What You Have On a Boat

In a not-unexpected turn of events, Jason and I spent a week on a boat last month — on a canal boat on the Llangollen Canal along the border of England and northern Wales. We last did a trip like this when the kids were small, and have always wanted to do it again. Finally, after postponing many exciting vacation plans in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid, we got to fulfill that dream of canal boating again. Though doing it as a couple was a different experience from doing it with small children, it was every bit as beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing as we remembered.

One of the things you get to do on a relaxing trip (if you’re me, anyway) is a lot of reading. In 2006 I worried about running out of books, and stocked up on a few extra paperbacks in London before getting onto our narrowboat. In 2022, I downloaded 10 books onto my e-reader — a few from the library and a few I’d purchased — and they took up very little space in my tightly-packed luggage in return for hours of reading pleasure.

One of the books I read was Emma Donoghue’s new novel Haven — I read it quickly, enjoyed it, and reviewed it over on my book blog. But I didn’t include on the book blog what really lingered with me — the thoughts that Haven stirred up in the process of reading it while wondering if the waste tank underneath the boat toilet needed a pump-out before we got back to the base.

Let me explain.

For a week on the narrowboat, we lived in relative comfort and convenience, but we lived the kind of life that’s common to people who spend a lot of time on boats, or in RV’s, or in off-grid cabins, or, of course, in most of the “developing world.” (I recognize that term is problematic). In other words, we had to spend time thinking about our resources, our energy sources, and even our waste.

We had to fill the boat’s water tank every day or so, whenever we passed a handy tap on the side of the canal (as Jason is doing in the photo at the top of this post). We had to run the engine for at least 6 hours every day, even the day we spent tied up sightseeing and didn’t sail at all, because the boat’s engine is also the generator that powers the lights and electricity on the boat. And if the “tank level” underneath the toilet got too high, we would have to stop somewhere to get it pumped out. In other words, we had to keep an eye on our crap.

In the novel Haven, Emma Donoghue follows three seventh-century Irish monks on a voyage to Skellig Michael, an uninhabited island where their leader, Artt, is convinced God has called him to found a new monastic house entirely cut off from any contact with other humans. The other two monks assume they’ll be leaving the island occasionally to trade for food and goods, as they have done in their previous monastery. But it turns out Artt has a pretty extremist view of self-sufficiency and monasticism and doesn’t want them to ever leave the island or have contact with anyone else.

As Skellig Michael has very little in the way of natural resources to use for food, fuel, or shelter, this puzzles and worries his two recruits, but Artt clings with fanatical devotion to the idea that “God will provide.” What this means, in practice, is that these three men who are dedicated to living a life of absolute simplicity and reliance on God, end up using the island’s sparse resources with far more destruction and waste than if they had just gone to trade with other people (or for that matter, stayed in their original monastery and not gone to Skellig Michael at all).

Maybe the use of natural resources wasn’t the main theme Donoghue was hoping readers would tease out of this novel, but the image that will stay with me longest is of the monks burning thousands of seabird chicks for fuel after losing their small store of hoarded driftwood to a storm. And with my natural squeamishness, I had to kind of skim the lengthy descriptions of the monks storing their own excrement to use as fertilizer for their garden (there being no large mammals whose manure was fit for the purpose).

Lying awake late at night in our little boat berth reading this bit, then getting up to go to the bathroom and thinking, “Is that waste tank under the toilet getting full yet?” sent me down the road of some Deep Thoughts about resources, waste, and how I live in the world.

I love reading about history, but I love living in twenty-first century North America. And some of the things I love best about living in this place and time are the very things that make life in this place and time ultimately unsustainable.

I love taking a shower without having to think about whether there’s enough hot water, or enough water at all. (Boat showers had to be short and to the point).

I love turning the lights and the heat on and knowing the only consequence will be a higher light and heat bill — not that that’s negligible, especially for people with lower incomes than I have, but we do tend to treat electricity as a resource that’s just there and always will be — we don’t have to run the boat six hours a day (using diesel fuel) to be sure we have enough electricity to keep the lights on.

And more than perhaps anything about modern Western urban living, I love, love, love, going to the bathroom and flushing the toilet and never having to think about where the crap has gone.

These things that I love are highly specific to my place and time. Most people in the world don’t live like this. Before my parents’ childhood, people in my part of the world didn’t live like this either. Having resources such as light, heat, and water seamlessly delivered to your home in an (apparently) endless supply, with no considerations other than a monthly bill to pay — not to mention having bodily wastes flushed away to a place where we never have to see or think about them again — is, I would argue, a key part of what it means to be a modern, urban resident of the Western world. It’s also a huge aberration, geographically and historically.

In most places and times in history, the things that concerned me on the boat — do we have enough energy to keep the lights on? Is there enough water for me to take a shower and still wash the dishes later? Is the poop tank becoming too full and how can we get rid of it? — are everyday human concerns. I’m just one of a handful of people across all human history who got to be born, grow up, and grow old in a world where I basically never had to think about these things except on certain types of vacations.

Or, of course, when natural disasters strike. We left Canada for our British vacation on Sept. 25, the day after Hurricane Fiona hit Atlantic Canada. While our biggest concern was whether the storm would disrupt our flight, people in our province and in Nova Scotia (the province we had to fly out of to get to England) were experiencing huge disruptions in their daily routines — and that’s not even mentioning the greater tragedies of people who lost their homes (and in one sad case, a life). When we returned to Canada on October 8, some people in Nova Scotia who had lost power in the story still didn’t have it back. While we were rationing our electricity consumption on the boat for fun, they were doing without it altogether. Natural disasters give us stark reminders of what life would be like without the conveniences we take so for granted.

Although I have great hopes that smart, inventive people will figure out some brilliant clean energy solutions in the remaining decades of my lifetime, I do think that the already-occurring effects of climate change will get worse and make everyday life worse for most people (except perhaps the super-rich).

It’s funny how climate deniers seem to think climate change is a big ON/OFF switch — “Oh, you liberals crying about how we’re all gonna DIE because of climate change, stop fearmongering!!” There’s a lot of stops between “everything is perfectly ok” and “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!” and the best-case scenario at this point obviously is to keep from going too far down that road. And as we try to apply the brakes, one of the things I’m most certain of is that my grandchildren’s lives (assuming I ever have grandchildren) are, in many ways, going to be a lot more like my grandparents’ lives than they are like mine. Or a lot more like living on a boat.

In other words, I don’t think my grandchildren are going to be able to turn the lights on, leave them blazing all night, take a hot shower and watch a movie on a 50 inch screen, all without ever thinking about where that power is coming from. I think they might even have to keep track of their poop and where it’s going.

While on the canal, we often passed boats that were not tourist rentals like ours, but boats that people owned, either living on or staying long-term. Those people were definitely thinking about resources. Whenever we’d cruise past a moored-up boat with solar panels, a little wind turbine, logs for the wood burning heater, and a rooftop garden on top of the boat, I’d think, “There it is … the house of the future.” Though the house of the future won’t necessarily be a floating one.

Between the disruptions climate change is going to cause, and the changes needed to live more sustainably to keep those disruptions from getting any worse, I think this brief historical and geographical anomaly that I was born into — a life where you don’t need to think overmuch about where your resources come from, or where your waste goes — will be over in a couple of decades. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime; if it is, I hope I can be as resilient, hard-working, and inventive as my great-grandparents had to be just to live their daily lives.

I wouldn’t bet on myself, though — after a week of boat living, we checked into a hotel back in London and the first thing I did was plug in every device to charge them, surf social media on reliable wifi, and take a very hot shower. And, of course, use the bathroom and flush the toilet without ever thinking about what happened after that.

It’s a lot to think about. But then, on a boat, you have a lot of time to think.

And at least there’s a lot of beauty to look at while you think.


6 Replies to “What You Have On a Boat”

  1. Good commentary on our privileged life time here in the “developed” world. Helps me to reflect back on growing up in outport Newfoundland and my time spent in Northern Ontario in a tourist lodge. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Scary what you say here as I have thought this to myself many times after thinking about my 4 grandkids’ future. You said: “In other words, I don’t think my grandchildren are going to be able to turn the lights on, leave them blazing all night, take a hot shower and watch a movie on a 50 inch screen, all without ever thinking about where that power is coming from. I think they might even have to keep track of their poop and where it’s going.” I agree with you! Trudy, once again your writing is Brilliant!

    1. I’m hoping my grandkids will live in homes that are more like the boats I saw with their solar panels, wind turbines, and wood burners along with the diesel engine — having to think more carefully about how they use resources, but living more sustainably because of it.

      That’s what I imagine in my HOPEFUL moments. I also have many moments that aren’t hopeful.

      1. “I also have many moments that aren’t hopeful.”

        Same with me. I saw a couple of yrs ago a documentary on “plastics” that made me come out of the theatre with the feeling “we are doomed”. Plastic ocean, plastic dumps in countries that DON”T want our junk but it arrives on their shores, and the dismal % of plastics that actually get recycled. It scared me a lot. We will live just long enough to pass this on to the grandkids to deal with. It’s unfair but it’s also what is going to happen. Then Trudy, I see we are exploring the moon again and still trying to find life on Mars. I think we should FIX EARTH FIRST!

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