seeing new horizons: meeting new people, being in a different landscape. Sometimes you are the farmer, and sometimes you are the sailor.

I find those two images — a farmer sowing seed, a sailor leaving shore — fascinating as a way of thinking about a fork in the road many of us face at some point. Should I stay or should I go? Do I need to find out what’s around the bend, or do I need to grow some roots? Do I need to see, or do I need to build?

I struggle with this from time to time. I’ve been a “farmer” for most of my adult life: raising my kid, being a husband, fixing up our old house and its little garden. I see my work — drawing, writing, design, and code alike — as a similar kind of “farming”; a slow cultivation of my own discipline, skill, and voice over a lifetime. It’s a good life and I’m very lucky to be here. But from time to time I still feel a little restless.

I have a recurring dream. In my dream, I’m planning some kind of trip. It’s usually somewhere far away, a place I haven’t been to before, a place I find exciting, a place I feel, maybe, a little precarious about visiting. In my dream, I never actually arrive at my destination. It’s entirely about the planning and anticipation. I feel an intense sense of excitement and… call it longing. The feeling that I finally get to go somewhere, that I’m finally realizing something I didn’t know I wanted so bad. There is a feeling that life will be complete once I’ve done this.

I don’t really know where this dream is coming from. Is my restlessness a product of the pandemic? Is this my own version of midlife crisis? Or is it something essential to me that I’ve neglected awhile? Do I have some sailor in me, deep down, who needs to set off?

I can’t really say. In the cold light of morning, when my dream has evaporated, I know that the adventure is not likely live up to the anticipation. I’ve been lucky enough to travel here and there and my memories, on the whole, are very, very good. But the good ones are shot through with other memories: sleeping poorly, waking up cold, indigestion, sickness, injury, stress, fear, uncertainty, exhaustion. Things go wrong. The exciting stories you come home with can be pretty miserable as they’re happening.

The reality, most likely, is that truly “sailing” is not feasible anytime soon for me. The farm needs tending and that’s my job right now. And I have complicated feelings about travel these days. COVID made travel more dangerous than it’s ever been, and I’m still adjusting to a less precarious, post-pandemic reality. Travel can add carbon to our atmosphere that shouldn’t be there. Tourism is at best a mixed blessing for developing economies, and at worst a subtler form of colonialism. It is an act of privilege and wealth. It is, inevitably, all too easy to believe that you know a place and its people far better than you actually do, thanks to various cognitive biases. In a week or two we see a certain version of a place, and it’s so easy for us to assume that this thin slice is all there is.

That’s the funny paradox, I think, about “farming” versus “sailing.” The sailor has perhaps seen more of the world, but it’s harder for them to know any part of it in a meaningful way. The farmer has seen only their little patch of the expanse, but they will come to know it deeply, and, hopefully, leave it in a better state than they found it.

On the other hand, it’s easy for the farmer to let their habits ossify — to become provincial, narrow, and dogmatic. Farmers need fresh air and new perspectives as much as sailors do, I suppose. Perhaps a bit a sailing, here and there, makes for a better farmer.

As Russ notes in the podcast, it’s not that one is better than the other. The world needs both and we all might shift from one to another from time to time. Maybe that restlessness I’m feeling is just normal push-and-pull. Life changes, and we need different things along the way.