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!