I lost another school friend over the weekend. While some in my current circle lament the loss of connections to those who’ve ‘gone down the rabbit hole’ of conspiracy theories, the distinguished alumni of my high school must contend with actually losing people, for real.

There is nothing as sobering as the tally of friends lost in midlife. I’m 45, and without putting too much thought into it, I think I can honestly say that all the friends I’ve lost already are friends from high school. It’s a real testament to the socio economic indices that correlate strongly with scruffiness. Certainly, there’s a bit of drug and alcohol in the mix, but there are also the lifetime effects of poverty; a general state of ill health that predisposes to inflammation and general fuckery. Everything from floppy heart valves from rheumatic fever to neglected dental abscesses, to COPD from coal smoke and endless chest infections. An older resident once told me that everyone was half mad from mercury poisoning (the residue of gold mining, flowing into the water catchment). When I moved to the city I distinctly remember how strange it was to be in a large group of people without listening to endless coughing. I’ve written a little about this before.

A google search for my hometown reveals stunning misty landscapes, dense bush and steep cliffs, skirted by skerricks of flat, green land, populated by a few houses, receding into the damp scrub. It’s romantic and a little eerie. Of course, the reason for such untouched beauty is that there’s no-one left to do the touching. Those with bucolic notions should ground-truth the marketing with a quick survey of Trademe property photos, each grimy bedroom looking like all that’s missing is a selection of jaunty little crime scene tags.

My high school serviced a poor demographic. Anyone with any money or connections left as soon as they could, and the area self-selected for people who ‘liked to be on their own’, a euphemistic expression for, ‘teeming with wild-eyed lunatics and a surfeit of both homemade shotgun cartridges and liquor’.

And there were different ways of being poor, ways of living that are easily elided by the outside eye.

To be sure, many of those living in town were categorically living on the juice of society’s bin- liner – a very day to day existence. I suppose this is the image of poverty that we’re all familiar with. But, what always interested me were the people who felt they had chosen a life on their own terms, often living on the outskirts of town, or in smaller settlements in the bush, hunting and fishing and generally getting by without much ‘outside’ interference. Usually, they were living a more remote life by necessity – the inability to ‘work well in a team’. It’s a personality trait I am sympathetic to.

By definition, I suppose these people were ‘poor’ as well, but they seemed wealthy in their own way. I don’t want to romanticise this life too much – there’s a lot of be said for being able to go to the dentist (I remember one friend pulling out his own infected tooth with a teaspoon. I’d never seen so much blood). And, certainly there were some with really difficult and troubling mental illnesses – poorly managed schizophrenia for instance. But, compared to rotting away in a little unit in town, sweating away under a polar fleece blanket and living on half scoops of chips and the odd rigger, it was a much more preferable lifestyle option.

Perhaps it’s quite different now. I left many years ago and have never returned. I imagine (hopefully) that it has become easier to ‘live on one’s own terms’ in the bush, with the availability of the internet and cheap Honda generators. Maybe.

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