The shack in winter

Somewhere in our heads we all have a shack, a space to go to for peace and escape, for getting away from the daily stresses that tie our lives up into knots. Shacks are places to let the knots unravel and let time catch up to itself, places to simply be ourselves. They are reservoirs free of pretence, politics or commitments. Shacks save. 

Shack space saves us when our souls suffer from drought, when in lean times we cannot find peace and our lives have tumbled into fragmentation.

I retreat to my inner shack all the time for peace of mind, but I love being at the outward shack too, the old wooden retreat on the coast of Tasmania, especially in winter. There I go in the rain for deep nourishment and for rejuvenation that gets me through until my next visit … or inner retreat.

Winter at the shack is the time for reading by a fire that smells sweetly of tea tree kindling, of listening to the snap and crackle of the sheoak and blackwood limbs that one pruned and stacked last summer for winter fires. It is a time to feel the lonely shack warm up and come to life after months of being ignored and home only to mice, huntsman spiders and the dreams of past summers. 

Winter at the shack is the time to cast off your city worries and slip on that old floppy jumper and your Ugg boots, and open a bottle of red. 

The shack in winter is a time to take out that Tolstoy that you’ve always wanted to read and then lounge on the sofa by the fire … and then quickly fall into a daydream, hardly a page read. Wintertime at the shack is the time to let yourself go to seed and snore aloud. Go ahead, no one will notice.

This time at the shack is yours to do as you please. You do not have to please anyone but yourself. You have earned this opportunity for nourishment. 

How long has it been since you’ve had your own time? Everyone or everything else seems to own our time these days, whether it is through commitments to work or kids or partners or family or finance – the list goes on and on. But at the winter shack we have the opportunity to reclaim ourselves and our time and space. Here we can replace our obligations with a time of waves beating the shore and winds husking around a warm hideaway; a time for disconnection from plans, pixels and responsibilities. Here we reclaim poise. 

Shack time is the pause between movements in a symphony, a place to disconnect so we can reconnect to the things that matter – especially in winter which nature gives to us as a time for introspection and renewal. 

Going to the shack in winter allows us to feel the exhilaration of winter, especially in Tasmania, where we see the dark moody wildness of creation, the strength of storms raging through the night and the fresh beauty of clear blue skies that arrive in morning like an unexpected gift, like an unexpected thought or idea that could change the world.

. . .

Winter at a Tasmanian shack is the chance to walk a deserted beach and gaze at the gulls as they wheel above, their wild squawks merging with the churn of the breaking sea waves and the whip of the wind. It is the time to see the soapy waves sweep up the shore toward the dunes and leave behind trinkets and treasures from the sea – all sorts of day-glow orange and pink sponges, black and burgundy coloured seaweed necklaces and a wondrous assortment of silver, pink and pearl-white shells, slick pebbles and well-travelled driftwood. 

Grab your old sou’wester and woollen hat and walk the damp beach. Don’t let the wind and showers stop you. Walk alone or with a friend. Go out and see what you can find.

There – an old plank covered in barnacles. I wonder which boat it came from, and from where. There – an old bottle with a cork still in it. Is there a note inside from some far-off place? The beach is littered with winkles, whelks and cockle shells that need haiku poems to even begin to describe their beauty. So many different colours, shapes and sizes. How old are they? Where did they come from? What lives in them? 

Even a cursory glance at nature creates far more questions than answers and I find this refreshing. Realising we know far less than we think we do is a good thing; it keeps us grounded, young and humble. What creature left those patterns threaded across the sand? 

The iridescent abalone shell I pick up is part of a family of molluscs that are from an ancient lineage of snails that have lived on the earth for millions of years. I suspect they will be here in another million. Will we? Time will tell.

Collect some of those scallop shells – one could make a hanging mobile with them or a wind chime or a mural.

Look at those hooded dotterels dancing down the beach and then flying off into the wind. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to fly? Oh to be a bird in my next life.

Walking the beach in winter is a chance to become a child again as one discovers what mysteries the sea has delivered to these far-away shores on this far-away island on this far-away planet. 

. . .

As you walk, new ideas come into your head and a rejuvenation begins. Suddenly it occurs to you: how it was that you got so wound-up about things this year at home and at work – the pent-up tension – and now, as you feel the cold rain slap your face and you see puffs of foam blow down the beach, you realise that none of those things that frustrated you matter at all. Forget them. The rain feels good and refreshingly cold. It is waking you up to the real world and to your soul.

The pelicans don’t mind the wind or rain; they stand or fly regardless, with a grace and deliberateness that is at the heart of nature. The pied oyster catchers embrace the winter wildness; they are in their element, they are just getting on with life, hanging out in their little gangs, discussing who knows what. They hardly notice as you pass by, your head bowed as the wind picks up, a little human walking on a thin strip of sand in the face of the Roaring Forties and wild seas that incessantly beat against these southern shores.

We are little creatures in the scheme of things, little limpets looking for home, but oh what a lot we have done with our searching, with our deep steps upon this planet. 

. . .

After a couple of hours of walking the sky has darkened – a front is coming in – and it is time to head back to the shack and stoke the fire. The red wine warms my soul and the warmth of the hearth is felt deeply in my bones. 

The storm has now picked up and it is good to be inside. The rain grows heavy and just after 4pm the lights go on and long winter evening has begun. Wind sways the bamboo blinds – I must caulk those window frames properly next summer; they do let in a bit too much weather. I put some newspaper in the gaps to block the draught. That’ll do. A bit of rain tapers down the inside of a cracked window – must fix that.

The wind bucks against the shack and its 50-year-old frame feels fragile. A draught of cold wind comes through, up under the doors. They need weather seals. The sump-oiled weatherboard walls are thin – no insulation – maybe this is something we should fix too … manana.

So many things to do. So many things to put off till summer – and then summer comes and suddenly life is in the full swing of visitors and swimming and snorkelling and kayaking and there is no time and so the jobs get put off. “We’ll do that in autumn,” we say and then autumn comes and the jobs get ignored as one gets prepared for winter – pruning and planting seedlings and cutting and stacking wood. 

And so the shack stays the same, year after year, with a long list of jobs yet to be done, but this is fine, for who cares? Like an old pair of slippers, the shack fits just fine and doesn’t really need any changes at all. 

The shack in a storm is a good time to put off doing anything, anything that reeks of a list – there are no lists allowed at the shack. Lists are for refrigerators back in town. Go listless and see where that nakedness takes you.

Have another wine.

. . .

The shack in winter is a good time to empty the jetsam of town life and fill up with new things, different things. Things that will give you resilience throughout the year. It is a time to empty out the worries of the old year, to simplify your life, and then to fill it up with new dreams, with the richness of rose pink shells, wild winds and the sound of the roaring sea. 

Let these shack discoveries enter your soul to fill you with a spiritual capital that will get you through the rest of the year. 

Stoke the fire and invest in your spiritual bank account as you listen to the wind moan and rain pelt down. You don’t need to outsource your spirituality; you can discover it here at the shack.

Slow down, life is not a race. 

. . .

The rain drapes down through the long dark night. The rain fills the shack’s tanks and fills your soul with happiness and renewal. 

Or maybe there is sadness that is raining down too – that is all right – go ahead and grieve, let yourself feel loss or sorrow – as we get older it is the way of things. There is a lot to be sad about. Storms come, storms go – life gives, life takes away – that’s the way it has always been. Recognise how you are feeling and if you need to, go ahead and cry. Your dreams will be better for letting it all out. 

When you wake up in the morning the shack reminds you that, at its core, life, despite its struggles and pain, is fine and miraculous, and life goes on regardless of setbacks or achievements. The wind blows and life unfolds for another day. 

Don Defenderfer is a native of San Francisco who once went on a holiday to Alaska where he met an Australian who told him to visit Tasmania. So he did, and while here he met a woman. That was 30 years ago. He was state coordinator for Landcare for many years, a job that allowed him to be inspired by not only the beauty of the Tasmanian landscape but by the many people that are trying to repair and renew it. He has a Masters Degree in Social Ecology and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies with a minor in writing. He has published three volumes of poetry, and his work has appeared in newspapers and periodicals, including The New York Times and The Australian.

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