How to Live at Elevation: A Problem of Nomenclature


Keith Malloy (above) is a waterman.

(Originally printed in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

I’ve never surfed, largely because I’m afraid of sharks. Silly, but true.

But there’s something about surfing, and the people who surf, that I find inspiring, especially in recent years, when the bleach-blonde-airhead stereotype has been left behind. These days, a more soulful way of relating to the ocean can be seen in the lives and art of surfers. 

An example of this is the resurrection of the concept of the waterman.  (Interestingly, the perhaps-sexist form of the word doesn’t seem to bother female…well, watermen.) For the current generation of surfers, a waterman is someone who respects the ocean and is fully at home there; as one said, “A waterman knows how to swim, surf, bodysurf, paddleboard, spearfish, and freedive –but really it’s about having a rhythm of life dictated by the ocean’s moods.” That strikes me as a complete, deep, meaningful way to live.

I often wonder, living where I do, what the equivalent to the term “waterman” would be for those of us at a little higher elevation. “Mountain man”? That doesn’t seem to work – it makes me think of Grizzly Adams, or Jack Colter, or Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson – buckskin-wearing pioneers wrestling bears or fighting Indians.

“Mountaineer” means someone who goes to mountains to test oneself against them, whether it’s Everest, Denali, or something smaller or less famous. It’s a little closer to what we’re looking for, as it involves knowing how to travel, camp, eat, and sleep in mountains; however, those skills are more means to the end – the summit – than they are things to be appreciated as they are.

Okay, I’m going to bail on this line of thinking. It’s not as though whatever term I arrived at would become the word of choice – who left me in charge of that? As most words do that come to stand for an important concept, the right word – if it’s really wanted and needed – will develop in time.

The other direction my thoughts go is to the definition of that person. What would “having a rhythm of life dictated by the mountain’s moods” mean? What would be our equivalents of the waterman’s swimming, surfing, etc.? Hiking, for sure; I would add mountain-biking, caving, rock climbing, and fishing. Hunting would certainly be a candidate as well, I would think, our equivalent of spearfishing. Wading in our spring-fed creeks and swimming at Blue Hole or below Foster Falls (that makes me shiver to think about in early March). Sledding, when it’s possible. Ice skating (that’s been doable at least once in the last few years.)

Wouldn’t gardening be a part of that, as well? Growing your own tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and herbs? I know that few things make me pay better attention to the turning of the seasons than does planning the work to be done in our small garden.

Rereading that last sentence, I immediately think, “wildflowers.” Even rookies like me know to watch for the first trilliums in Shakerag Hollow. How better to match one’s rhythms to nature’s than keeping watch for the bloodroot, hepatica, and Dutchman’s Britches?

Whatever the term, whatever the specific criteria, adapting the big idea of the waterman to one’s days – whether you’re in the mountains, at the beach, or on the vast reaches in between – feels to me like one of the best ways to think about life.  May we all find ways to enjoy “a rhythm of life dictated by [nature]’s moods.”