Friday, October 09, 2015

Book Review: The Sea Gypsy Philosopher
The Sea Gypsy Philosopher: Uncommon Essays from a Thoughtful Wanderer
By Ray Jason
164 pp. Club Orlov Press – May 2015. $12.00.

by Frank Kaminski, Mud City Press

The author of this singularly beguiling book has been so many things and visited so many places. Growing up in the Philadelphia area in the 1940s and '50s, he developed an avid interest in philosophy, English-language haiku and political science, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in this latter subject. He went on to serve in Vietnam, after which he pioneered the street performance scene in '70s San Francisco, as that city’s first professional street juggler. The `90s saw Jason take up life on a sailboat wandering the seas, a life he continues to ardently pursue to this day. Though he’s sailed nearly enough miles to have circled the Earth one and a half times, he’s discovered a favorite spot in the Caribbean that he calls the “Archipelago of Bliss.” Among the activities that fill his days there are writing, juggling, foraging, getting to know his neighbors (human and animal) and encouraging his many followers to join him on his unconventional path.

As one might guess from the above description, Jason is a thinker of a truly fascinating sort. He goes by the self-deprecating moniker “sea gypsy philosopher,” and his book of the same name presents a vivid portrait of his extraordinary way of life using the descriptive powers of narrative writing and poetry. It also explores the intellectual underpinnings of the sea gypsy way and provides tips to those who wish to emulate it. For Jason, this lifestyle is partly about rejecting the consumerist ideals that rule the lives of most people in the industrial world. On another level, it’s a means of preparing for the ecological and economic disasters coming to us courtesy of consumerism. Should mayhem happen to erupt nearby Jason—whether due to disease, resource shortages or marauders—he’s able to simply sail away from it, a luxury few others have.

First-time visitors to Jason’s 30-foot sloop Aventura can’t believe he manages to eke out his sublime existence in a mere 140 square feet of space. And Jason, for his part, relishes their disbelief. There’s almost always an awkward pause as his visitor first surveys the spartan setting, followed by the worried question, “Ray? Where’s all your stuff?” Then Jason, who prides himself on happily getting by with roughly the same amount of space as Henry David Thoreau had in his cabin at Walden Pond, will say, “This is my stuff, and there’s too damn much of it!”

For two and a half decades now, Aventura has served Jason well as both a home and a “magic carpet” transporting him to wondrous new lands. Jason has logged more than 35,000 miles on his trusty boat during that time, most of them single-handedly. He’s long since made a habit of going long stretches without having to obtain food, water and other provisions from ashore. A rainwater collection system delivers his water for drinking and showering, and a solar water heater permits him to have warm showers. He has a small PV-powered fridge but prefers not to use it much, instead relying mostly on nonperishable food items and some vegetables he grows on the boat. Jason is always careful not to claim that he’s living a totally self-reliant life at sea, however, since his cupboards contain plenty of store-bought fare such as canned soup, bacon and butter. Nonetheless, it’s clear that in a post-collapse situation he would be able to adapt with minimal adjustments.

His ideas about what constitutes a life well lived are heavily influenced by three passages he has encountered in the course of his reading life, from the works of Socrates, Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Perhaps the most profound of these is the pronouncement, attributed to Socrates in Plato's Apology, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”1 Jason feels this should be an empowering quote for any nonconformist, encouraging him or her to question the value of time spent shopping at the mall, keeping up on celebrity gossip or engaging in other trivial distractions perpetrated by pop culture, and to see how that time might be better spent.

The essays in The Sea Gypsy Philosopher, which started out as posts on Jason’s popular eponymous blog, often begin with revealing vignettes drawn from his own experiences. In one of these, the anguished look he once saw on a young Indio woman’s face as she gazed longingly at Aventura—wishing, he surmises, that she too could see the world—is the catalyst for a diatribe against female oppression. In another, Jason prefaces an anti-war lamentation by describing how he once heard a couple of guys in a nearby speedboat refer to the deafening sound of two U.S. military jets flying overhead as “the sound of freedom.” He is angered by this remark, knowing from his firsthand experience of war during Vietnam that the shriek of U.S. fighter planes hardly sounds like freedom to the people of a country being attacked by America. The essay that follows is his retort to the speedboaters.

Jason uses the term “Malignant Overlords” to describe those at the center of power and influence. In his view, these individuals are an irredeemably corrupt cadre of psychopaths and sociopaths whose lust for ever greater power will never be satisfied. They’re fully aware of the impending economic meltdown and may actually be engineering it. The reason they’re going to such lengths to install a militarized police and surveillance state in America (even equipping school districts with armored personnel carriers!) is to protect themselves against the desperate, pillaging hordes sure to appear during the collapse. Though the powers-that-be may purport to be our leaders, Jason insists they’re really our rulers.

In addition to denouncing the Malignant Overlords, Jason also categorically condemns war. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War during college—a fact he credits with first putting him on the Overlords’ “S list”—and he subsequently saw the awfulness of war firsthand when he was drafted into the Navy. His sparing accounts of the horrors he witnessed are powerful, as is his description of the “beaten down and regretful and frightened” air of so many soldiers he's met. Jason’s two main takeaway points about war are that it never achieves its outcome and it wouldn't be tolerated if the media showed its true grisliness. He has no easy answers as to how war could be abolished, however, knowing full well that it’s "idealistic and foolhardy" to expect the masses to be able to counter the will of the war-profiteering elite with their sheer numbers.

Among the other institutions of modern industrial society that Jason justifiably skewers are television, the Nobel prizes for peace and economics, monotheistic religions and nuclear deterrence. His criticism of television comes in the form of a letter to a reality TV show producer who contacted him about appearing in a program on “larger-than-life self-reliant sailors.” My favorite line from the letter: “Reality TV is to reality what Velveeta is to cheese.” As for Jason’s positions on the above-mentioned Nobel prizes, he coins the witticism “Nobel Peace Prize Deception” to describe the Peace Prize selection process; and his advice to the committee for the economics prize is to start “reward[ing] research and theories that are understandable and also valuable to the society as a whole." Jason also embraces polytheism as an alternative to the “terrorist organizations” that so many monotheistic churches represent. Lastly, he proposes that we use the resources currently spent on nuclear armament to address climate change.

Jason's notions as to how best to survive the transition to a deindustrial future make up a sizeable portion of this book. He's skeptical about the viability of most initiatives aimed at building collapse-proof communities because of their vulnerability to marauders, a weakness he’s confident his approach doesn’t have. He points out that if, during one of his stays ashore, he catches wind of nearby marauders, he can simply evade them on his boat and take up residence somewhere else. It will, of course, be objected that taking to the sea introduces the risk of piracy; but Jason anticipates this criticism and rebuts it convincingly. He reasons that pirates usually target large ships with loads of potential booty, rather than small craft such as Aventura, and that when they do strike, the news quickly hits the radio nets, alerting others to the danger.

So firmly does Jason believe in his plan for surviving collapse that he has codified it into a program for others to follow. He envisions vibrant communities of forward-looking people disconnecting from life on land to form “sea gypsy tribes,” and to this end he provides detailed guidance on creating such a tribe. Jason’s advice covers a wealth of topics, including learning to sail, buying and outfitting a boat and becoming more self-reliant.

What I like most about this book is its painterly attention to detail in describing the extraordinary—yet for Jason everyday—sights to be seen from aboard Aventura. Jason sets the scene for one essay by telling of “a cove so serene that the birds seemed to fly at half speed in order to preserve the tranquility." In another piece, he recalls a magnificent moment spent savoring a shimmering “moon bow” in the night sky along with several dolphins: “Bands of luminous silver, opaque white and misty lavender arched across the eastern horizon.” No less compelling is his recollection of one ominous, stormy night: “The sky was as dark and nasty as the soul of a Dostoyevsky villain. Huge, powerful clouds that resembled charcoal dipped in molten lead were blasting down the mountainside towards Aventura.”

My sole quarrel with this book is that two of Jason’s favorite quotations are quoted somewhat inaccurately. The first of these is Whitman's dictum “Resist much, obey little,”2 which in Jason’s text reads “Question much—obey little!” Jason also credits Thoreau with writing, “A man is rich in direct proportion to the number of things that he can live without,” when in fact Thoreau wrote, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”3 I have a feeling that Jason’s intent was to paraphrase these quotes rather than reprinting them verbatim—but if so, he should have indicated that he was paraphrasing and left off the quote marks. Thus, while I enjoyed Jason’s book a great deal on the whole, these discrepancies blunted the edge of my passion.

The Sea Gypsy Philosopher is the first title to be released by Club Orlov Press, a small publishing company recently started by beloved peak oil author Dmitry Orlov. Jason and Orlov are longtime friends, as well as kindred spirits in writing, sailing and helping others prepare for the challenging times ahead. Together they’ve brought us an arresting book about an enchanting way of life that just may prove to be many people’s ticket to not just surviving, but thriving, in the coming age. I certainly plan on keeping an eye out for future offerings from both Jason and Club Orlov Press.


1 Plato, “Apology - 38a,” in Plato in Twelve Volumes, vol. 1, translated by Harold North Fowler; introduction by W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1966).
2 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: comprising all the poems written by Walt Whitman: following the arrangement of the edition of 1891-'2 (New York: Modern Library, 1892), 9.
3 Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1910), 106.


NowhereMan said...

Great post, as usual, Dmitry. Regarding Jason's views on war, I think one of the signature achievements of our ruling elite is to market war as the ultimate team sport. The US military's ties to NFL and college football in particular are no mere happenstance, but were the well-planned result of a generational marketing campaign, which, in conjunction with rising unemployment rates throughout the period, made both sports and the military into very attractive options for our increasingly disaffected youth. They're a powerful combination, and their effects won't be easy to undo at all. Soldiers might still return from war "beaten down and regretful," [increasingly not, for American soldier's at least, as standoff weapons like cruise missiles and drones greatly alleviate the horrors of war] but they still march off just as proud and boastful as ever beforehand. Our Malignant Overlords can be expected to continue calling the same old tunes as long as we plebes agree to dance; but the question remains, when will we smarten up and refuse to dance for them? That's gonna be a tougher nut to crack.

gwizard43 said...

Seasteading has been a dream of mine since I first encountered 'The New Age of Sail' - and then running into Jason's Sea Gypsy piece in the 'Communities That Abide' booklet. Recently, I've begun to do some actual research on how one might go about realizing such a dream in a practical sense (my time frame is ~3 years out, primarily depending on costs). Jason's book looks to offer some suggestions and explanations that will be useful - so thanks for posting!

I'm finding that one obstacle that stands in the way of doing a decent assessment of what it would take to seastead is that most of the available informational resources on the web are, of course, biased toward doing this with the US as a home base. There's lots of info is you want to become a liveaboard in Boston, or Seattle, for example. I'm more interested in deploying the strategy abroad. Seems like everything from buying a sail boat to living aboard one could be done with considerably less ongoing expense were it to be done from, say, a country in Latin America - Uruguay, Costa Rica, etc - or the Caribbean.

It would be terrific to see a post that examines seasteading from that perspective!