Monday 30 November 2009

To Have and to Hold?

[Photo: getting to know our local Hobart bush]

[some experimental thinking about loving the environment]

Acquisitiveness is one of the besetting sins of the 21st century. Our desire to acquire, buy, possess, consume, seems out of all proportion to any actual need we have. As Sir Paul McCartney put it early post-Beatles: Buy, buy! Says the sign in the shop window. Why? Why? Says the junk in the yard. This acquisitiveness extends well beyond our spending patterns, and into a consumptive attitude towards things that money can’t buy. It seems that making lists and ticking them off is inherently satisfying to us as humans. So twitchers tick off birds; hikers tick off peaks; trainspotters tick off trains; more than a few of us even tick off relationships.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has described contemporary life as "liquid modernity" (a metaphor for the never-static, always adapting nature of contemporary living). It is based on the idea that, whereas Modernity (ie. from the Industrial Revolution) was fuelled by production, Liquid Modernity (others say Postmodernity) is fuelled by consumption.

Bauman mentions many sites of consumption: experiences, hobbies, relationships. He focuses on the fact that liquid-modern consumption is not based on subsistence, or on need, or even on want, but on desire. He talks about desire having an almost spiritual force – “desire desires desire" – to illustrate the way in which it isn't the goods of consumption that drive us to consume; it is the experience of desiring them. For example:

We shop for … the resources for doing faster the things that are to be done and for things to do in order to fill the time thus vacated; for the most mouth-watering foods and the most effective diet to dispose of the consequences of eating them; for the most powerful hi-fi amplifiers and the most effective headache pills. There is no end to this shopping list.
(Bauman 2000:74).]

Bauman also differentiates love from desire. The latter “is an impulse to strip alterity of its otherness; thereby, to disempower.” (p9 of “Liquid Love” – Polity, 2003). “Love is, on the other hand, the wish to care, and to preserve the object of the care. A centrifugal impulse, unlike centripetal desire.” (p9)

One implication of a consumptive attitude is that the object of our desire is disposable once acquired. “Desire desires desire”, so once the thrill of the chase is passed, we lose interest and move on. It’s not actually far-fetched to think of a mountain, a district, an ecosystem, a species, as disposable given the way we presently treat much of the natural environment.

So what to do about it? How do we counter this strong and potentially destructive trait? That word desire is central in this context. Much Buddhist philosophy focuses on the undesirability of desire. And desire would seem to be the villain in this case. If we can only cease to desire, we will overcome its negative force, personally as well as environmentally.

Notwithstanding the many attractions of Buddhist thought, I remain stubbornly persuaded by aspects of Christian thought here. Consider the following extended analogy from another arena in which desire runs deep: human relationships. In some Christian marriage rites – the Anglican and Roman Catholic, for instance – a couple will give themselves to each other with the words “to have and to hold”. The words, with their overtones of possession, seem to pander to desire, and to our acquisitive side. That disposable relationships all-too-often result seems to say little in favour of “having and holding” as a model for anything. But I want to argue that one of the geniuses of marriage, in its ideal, is that it is a covenant of mutuality. What one asks of the other, one also promises to give.

What would it be like if humans made a covenant with nature that was genuinely mutual? If we gave ourselves to the natural environment “to have and to hold”, and only then asked the same of it? If we took what we needed from the environment only because we had covenanted to give back in generous proportions. Anyone in a marriage-like relationship will know that the give and take is never precise and equal. But in good relationships there is a desire to look out for the other, knowing that the other is looking out for you. That is surely a central aspect of love. So rather than trying to knock over our desire in relation to nature, this model would ask for a loving, mutual and generous attitude towards nature.

Extending the analogy, it seems both appropriate and necessary to particularise what we mean by nature; to narrow the covenant down to a particular place or set of places. This will usually be our own local district, with all of its particularities of rock, water, soil, flora, fauna and form. This specificity will nail our colours to the mast, and prevent our love of nature from ranking alongside such vague niceties as wanting to end world poverty.

Loving your own district first doesn’t exclude you from loving other places any more than a healthy loving relationship stops you from loving other people. But it does mean that there is a primacy of love and loyalty to that home place, to your place (and I use the possessive advisedly, and in the mutual loving rather than purely possessive sense). One implication of this is that it acknowledges what many peoples – especially indigenous peoples – sense. And that is that a place, a land, can actually own you.

In his marvellous book “The Secret Life of Trees”, Colin Tudge talks about the indigenous mateiros of the Brazilian rainforests. They know and recognise hard-to-identify tree types in much the same way as most of us know and recognise a family member. Even when expert botanists fail with identification, a mateiro will not. That is the kind of familiarity with – and indeed love of – place that is likely to make you its strong advocate.

So loving your own place means that you take real notice of it; you know what fits where; you know what is happening from season to season; you chuckle – and possibly grumble - at its little peculiarities. But you love it! You rejoice in what it gives to you and yours. And because your covenant is mutual, you also give back to the place. You become its advocate and its defender from outside threat.

Monday 23 November 2009


[a piece about a trip into the remote south-west of Tasmania]

Parts of Tasmania’s coast are almost grammatical in their punctuations, indents and bracketed views. It makes them hard for even the most literate sailor to read. Southwest Cape is one such place: a remote exclamation mark on a rugged coast, an outpost of granite standing abrupt at the bottom left corner of the state. It is the end of the south coast, and the start of the west coast; the two wildest parts of Tasmania joined at the one point; the alpha and omega of the south-west wilderness.

On foot, reaching it is no simple task. From Melaleuca or Cox Bight - the nearest you will get even by light aircraft - it is still two days of ruggedly beautiful undulations away. All the while you are walking towards Tasmania's weather quarter; preparing to beard the lion in his den. When there's rain nowhere else, the far south-west still has it. "Showers in the far south-west; fine elsewhere."

My first view of the Cape had been from the nearby Ironbound Range some years before. While light clouds scudded over that range, they gathered dark and drear around the Cape. On that occasion I was glad not to be headed there. This time, by some perverse choice, it is my destination. There will be no “elsewhere".

The relatively bare granite of the promontory covers only its last kilometre or so. The rest of the way is barred by scrub. There is only a thin pad to mark the way, and that easily lost in the rain and mist. The arrow-shaped promontory slants south-west towards Antarctica, the narrower the further you go, until it tapers to nothing. The seas pounding this coast have not touched land since South America. They mean to be noticed.
Around our campsite, only salt-tolerant plants will grow because of the insistent salt-laden winds. Though we are at least 100 metres above sea level, a few days without rain has turned the creek water brackish, naturally polluted by the salt winds. The water flavours all our cooking, and is barely drinkable. It is strange to feel such thirst in a place so shaped by water.

There are other thirsts that can be more easily satisfied here, though. Unless you're a sailor, seeing an Australian sunset over the sea is largely the privilege of Western Australians. But the geography of this place allows me to share this wonder.

and every day you gaze upon the sunset
with such love and intensity
it's's almost as if
if you could only crack the code
then you'd finally understand what this all means.

We recline on the rough-grained, rounded granite slabs, awaiting that marvellous plunge of sun into sea. The suck and surge of waves speaks the language of patience. The sea has no need for haste - but it will wear down this battlement.

The next day is windy - that at least was predictable, here in the path of the “Roaring Forties”. More surprisingly, it is also fine. We've planned to go to the very end of the cape, but discover that our rope is too short to allow a descent to that last rock. Instead we sit back for a while to watch, listen, feel this special place.
After a time the wind brings odd sounds with it. At first I dismiss it as the sucking sound of waves beneath the rocks. But then I see its source. There on the rocks, about 50 metres diagonally below us, is a haul-out of seals. They are probably New Zealand fur seals - glad to be out of the surging Southern Ocean for a while - lolling about in the lee of the cape.

We watch for an hour or more - far more fascinating to me than climbing. We even begin, with the aid of binoculars, to discern some of the personalities of the group. There's an old and intolerant bull, which bellows at any pups disturbing his sunny reverie. The pups are the embodiment of hyperactivity, chasing and nipping each other, practising with sinuous ease their aquatic skills in and out of the wash and swash of the shore.
All previous human generations would have seen these seals with different eyes. Watching would have been only for the purpose of ensuring greater surprise at the attack. There are different ways of seeing wildlife, but these days it is harder to justify or understand the exploitative ways.

* from Jane Siberry’s song “Calling All Angels

Friday 20 November 2009

To What Shall We Liken Lichen?

[a playful poem for the Christmas season]

When creation seemed at a perfect end,

and any self-respecting creator

would have packed up and gone home satisfied,

Our God winked … and introduced algae to moss,

added moisture and cold,

turned the sun away for a season.

And smiled to see this old man’s beard,

this grey green confounder of taxonomists,

festooning the forest,

branched in silent celebration,

like so much self-renewing tinsel.

Friday 13 November 2009

Nice Weather For Ducks

[an excerpt from "the walking book"]

[a break in the weather?? Hollyford Face, Routeburn Track NZ]

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” - Charles Dudley Warner

Keeping the rain off while walking has been a puzzle for humans for a very long time. Tasmania’s Palawa people used to smear their bodies with whale or seal fat. It offered protection from both weather and insects. Mixed with ochre or charcoal it doubled as personal decoration. New Zealand’s Maori made a water resistant cloak called a pākē, using plant materials. Strands of raw flax were buried in the ground for some months to season, then woven very closely onto a plaited-fibre support. Alaska’s native peoples discovered long ago that seal guts could be expanded by pumping them full of air. Once dried, this membrane could be sown into garments that were remarkably good at keeping out rain and snow. Some even had hidden seams to prevent leaks – the original waterproof parka.

In my earliest bushwalking days a japara coat smeared with oil (the so-called oilskin) was the vaguely higher-tech version of those indigenous rain protectors. Oilskins were developed in the 19th century when sailors discovered that their sails could be waterproofed using a mixture of whale oil and linseed oil. Wave a jar of the 1970s oil under my nose and I am instantly transported back to my early bushwalking days. Like most bushwalkers of the time I was outfitted at the nearest army surplus store. Fashionable outdoor gear was an oxymoron back then. I covered my legs with oversized khaki woollen trousers, and in very cold conditions even wore woollen long-johns underneath. On top I wore a drab woollen jumper over a checked woollen shirt. Footwear comprised ex-army boots, woollen socks and canvas gaiters. I often added a hand-knitted woollen beanie, replaced later by a genuine Scottish tam-o-shanter (woollen, of course). By the late 1970s I had graduated from a khaki canvas A-frame haversack to a khaki canvas H-frame haversack. It still hangs in my garage, just in case.

Amazingly japaras are still around – in shops, not just in garages – although the new ones don’t require oiling. I gave mine up years ago and graduated to the “miracle fibres”. I got my first Gore-tex lined jacket in 1990. It took faith to believe that an invisible film of Mr Gore’s material – sandwiched between the outer and inner layers – would repel water droplets while allowing vapour to pass away from the body. I only dimly understood how it was supposed to work, but I did love to hear the salesman talk. I parted with more money than I could afford for that first generation Gore-tex jacket. Within a few years the same salesman pooh-hooed first generation jackets (“they had problems” he confided), and tried to sell me the second-generation version. I put up with the “problems” (you got wet when it rained) for a few more years. But when the third generation came along, I again parted with a week’s wages to try and stay dry while walking.

With about 40 years of bushwalking behind me, and poised somewhere between an H-frame and a zimmer frame, I have come to a slow-dawning realisation. The Holy Grail of rain jackets – one that is both waterproof and breathable – has yet to be found. If you simply stand out in rain for an hour or two, most rain jackets will keep you dry. Those with poor seam sealing will eventually let in water, but most will keep it out. That’s fine is you want to stand still, but put a full pack on your back, and strain and sweat uphill in driving wind and rain for a few hours, and the story will be different. No matter how waterproof the jacket; no matter how breathable the material, your perspiration, particularly where your straining back rubs against the pack, will eventually condense and start to get you wet. And then all you’ll be able to do is envy ducks until you reach shelter.

A walk on New Zealand’s Routeburn Track one spring, wearing an ageing 3rd generation Gore-tex jacket, provided ample support for my theory. The first day’s walk was actually a blissfully dry stroll, and the rainjacket remained stowed. We wandered up the uncannily blue, glacier fed Route Burn, through forests the spitting image of Tasmania’s myrtle forests. Our day ended at the spectacularly situated and rather palatial Routeburn Falls Hut, with balconies hanging over a steep and beautiful valley surrounded by sharp mountains and waterfalls. That evening, while taking in those breathtaking surroundings, I didn’t immediately make the connection between high stream flow, gushing waterfalls and the kind of weather needed to supply them.

But the next morning as we woke to the sound of wind and rain, and the sloosh of soggy snow sliding from the roof, we knew we were going to find out the hard way. From the falls the track takes you up over Harris Saddle (1255m) and into the truly alpine section of the walk. But on this day we could only guess at the height of the mountains around us, although having to walk in snow through an avalanche zone hinted at the precipitous nature of the slopes. The cloud lifted enough that we could at least see the delightfully dark Lake Harris, and swirling mists occasionally parted to reveal snow-dappled peaks. But for much of that day, all we knew was that somewhere out there through the rain, sleet and snow were the wonderful Darran Mountains, a beautiful woman veiled, where only the occasional flash of her eyes insinuated the whole.

We passed a guided group, guessed their leader by his gear and confident air, and I asked him to tell us what we were missing. He smiled through the rain and pointed to where Mt Tuteko should be, laconically adding “she’s beautiful, that one. Nearly 2800 metres.” I took his word for it and retreated under our hoods. After half a day of this I had begun to feel like a Gore-tex felafel. I plodded and sloshed, and puffed and strained, with water underfoot, water in my boots, and eventually, miracle membranes notwithstanding, water down my back. Waterproof and breathable proved to be relative terms out here.

Yet somehow I found this perversely enjoyable. We were out in pretty adverse conditions, but we weren’t keeling over. Despite all of those motherly and grandmotherly warnings to come in out of the rain, I was reaffirming that the stuff doesn’t actually kill you. Having been wet in four continents, having worn everything from a cheap plastic ponchos to the latest hi-tech coats, I was finding out afresh what ducks, our ancestors and Christopher Robin have known all along. Splashing about in water can be quite good fun. Of course finding a hut, putting on a set of dry clothes, and imbibing a hot drink help to keep it that way.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Dancing on Dolerite

[excerpt/draft material from "the walking book"]

[dolerite scree, Cradle Mountain]

They could never get me to sing. My parents tried, bribing me to sing “Within the Shady Thicket” with my sisters to Christmas aunties with names like Beryl, Tress and Eva. “Jazz” Buck, our somewhat militaristic music teacher at high school tried too, although his trick didn’t work. He got the class singing to a record and then walked around the room tapping a few of us on the head. I was chosen, though whether for detention or something else I didn’t know until the choir list came out. Me, in the choir? At a boys’ school, at the age of 12 or 13? My ears reddened at the very thought of it, and I swiftly arranged for my mother to come and bail me out. It was one of the few times I knew she was truly displeased with me, but I was not going to sing.

The trouble was I could sing. And now, do I regret not singing, and not taking music further? Of course I do. It is one of the most heart-lifting activities I know and a way of expressing your soul that has few peers. But as a shy boy trying to make his way in a school full of robust, rugby-loving males, singing just didn't seem an option.

These days music is virtually everywhere in my life. I work to music; relax to music; cook to music. My love of music led me to review music and to present a weekly music show on radio. Music even goes with me when I walk. Sometimes that is literal, as when I walk to work attached to my iPod.

Failing that it is in the form of what I call “head tunes”. These may be the musical equivalent of mad voices and of possible interest to a psychologist. But who hasn’t had one of those annoying tunes follow them around unbidden and unwanted? The Germans have coined a very apt word for it: ohrwurm – literally “ear worm”.

More usually, and very thankfully, my head tunes are of the welcome variety: music that I’ve heard recently that somehow fits with what I’m doing and pops back into my head as a kind of soundtrack for my life. Just occasionally, usually while doing a hard walk, I will even make up tunes. I don’t set out to do this, but something about the ambulatory rhythm, and perhaps the pleasure/pain of what’s involved in walking, resolves itself into musical form. When I’m in the bush my spirit is lifted – even if my body is burdened – and it looks for ways to express itself.

This shouldn’t surprise us, when we think of the working songs that have always helped people of all cultures to get through their daily chores. In Scottish Gaelic culture some of these are called waulking songs. Waulking involved stretching and proving cloth by pounding it against a board or trampling it with your feet. It was carried out by groups of women in Gaelic Scotland, particularly the Hebridean islands.

After more than a decade of presenting a Celtic music program on local community radio, a lot of the music in my own collection – and so in my head – is Irish and Scottish in origin. There seems to be something very true and real about the songs, jigs, slip jigs and reels that typify the music of the Gaels. Perhaps because of its origins in the ups and downs of simple life in remote and beautiful places, it lends itself perfectly to the moods and rhythms of walking – just as it once did for waulking.

Thankfully some waulking songs, especially those of the Hebridean islands, have been kept alive. Contemporary world/folk musicians like Scotland’s Capercaillie and Canada’s Mary Jane Lamond are among those who have both preserved and modernised such songs. Capercaillie even managed to get a waulking song into the UK Top 40 charts with their 1991 version of “Coisich A Ruin”. The more recent “Mile Marbhaisg” on 2003’s Choice Language illustrates this was no flash-in-the-pan. Gaelic culture isn’t in aspic where Capercaillie is concerned. So in the above song (which translates “A Thousand Curses”), they somehow manage to combine a funky, danceable Celtic swing with what I’m sure are savage lyrics. And yes, it makes a great walking “head tune”.

The Scottish dance known as the strathspey is another example. Originating in the Scottish highlands – in fact in my clan’s home territory – it has a complex 2/4 or 4/4 “dotted” rhythm. The short “Scots snap” notes can make it tricky to follow, but as a rhythm to accompany boulder hopping in the Tasmanian highlands, I could ask for nothing better. The tumbling, near-to-tripping feel of hopping across dolerite scree slopes seems to have found perfect musical incarnation in the strathspey. I’m always accompanied by a strathspey – internally if need be – when bounding over boulders.