Thursday 27 August 2009

Walking Like Water

[a new and experimental piece, potentially for my walking book]

It is my habit, practice perhaps, to walk the five and a half kilometres from home to work every day.

The first few times it felt a very long way. It was months before I did it more than a couple of days a week, and then only in fine weather. I’ve now been at it for over a decade, and tend to walk it every week day, whatever the weather. I find that on the days I don’t walk, I feel sluggish all morning.

Walking gets my blood flowing, starts my brain ticking over, helps shift mental roadblocks. It has become a kind of meditation for me – a great steadier, a creator of perspective, a moving still-point in a sometimes complex life.

Each week day I walk away from the mountain – often with a germ of regret that I’m not walking the other way – and with the flow of the Hobart Rivulet towards town. This is Australia, where creeks and even rivers often fail to flow, yet in 23 years of living in this catchment, I have never seen the flow stop. It’s why the earliest white settlement of southern Tasmania shifted from the drier eastern shore of the Derwent to this wetter western shore. The waters flowing from the cloud-rich mountain are plentiful and reliable.

The Hobart Rivulet is a narrow, brief, rushing thing, literally cobbled together from dolerite boulders torn off the crumbling flanks of the mountain. Steep-banked, scrubby-sided, pocked and youthful, it is a duckling with few prospects of a serene swanhood. We get along companionably.

One morning, walking alongside Cascade Gardens, I glance left towards the Rivulet where its usually cobbled course is smoothed and funnelled into a concrete race that plunges into a broad concrete pond. The pond has a large metal grate on the townward side which jags boulders and logs, reducing the risk of flooding downstream.

But this particular morning, as the jouncy, glistening water courses over the elevated race towards the pond, what catches my eye is that I am moving at the same tempo as the water: both of us flowing from mountain to sea at the speed of water.

The phrase “at the speed of water” makes me smile. I’m aware that the speed of light is fixed and known, but what of the speed of water? I walk on, the thought coming with me. Maybe I haven’t just walked like water this particular morning. Perhaps I am always walking like water.

When I’m exhausted, slowed to a trickle like ooze through the peat of the south-west; boulder hopping with glee down a dolerite scree; making plain progress through duck-boarded buttongrass; trudging and huffing towards yet another false summit; resting still as a pool during a welcome pause from walking; all my movements and thoughts, inward, upward, downward, sideward, outward, sometimes vapour thin, sometimes glacially solid and slow, have something of the fluid about them.

At a purely physiological level, I recognize that there’s plenty of water within me. The human body is made up of between 60% and 70% water. In fact a new-born baby is 78% water: amazing and fancified water, but H20 nonetheless.

And like water, I am restless even in rest. I find whispers of the eternal in the water cycle: evaporation bearing rumours of resurrection; freezing and thawing mumbling of metamorphosis.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

A Thylacine Sighting

[a previously unpublished account of a thylacine sighting in Tasmania's Central Highlands]

The year is 1980. A friend – I’ll call him Ewan – is waking from a night’s sleep in the back of his VW Combi van. It is winter in Tasmania's Central Highlands, but the snow is as sparse as the tree cover near the lakeside shack. It is a clear, cloudless morning, sharp as a tart apple. Ewan’s wife Catriona is already up, starting a fire and possibly breakfast in the adjacent shack.

The rear door of the van is open. Ewan lies in bed, facing the scene outside. Though reading, a part of him is also contemplating the chilly gap between the van and breakfast. At the edge of his vision there is a movement. He lowers the book, and finds himself looking straight at a tiger – a Tasmanian tiger or thylacine that is. He pauses long enough to think, “I don’t believe this … thylacines are extinct”, then suspends his disbelief and simply watches as the dog-sized marsupial carnivore picks its way easily across the grassy ground near the shack. It is less than 20 metres away, moving slowly, nose to the ground, perhaps sniffing for food scraps.

Ewan is a fine photographer; he also knows that his story will be scarcely credible. Yet to take his eyes off the tiger, to reach behind the front seat for his camera will be to miss an experience that few living people have ever had. He watches for perhaps 2 minutes as it moves nonchalantly across his field of view, coming to within 10 metres of the van.

He has seen the stuffed thylacine in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. And he’s watched old footage of the last tiger to die in captivity – in Hobart Zoo in 1936. The one he is now watching is more compact, slimmer, and rather more supple than that. “It didn’t look as ancient” he later recalls. But the characteristic stripes on its haunches and the rather rigidly held tail are unmistakable. This is no dog.

Eventually the tiger moves on. It shows no sign that it’s aware of Ewan’s presence. Having other things to see and do, it simply walks over a small rise and out of Ewan’s life.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Roger Deakin – An Appreciation

[a piece written following the death of Roger Deakin, the great English nature/place writer. September 2006]

[Roger Deakin in The Labyrinth, Tasmania - prior to an obligatory swim!]

While Roger Deakin was a staunch parochialist, and a champion of the particular, the ripples of his life and death will nonetheless reach far beyond Suffolk and England. As they have reached me here in Tasmania, Australia's wild island, the former van Diemen's Land of convict infamy. It was here that I met Roger while he was researching "Wildwood". Tasmania fascinated him both as a place where apples are synonymous with the island - many still call it "the Apple Isle" - and as a place where wild forests are under dire threat from human action.

I took Roger into the wilds of the Tasmanian highlands, to a place called Pine Valley. It was wonderful to share this special wild place with someone so passionate about and attuned to the natural world. I recall his sense of wonder as we walked out of typical Australian eucalypt forest into an altogether more ancient forest. "Like walking through a door into old Gondwana" I explained as we exulted in the mossy green darkness of a rare coniferous rainforest whose nearest relations are in Patagonia and Fiordland. After we reached the basic hut that was to be our base for the next few days, Roger made it his duty to keep the coal-fired stove alight. He excelled to the extent that the little iron stove glowed red-hot, and fellow lodgers had to peel layers or exit sleeping bags to prevent overheating.

The next day we went higher into the mountains, to the lake-studded 1400m high plateau known as The Labyrinth. There we ambled between tarns, at one stage sitting at a viewing point high above some of the remotest wilderness in Tasmania. Our 360 degree view took in everything for many miles around. Yet there was not one single road; no cleared land; no man-made structures; no smoke, town, city or building: nothing but wild lands for mile after mile. He was amazed that such wildness still existed in the "civilized" world. I sensed he may have even struggled with the concept that the management of this place has as much to do with leaving it be as it does with "improving" it. That English urge came out in his occasional farmerly suggestions about track maintenance or tree pruning. We had a good natured debate about that human desire to intervene in nature.

But what a privilege for me, as a then unpublished nature writer, to have had such a companion for 3 uninterrupted days. Roger spoke wisely and helpfully about writing, and encouragingly about my efforts at it. His enthusiasm and generosity continued as we kept in touch via email. He provided me with some wonderful suggestions in the nature writing field, and in turn took up a few suggestions I passed his way. As a huge fan of "Waterlog" - a book I had read before I knew Roger - it is his final watery exploits in Tasmania that will remain in my memory. On a cool spring day, with melting snow still lying around on The Labyrinth, Roger couldn't resist the urge to plunge into one of the highland tarns and swim an icy lap. He emerged grinning, refreshed and ready for more mischief. So at the end of our walk, as we waited for the ferry to return us to our car, he repeated the dose in beautiful Lake St Clair. Although we were at a much lower altitude, the lake is Australia's deepest, and it can scarcely have been any warmer. (And for the record, at the former he was informal, at the latter he wore his swimming suit!)

Later, as the ferry brought us into the jetty, I pointed out a snow-clad peak named Mt Rufus. Roger's eyes lit up, and he asked if I could take a photograph of it in honour of his son Rufus. That tiny glimpse of fatherly tenderness made me esteem even more a man, a writer and an activist about whom there was already so much to admire. And now I will return to Roger's work with a sorrow-tinged enthusiasm, just as I will join the queue of those longing to read his last book as soon as it is published.

[PS - "Wildwood" and "Notes from Walnut Farm" were both published after Roger's death, and are currently available. His previous book "Waterlog" is also still available.]

Monday 10 August 2009

A Tiger's Prayer

[Tasmania's least prolific poet ... that's me. Here's a recent one.]

A Tiger's Prayer

Once I fancied I heard your voice, feathered by the wind,
Wordless, or beyond my tin ear to decipher.
Always you were at the edge of sound, the verge of sight
A whisper, a shadow, a plangent absence.

But now I see you pickled in a jar,
My hairless, heirless little fellow worshipper
Head bowed, eyes closed, paws together
And I know that it was your prayer I heard.

Thursday 6 August 2009

An Old Head

[some fiction for a change. Part of an old, unfinished story, I wrote this episode following a particularly vivid dream.]

None of it had gone the way Siobhan thought it would. Typically she'd argued with her mother just before they'd arrived. She couldn't even remember what about, just the muffled feeling, as real as hands around her throat. "Until you show you're old enough ..." She'd wanted to scream. Even now she wanted to run away, but the whole family was already on the run. And short of stealing a boat, she had no way of escaping.

So the introductions hadn't gone well. In fact Siobhan had to admit she'd been a little pig ... maybe even a big one. It hadn't helped that she didn't precisely know why they'd come here. She only knew that these people were some kind of secret religious community, and that her father had visited here before the Trouble. "These are God's people Siobhan. People of the Spirit" he'd said, putting on that earnest "spiritual" tone he used from the pulpit. It was tainted with a faint American inflexion, as if "Gard" lived in Kansas when off-duty.

She supposed her behaviour would be the topic of more conversation among the islanders, and probably earnest prayer too. When she'd said as much to her mother the reply had been a surprisingly tart "Grow up!", and her mother had stomped off. Siobhan knew that the usual form in their family demanded an apology. When she chose not to, she fell into an unwelcome hole of isolation and insecurity. Even some attention from her brother Sam would have been welcome. But he knew the form too. Coventry was not open to visitors.

It was an island girl who offered the way out. For the whole time she'd been there Siobhan had tried to ignore all the islanders' excited talk about some ritual they were having soon. But when Ginny-Waruppi directly asked her to come, she was relieved to have an excuse. Ginny was about her own age - a "tweenager" as her father called her ad nauseum. She had tightly-curled brownhair a shade darker than her skin, and prominent teeth. She also had a reticent manner and a very faint voice, though this might have just been caution in the face of Siobhan's notoriety. In a silence broken only by the swish of the grass and the swash of the sea, Ginny led her along a grassy track away from the town and towards a stand of twisted gums. Others too were coming from various directions to the same spot.

The clearing was in a swale about fifty metres from the ocean beach. It had a sandy floor mostly clear of grass, and a large central fire-pit surrounded by ridges of blackened shells and bones. Into this area were crammed dozens of people, all standing, all half-looking at Siobhan. For the first time she noticed that it was only women. The men, even her father and Sam, were apparently not allowed. Siobhan swallowed, and looked around for her mother. She was standing nearby, among a group of women outside the central circle. Siobhan sought reassurance, but her mother's face remained set. She made only a slight motion towards the women with her head. Watch ... listen.

Siobhan turned away quickly, feeling a tremble on her bottom lip, and a cold-water tightness in her stomach. She tried to rekindle anger with her mother - anger was easier than tears - but she couldn't cope with it today. It felt too much like betrayal. She recalled that time when, as a little school girl, she'd thrown away the lunch her mother had made. When her mum had asked her how she'd liked her sandwich, she'd lied about it. But the sick feeling of betrayal had put her off her favourite tea that night. And after that she'd eaten every sandwich her mother ever gave her, stale vegemite and soggy tomato alike, all to avoid hurting her mother. Or was it to avoid her own unpleasant feelings - the feeling of being a traitor? It was a new thought, a dangerous thought, that she was somehow responsible for her own feelings.It was easier to think that you just reacted to what other people said and did.

"Watch. Listen. Show you're old enough. Grow up!"

The island women were standing in a loose multicoloured knot, their cardigans, jumpers, coats hugged around their swaying bodies as they talked. After a time she noticed that their voices were rising and falling rhythmically, almost in a chant. One voice would lead out, the others would follow, then three or four might recite something together, and the single voice - mostly that of Mother Maisie - would take the thought back to the group. It was, Siobhan realised, a sung debate.

She could make nothing of their dialect, but the snatched glances of one or two of the younger women told her that she was the subject of contention. As the last of the singing died away in the dewy evening air, Siobhan shuddered. Something had been decided. It was Mother Maisie who eventually broke away from the group and rode their eyes towards the two white women. She was smiling a gentle smile, looking steadily into the younger one's eyes. Her old eyes were wet with tears.

The details of the evening ceremony blurred in Siobhan's memory when she later tried to recall them. But the central event itself remained stark. There had been talk, a kind of briefing she supposed, but it had meant nothing. She had been too frightened to hear, too fearful to ask anything. There was singing again, this time in a more formal circle.

Ginny-Waruppi had taken up the guitar. She'd strummed inexpertly, but it was enough to signal the others to start another slower chant. At first it was faultingly sung, as though half-forgotten. As it traced its circular pattern back to the start, the singing became fuller, though hardly louder. Then Siobhan began to notice more complexities in what she had thought was just a simple chant. Despite herself she took one part into her mind, weaving it in and out of the central theme. Its simple beauty was so affecting that she almost forgot her fear, until Mother Maisie abruptly raised her voice in a high wail.

It unquestionably signalled the end of the song. At the same time the big elder moved forward and took Siobhan firmly by the shoulders. She stiffened as she was drawn into the centre of the ring. There Maisie gave her a tight formal embrace. As she was released Siobhan wobbled, spreading her feet in the sandy dirt to keep from falling. When she looked up, Maisie was standing toe to toe with her. She realised they were the same height, though any comparison ended there. There was no time to think. From somewhere the large woman produced a coat, which she began draping over Siobhan's shoulders, lifting her arms to put them inside those of the coat. It was ridiculously big for her, until Maisie slid her own arms inside the same sleeve, left arm to right arm, right arm to left arm. More distracting was the sensation of being forced against the woman's vast bosom.

As someone drew the coat around the two of them, and buttoned it tightly behind the older woman, her own tiny breasts were lost in Mother Maisie's. Siobhan felt her ears burn with embarrassment, also felt the warm not-unpleasant breath of Maisie, and heard the beginnings of a new chant. She didn't know where to look. The tight swaddling gave her little choice. She couldn't turn to see her own mother, who must have been somewhere behind her. When she finally gave in and looked at the eyes that were barely a handspan away, she suddenly stopped feeling embarrassed.

The eyes were the deepest brown, so dark that there was little distinction between pupil and iris. More than that the eyes were full of compassion. There was great strength and great sorrow in those eyes, enough to cower any girl. But instead they showed an understanding of this girl, as if they had seen all that Siobhan had seen, and much more besides. As they stood thus, Mother Maisie clasped hands with Siobhan, lacing their fingers together as if in a final act of union. The girl no longer wanted to lookaway, certainly not out of bashfulness. But a heavy-lidded weariness came over her, and she found the song drifting her into a trance. Pictures began to form in her mind, as vivid and tangy as salt spray, but despite all effort, her eyes fell shut.

The chanting song is diminishing. There are stronger impressions. She is young and barefoot. It is summer, she is at the beach, surrounded by black children, though there seems nothing remarkable about that. Nothing remarkable about her own skin being black either. Only for an instant does she feel a variance in the way her heart beats; the texture of what her eyes see and her hands touch.

The scene changes. It is dark, inside a hut. She is being told about something important by someone she loves, though she can see no face. She feels something warm running down one leg, hears some gentle old laughter, some sharp words to a male enquiry. She realises she is having her first bleed. Again there is a change. The loved voices are gone. In the distance loud noises, the sound of fire, wailing. Then silence. She is crying, then turning to find a white man standing over her. She has never seen such a look in anyone's eyes. He laughs like ice. There is a gun slung over his back. He points to it, grinning, then falls onto her.

There is more weeping, long unconsoled weeping. Then finally more warm voices, more love - though the special voices are gone, silenced. All but the oldest one, which now whispers what it can. About the time, when it comes. About the pain. O the pain. The swelling rhythmical fanfare of the awaited one. Which comes through the pain with its own lusty blare. She rests, then feeds, feeling the tiny mouth tug at her nipple. She smiles palely at the unwanted but loved child, drifts into the sleep of exhaustion. When she turns to seek him again, he is gone. Her breasts fill as her heart bursts. No weeping is enough.

But then he comes. The one whose love gives her back her heart. He who is the first and last to kiss her. A drunken rascal too many times, but gentle always. He kisses her now just like the first time, and she feels warm in secret places.

The gentle sounds of the midnight sea woke Siobhan. Wherever she was, whatever had happened to her, felt like a dream. But it had been more. Remembering that much, Siobhan turned over, moaning as if in expectation of more pain. Instead her hair was stroked, and she was being gathered up like a little child, and pulled alongside her mother, who was hugging her with protective ferocity. There was no talk, just the wordless crooning and comforting she had once known. When she was a girl.

* * *

Saturday 1 August 2009

Owed to a Mountain

[A brief explanation of the thinking behind my Federation Peak series - see the blog archive for July 09]

[photo of Federation Peak courtesy of Tim Chappell]

Why wait 18 years to tell the not-so-extraordinary tale of a walk to Tasmania’s Federation Peak? Call me a slow learner, but I suspect I’m not alone in finding that the full significance of events – even very important events – is seldom apparent to the participants at the time. We can be stubbornly thick in the face of significance, and life flows on around it at exactly the same speed it does everything else. We’re simply swept off into the rest of life.

As I mention in a couple of episodes, I was unemployed at the time of this walk: one of the “victims” of Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have”. He had uttered those frank yet chilling words just weeks before our walk. I was finding out first-hand what a recession means in an individual life. How far do unemployment benefits stretch? How do family, friends, banks, potential employers and those still in work respond to you? To someone brought up to believe in constant progress, I’d begun to face all kinds of shocks, knocks and disillusionments.

A mountain changed all that. The impact of reaching the top of Tasmania’s most difficult peak was for me both profound and long-lasting. Of course, to bend the words of Lance Armstrong, it’s not all about the mountain. A mountain is mute; an object; unable to act or react. Yet the “because-it’s-there”-ness of Federation Peak; the strong hold it has on the imagination of most Australian bushwalkers, makes it more than a mere geological marvel. For me it was to become a character in the romantic-comic-drama of my life. A mute life coach; a reminder in rock of an individual’s power to strike back, to face fears, to keep taking steps.

But the significance of Federation wasn’t only about the transformation brought about by one walk. I think I realised most of that 18 years ago. And yet I am still walking. That's because the other, more slow-dawning significance was how transcendent for me was the simple act of walking in wild places. It’s a feast I have enjoyed so often that it’s hard to discern all of its slow cooking ingredients. But for me they include connection to the natural world; the joys and trials of interacting with companions; physical exertion; challenge; self-reliance; the experience of beauty, silence, time and space. And perhaps there’s some kind of biological/theological imperative here as well. Perhaps we are designed for walking – originally as a means of maintaining bodily well-being through hunting and gathering, but still as a way to remain physically and mentally well. And as a means of leading us into an appreciation of the wonders walking feet can lead us to.

So the Federation pieces are about “mere” walking. But I hope to use those 15 different episodes as the nuclei around which to spin broader meditations on the wonders of walking. That’s the rough plan for my “wild walking book”. Like a good walk, it’s going to take time and preparation, and it’ll be done one step at a time. Watch this space!