Tuesday, 16 February 2021

The Spirit of Bushwalking

“Covid-19 has been a blessing in disguise: Discuss.”

Perhaps it’s too soon for any examiner to dare set that question. But … might there be some truth in the statement? I’ll leave a fuller consideration of that to another time. Here I want to reflect on some of my own unexpected learnings (dare I call them blessings?) during two separate lots of Covid-19 lock-down.

[Pining for Scenes Like This]


It didn’t take long before sourdough baking, Zoom meetings, Netflix bingeing, and too much eating and drinking, began to pall. I found myself, to borrow from Monty Python, pinin’ for the fjords. More accurately, I was pining for the Tasmanian wilderness. I passionately wanted to be out walking there, but the rules of lockdown meant I couldn’t stray far from home. 


As I pondered why I felt so strongly about my inability to be wild walking, I came to a surprising conclusion. I realised that in large part it was my soul that was pining to be out there. And that’s because, for me, walking has a strongly spiritual dimension to it*. 


Bushwalking as spiritual? Surely it works the other way around, where the spiritual life is the focus, and words like walk, journey, path, or way are just figures of speech to help us understand it? Certainly moving feet have always seemed an ideal metaphor for the life of the spirit, as if soles and souls are deeply related. But what if this link between walking and spirit is more than just a metaphor? Might we legitimately speak of walking itself as spiritual?

[Sole to Soul: Really?]


I spent much of lockdown reflecting on, and trying to write about, this link. I’ve come to call it the sole to soul connection. Most of that writing isn’t ready to be shown, but perhaps a sampler of that work might give some idea of the territory I’m trying to cover. 


This particular excerpt centres on practices: what bushwalkers might do to grow their own soul while out there walking. It’s tentative, brief, and incomplete, and it won’t suit all walkers. Let me know what you think!


* (For now I will leave aside how we might define words like “soul” and “spiritual”.)


1) Beyond Bragging


We’re tramping in New Zealand’s Aspiring National Park. It’s raining, and our group stops at a hut for a snack and a drink. It’s mid morning, but the inside of the hut is still full. So we’re huddling under the shelter of the verandah when some of the incumbents come out, preparing to leave. We find out they’re also Australians, and we soon get chatting about where we’ve been and where we’re going, as you do when you meet other walkers. 


But the talk soon takes on an unusual edge. This group, from one of Australia’s big cities, is uber keen to tell us how many other walks they’ve done, loudly and repeatedly. When we get a word in, they gleefully jump on any walk they learn we haven’t completed. “Oh dear! You haven’t seen New Zealand until you’ve done …” 


Afterwards I tried to understand why this interaction dispirited me … and why I began introducing myself as a Tasmanian when in New Zealand! The truth is nobody actually enjoys hearing bragging, and I’ve since come to see things such as “been-there-done-that” tick lists, peak bagging, boasting about beating track times, talk of “conquering” mountains, being strongly competitive, and an over-fondness of your own fitness, as forms of bragging. 


[Bagging or Bragging?]

All of those things tend to stroke the ego, and I’ve always found that ego, a strong sense of my self-importance, gets in the way of my soul’s growth. In the context of bushwalking, bragging not only pushes people away, it also pushes place out of focus. Place becomes a mere backdrop to my ego; a stage on which I strut and preen. That means I’m missing out on what the place has to teach me. In a real sense I am harming myself. 


Most spiritual traditions caution against bragging. Going right back to the ancient Greeks, hubris was considered an insult to the gods. In Buddhist teaching there’s a specific warning against regarding yourself as superior on the basis of your body. Your body is impermanent and subject to change, therefore such boasting means you are not seeing reality. 


In the Christian tradition, there are plenty of pins to prick the braggart’s bubble. One example is Jesus’ parable about the pharisee who thanks God for his own piety and goodness in comparison with “sinners”. Jesus ends up inverting the situation with the line “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 18:14) In Hindu codes of conduct, followers are simply instructed: “Do not boast. Shun pride and pretension.” (Niyama 1) 


Of course none of us is immune from ego. A healthy human needs a healthy sense of self. But there are practices that can take us beyond bragging, beyond the need to stroke our own ego. Some of the practices that follow may help us to look beyond ourselves.


2) Being Creaturely


I’m at a special place in the Tasmanian highlands: the land of a thousand lakes. It’s after dinner and slowly our group talk has diminished; quietened. Via yawns and stretches and quiet mutterings, we signal our readiness for sleep, and eventually we amble to our tents. The banter continues briefly, called from tent to tent. But soon we ease closer to sleep, and talk ceases altogether. 


On the nearby lake, a similar scenario begins playing out. I’m almost asleep when I hear half a dozen black swans softly honking and tooting to each other in the gloaming. I can no longer see them, but in sharing pre-sleep rituals with these creatures, I am realising afresh my creatureliness. Out here, breathing the same air; dependant on the same water; subject to the same weather, it seems obvious that we – swans and humans both – are small creatures in a vast creation.

[We're all small creatures in a vast creation]


Christian theologian Richard Bauckham, in Bible and Ecology, laments that humans “somewhere forgot their own creatureliness, their embeddedness within creation, their interdependence with other creatures”. We forgot what it means to be a creature. 


So how can we remind ourselves that we’re creatures? Being creaturely might include observing what’s happening in our own bodies at various stages of the day. How are we responding to exertion, rain, stress, rest? Are we noticing the highs and lows of blood sugar; of mood; of muscle fatigue? How are we dealing with rubs, blisters, scratches and bites. We might also try to engage senses that we tend to neglect in urban life. We could, for instance, expand our sense of touch to include the feel of wind in our hair; mist on our face; sun on our skin; lake water on our feet.


And since we are social creatures, there are always numerous creaturely things going on with other members of our walking group. Noticing those can enhance our appreciation of other walkers. And reflecting on all of this can be part of our practice of regaining our creatureliness.


3) Being Still


Bushwalking might have the action of walking in its name, but this shouldn’t imply that it’s all about non-stop action. While some walks can become rushed route-marches, I’ve never found these beneficial to my soul. However we can find an inner stillness while walking, particularly if we put in some practice, and take the opportunities that arise. 


A number of spiritual traditions have walking forms of meditation. Within Buddhism there’s kinhin, a practice that involves movement and periods of walking between long periods of sitting meditation (zazen). My Buddhist friends Tim and John regularly take part in a kind of longer-form walking meditation practice called a yatraYatra is Sanskrit for journey or procession, and in Hinduism this generally means a pilgrimage to holy places. However their experience of yatra is a variation involving a walking journey of some days. John writes “when we began walking we were instructed to keep our attention on our feet through the rhythm of the breath, then to extend it to our legs, the whole body, the vegetation and wildlife, the sky and birds, then back again.

[A Moment of Stillness]


Christian walking meditation has some similarities. The principally inner mindfulness of sitting meditation, focussing on body and breath, and the presence of God, is expanded to include broader mindfulness of your body’s engagement in the walking process. It also involves mindful observation of the natural world or creation. Your surroundings in the form of light, wind, weather and your fellow creatures all point back to the Creator. These kinds of practices can form part of any bushwalk, especially when you’re apart from your companions.


On an extended bushwalk there’s also the time – even the necessity – for deliberate slowing down and physical stillness. E.H. Burgmann, a bushman turned Anglican bishop mid last century, reflected on his relationship with the bush in his autobiography, “The Education of an Australian”He wrote that “the bush . . . will not speak to a man in a hurry. Its message is worth waiting for. Only the soul that is stilled in its presence can hear the music of its song."


4) Practicing Gratitude 


Ancient Latin poet Cicero believed that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” The same sentiments are found in most spiritual traditions. To Christian reformer Martin Luther, gratitude was “the basic Christian attitude”, since God is the giver of all good gifts. The Buddha declared gratitude to be one of the highest blessings. Western Buddhist master, Jack Kornfield, writes that being grateful for not only life's blessing but also its suffering is a key component of living a spiritual life. Similarly in the Christian tradition Mother Teresa believed “the best way to show my gratitude to God is to accept everything, even my problems, with joy.”


It’s one thing to hear or believe that gratitude is a virtue, but another to actually be grateful. While that’s especially true when you strike hard times on a bushwalk, it’s also easy to miss that which should elicit gratitude. That is one reason I am glad to walk in the company of others. Spirituality is not just an individual matter. Those I walk with often point out things I’ve missed, or remind me of things I’ve taken for granted.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Waldheim: The Next Generation

The enchantments of Waldheim, in Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain National Park, first made our hearts wobble in 1976. Admittedly we were on our honeymoon, when hearts are supposed to beat a little faster and melt a little more readily. But we had never seen a forest as magical as that which surrounds Waldheim. Walking into its soft, green, dappled light, being surrounded by massive, moss and lichen-clad trees, we felt we’d gone through a wardrobe into Narnia.

[In Weindorfers Forest, Waldheim]

Subsequent visits with our children, and later with our ageing parents, showed that this was no one-off wobble. There truly is something magical about this “forest home” (as Waldheim translates). Gustav and Kate Weindorfer built the chalet at the edge of the forest now bearing their name in 1909. And they welcomed visitors here with the words “this is Waldheim where there is no time and nothing matters”. 

In the wider world much has changed since then, but every time we’ve come back it seems scarcely altered. So we were hoping the enchantment would be alive for our two night stay with three of our granddaughters, and their parents (our son Stuart, and his wife Elly).

[Waldheim Chalet, near Cradle Mountain]

It being Spring in the Tasmanian highlands, the weather was cold and variable. That too seems never to change. Similarly the timeless fun of sharing a tiny cabin with lively children, the five year old twins, Remy and Clover, and their almost four year old sister Isla, reminded us of times here with our own three. There’s only so much “nesting” you can do – sorting out food and drink, deciding who sleeps in which bed, and settling issues like who sits on which chair – before cabin fever strikes.

[Isla tries on my beanie]

I’d spoken with Remy about what she was hoping to see at Cradle Mountain, and wombats were high on her list. So, after a long session of getting the girls and ourselves into wet weather gear, we set off for nearby Ronny Creek. While there are no guarantees with wildlife, and a grandfather should use his words wisely, I think I’d assured the girls that they would see wombats. Thankfully it took only minutes before we’d all seen one, even if it was distant enough to look more like an animate bush.


But when we crossed the bridge over Ronny Creek, and wandered a short way up the track towards Wombat Pool, a classic stout wombat, straight from casting central, waddled into view. Thankfully the girls’ immediate shrieks didn’t scare the wombat away. It simply kept grazing along the grass beside the creek, right beside us. And we all kept on gazing, enthralled by this beautiful marsupial.


[Wombat watching beside Ronny Creek]

While the showers held off, we wandered a bit further along the creek and up the track, hoping to tire out young legs. We at least managed to tire out some older legs before we headed back to the cabin for dinner and bed. Of course it wasn’t that simple, but after a while the cabin did grow quiet, and we adults started towards bed. That fresh mountain air can take it out of you!

[Isla, Remy and Clover also delighted in water play]

The forecast for the night and the next day included the words “snow falling above 900 metres”. While Clover had mentioned that she wanted to see snow, I was very reluctant to promise we’d get any here. Of course I’d forgotten that Waldheim sits at nearly 900m. And so, to everyone’s amazement, we woke to light snow! That was both pre- and post-breakfast amusement for the girls, although that weather also meant we weren’t likely to do our planned walk around Dove Lake for a while yet.

[Snow! Clover and Remy play at Waldheim.]


Colouring-in books and pencils came out, morning tea was eaten, toilets were visited, and more food was eaten before the weather started to brighten. We grabbed our chance, packed lunch, and went to the bus stop at Ronny Creek. A short bus ride later and we had started the walk around Dove Lake.


Remy, who is very fashion conscious, was not happy with the colour of her new snow suit/waterproofs. Navy blue is NOT a colour she likes, AND it does NOT go with hot pink gumboots! But as it was all that was available in her size, she was stuck with it. And the track soon showed that snow suits of any colour, allied with gumboots, are just perfect for jumping in puddles. Although we struggled to imagine how she – or we – would keep that up for the whole 6+km, it was a good start.

[Remy delights in puddle-jumping]

[Stuart helps Isla along the track]


Meanwhile Clover and Isla were happy holding hands as much as hopping into puddles. The walk is so varied and interesting, even for littl’uns, that we managed to get nearly half way ‘round before stopping for lunch. After lunch we had to walk on through sleet for a while, but a few “wait till you see” hints, and some food bribes, got us all to Ballroom Forest. Another enchanted place, this kept them happy and amused for a while, as did the sight of their grandparents dancing in the “ballroom”.

[Scenes from Ballroom Forest]

After this, (nearly 4 year old) Isla began to flag, and a certain amount of parental carrying – especially by Elly – was eventually needed to get her to the track’s end. Even Remy had a little help, from Stuart this time, although Clover just kept walking. She was very much in her happy place, asking about the birds, the plants, the mosses, the lichens, and pretty much everything that we were seeing.

[Clover smiles for the camera]

[Lynne with the twins at the Dove Lake boat shed]

And so the 4th generation of our family had shared some of the magic of Waldheim and Cradle Mountain. We were so proud of the girls for completing the walk, and for really engaging in all that was going on around them. As I watched them finish the walk, my grandfather heart wobbled afresh. Might they come to value this wondrous place – and eventually other wild places – as much as we do? Certainly an apprenticeship had begun.

[Remy's happy drawing from Waldheim]

Thursday, 7 May 2020

A Long-Awaited Reunion: Part 4

Plans change, even long-settled ones. Originally we were to walk out together on day 4. Then, once we’d reached the cars, Jim, Lynne, Brita and I would farewell the four who were going home early, and we’d go on to Blue Peaks. That required driving around to Lake Mackenzie, re-packing, and getting walking again in the late afternoon for the 2-3 hour walk up to Blue Peaks.

[The track between Pelion and our cars] 
That all sounded good on paper, and looked very do-able on the map. But there were two flies in the ointment. Firstly the forecast for the days ahead included quite a bit of rain. Secondly Lynne’s knee/hamstring issue was still of concern. Jim and I had independently been pondering the dilemma: how could we help Brita to make the most of her limited time in Tasmania, while not further damaging Lynne’s knee? Amazingly we had come up with the same possible solution. Merran and Tim D had some extra accommodation, a cottage next to their house in Sheffield, and we hoped we might prevail upon them to use it for two nights. We’d be able to visit Cradle Mountain on the day in between.

[An unidentified wildflower brightened up the walk out] 
Jim and I laughed when we finally had a quiet little tête-à-tête about the issue, and discovered we’d had the same idea. (I guess that happens when you’ve been friends for nearly 40 years.) We put it to Tim D and Merran, and they were more than happy for us to use the cottage. We checked it with Lynne and Brita, who were happy to go along with the new plan. Problem solved, the only thorny issue was how to nurse Lynne through the potentially arduous walk out to the car. To allow the maximum time for her to walk as slowly as she needed, we were all up very early. And Lynne left before the rest of us, as she didn’t want to slow anyone down.

That seemed wise to me, although I expected I’d catch her within the hour. Instead the kilometres went by: buttongrass became forest; forest gave way to heathland. We toiled through rocky sections, then walked some more through scrubby forest. We were now walking in gender groups, and we boys were having a fascinating theological discussion, as you do between three Christians and a Buddhist. It didn’t slow us down at all, but however fast we walked, there was no sign of Lynne.

To say we didn’t see her again until the cars would be a slight exaggeration. But we only caught up with her when she stopped for a scroggin break, and to wait for the rest of us. We weren’t walking slowly. Lynne was simply walking like a new person: fluently, and without knee pain.

[The track was rough and cryptic in a few places] 
Still, it was a long and tiring walk out. On the way in to Pelion we’d taken more than 6 hours, and walking out still took us well over 4 hours. Yet there was elation at getting back to the cars before lunchtime. I gave Lynne a congratulatory hug, and we both thanked Brita for her great work on Lynne’s hamstring. She just deflected the thanks, and said it was all to do with Lynne’s “super tough body”. Lynne looked both surprised and delighted with the compliment.

Once we’d stowed our gear back in the cars, the prospect of getting out to a hot lunch before too long was uppermost in our minds. Apart from anything else, we had to farewell Libby and TimO, who were leaving us once we’d had that café lunch. We were aiming for Mole Creek pub, but decided to stop and try Earthwater Café, a few km short of Mole Creek. Changing plans seemed to be going well for us today: it proved a fabulous find. We sat outside, partly so other diners didn’t have to share our ripe bushwalking odour. Once we’d pulled a couple of tables together beneath some beautiful trees, we settled down to the kind of meal that’s especially welcome after time in the bush.

[Our lunch stop at Earthwater Cafe] 
Sooner than we hoped, but later than they needed to, TimO and Libby departed for the south. The remaining six of us were going to Sheffield, and were very thankful that we weren’t having to hoist packs and walk again that day. We were even more thankful we’d have actual beds, with real mattresses, for the next few nights. Call us soft, we don’t care!

There was one other major item on Brita’s “must see” list. Despite having seen wallabies, pademelons, eagles, cockatoos and dozens of other creatures that aren’t to be found in Austria – and most of New Zealand – we had not been able to find a wombat. That gave us a focus for our day at Cradle Mountain. But that was tomorrow, tonight we needed to find food, while leaving Tim and Merran to settle in and get ready for work tomorrow. We took a dining short-cut, deciding to eat what we still had in our packs. Yes, we had catered for more nights out, but the prospect of more dehydrated food wasn’t hugely enticing. A visit to the pub for a pre-dinner drink took the edge off our disappointment, and a little wine with dinner helped wash it down happily.

[Cradle Mountain reflected in Dove Lake] 
The forecast for our Cradle Mountain day was not great, although the amount of rain predicted seemed to diminish by the hour (which was how often we checked it). By the time we left Sheffield the showers had stopped. And when we got to the new visitor centre at Cradle Valley, the cloud had lifted off Cradle itself. The plan to walk the Dove Lake Loop Track wasn’t looking so daft after all. Dove Lake itself was very busy, as this honey-pot has been for many years now. But once we walked beyond Glacier Rock, just a few hundred metres from the carpark, the foot traffic dropped significantly. As we ambled closer to Cradle, we showed Brita some more of the kind of rainforest she had come to love in both Tasmania and New Zealand. 

[Rainforest on the Dove Lake Loop Track] 
We talked about the common origins of those forests in ancient Gondwana. This kinship even goes down to the kinds of fungi found in both forests. We pointed out some myrtle orange fungi (Cyttaria gunnii), which are very closely related to Cyttaria species found on the beech trees of both New Zealand and Patagonia, even down to their resemblance to golf balls.

[Myrtle orange fungi in myrtle beech trees] 
After dipping beneath Cradle itself, the track took us around to yet more rainforest, the wonderful Ballroom Forest. But there was an elephant in the ballroom. Or more correctly, a large, rotund, furry marsupial (and no, I’m not referring to Jim) was missing from the ballroom. We weren’t likely to see wombats here, so we walked quite quickly back to Dove Lake. The one sure-fire place to see wombats in the wild was Ronny Creek, so we caught a shuttle bus from Dove Lake and got off at Ronny Creek.

[Jim in Ballroom Forest] 
Within a few minutes we were meeting other walkers coming towards us with smiles on their faces. Yes, there were wombats here! I’d like to say we stopped, snapped a few quick photos, and quickly turned for home, where we had a date to eat home-made pizza with Merran and Tim. But no, this was Brita’s new happy place. 

[Brita's happy place: watching wombats near Ronny Creek] 
She took a hundred photos of distant wombats. Then a couple of them started wandering down towards the track. After she took another hundred closer photos, and became a little annoyed with the noisy, impatient and pushy behaviour of some other observers, we thought Brita was finished. 

[Wombat approaching!] 
But then one wombat climbed onto, and over, the boardwalk, close enough for Brita to touch it (which she knew not to). She had an extended period of wombat bliss – while we basked in its vicarious glow – before we signalled it was time to head back to the shuttle bus stop. Brita belatedly joined us – after a deal of waving and calling – only moments before the bus pulled out. But somehow not even that was going to stop her smile!

Back in Sheffield, we hunted for pizza toppings, the deal being that Tim would make the bases, and we would supply, and put on, the toppings. We also wanted to search out some little thank-yous for our Sheffield hosts. That done, we went “home” again, and freshened up for dinner. 

[Master chef Tim. Who wants some pizza?] 

[Not your typical bushwalking food. Thanks Tim!] 
Tim excelled himself, as usual, with three courses of pizza: entrée (pizza bianca); main course (many and varied) and dessert pizzas. We supplied the wine, and sat back to watch the setting sun painting the clouds around Mount Roland. It was a magical end to a very special few days together. We met no resistance from Brita when we suggested we must do it all again. But perhaps we might not wait eleven years this time!

[... as the sun sinks slowly over Mt Roland.]