Thursday 31 December 2009

The Lonesome Touch

[photo: a lonesome pool near Mt Rogoona, Central north-west Tasmania]

[I am fascinated by the interface between music, movement and mood. This is a companion piece to "Dancing on Dolerite" - see November 09 archive]

Fiddler Martin Hayes’ 1997 album, The Lonesome Touch, contains what I consider one of the masterpieces of modern Irish folk music. The third track, a long set of tunes played on fiddle by Martin Hayes with Dennis Cahill on guitar, is simply exquisite: the perfect accompaniment to a reluctant morning walk, and a primer in optimism for melancholics. A few chime-like notes on the guitar lead into a mournfully slow rendition of the fiddle tune Paul Ha'penny. This gentle and somehow irresistible invitation to raise your weary head from the pillow, is followed by a still slow, but lifting jig The Garden Of Butterflies, with Hayes’ fiddle beginning to lilt more, and Cahill’s guitar strokes gaining in complexity.

Then to the reel The Broken Pledge, on which the audibly tapping foot and more up-tempo guitar give fair warning that the pace of life can’t stay slow forever. Like it or not your heart is pumping once again, so if your feet aren’t walking or dancing already, they’ll surely be tapping. Hayes is not a fiddler who tries to play at warp speed, but the friendly lilt of the tune belies the fact that he’s working hard. So too with the next tune, The Mother And Child Reel, where the delightfully syncopated beat continues to banish the cobwebs. If head and heart aren’t yet in sync then the closing reel, the classic Toss The Feathers, will ensure they are. And your feet will surely follow. By the time this amazing eleven minute set concludes you’re ready to fall to the ground exhausted, or climb to the top of the nearest mountain, or cry for joy; perhaps all three. That old scoundrel melancholy has been banished for another day.

Some music can do that for you, and its moods and movements seem so appropriate as an accompaniment for walking. Hayes, something of a philosopher on fiddling, believes that neither great speed nor brilliant technique is enough to make a great fiddler. Rather he seeks for that “lonesome touch” that is the heart and soul of fiddling.

Hayes explains it this way.

The Lonesome Touch is a phrase I have heard in my native County Clare all my life. . . . It is the intangible aspect of music that is both elusive and essential. The word lonesome expresses a sadness, a blue note, a sour note. Even though the music bares the trace of struggle and of pain, it is also the means of uplift, transcendence to joy and celebration.

The lonesome touch is something that is difficult to achieve. One is forced to put the requirements of the music before all personal considerations, to play honestly from the heart with no motive other than the selfless expression of joy and beauty for their own sake.

In the opinion of many Hayes’ ability to find that soul in the music is his particular genius.

So much of that philosophy seems to apply also to walking. Speed, technique, equipment – these aren’t the soul of a good walk. Really seeing what’s around you; dealing with the limitations of your body, your exhaustion, the weather; working with rather than against those you walk with; putting the requirements of the walk ahead of your personal considerations; these are part of the soul of walking. Only then can you find that “lonesome touch” that lifts bushwalking out of being just another activity and into the soul-nourishing realms.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

The Apprentice Cuckoo

[a fan-tailed cuckoo - Cacomantis flabelliformis]

[a new piece reflecting on birds, people and life in general]

"Science may have defined life too small" - Rachel Remen

Is the natural world indifferent to humans? Is it merely a blank canvas on which we project our thoughts and feelings: things about which it is both oblivious and unconcerned? Or is there a little more to our place in this world than to be mere passive observers?

Anthropomorphic projection shows up in talk of wallabies “browsing happily” or of march flies “buzzing angrily”, even if such talk has scant basis in science. Those creatures do what they do for their own good reasons, and human emotions like happiness and anger probably have little or nothing to do with it.

Why then do most rational humans NOT resist the tendency to project their thoughts and feelings onto the world around them? Does a mountain really “glower defiantly”? Was Mt Everest actually the “bugger” that Hillary called it?

One spring I was tormented by a particularly fraught decision. It kept me awake – or woke me up – at all sorts of hours of the night. Our local bush was so filled with fan-tailed cuckoos that it became my cuckoo spring. The male cuckoo has a strong whistling trill which carries great distances in the bush, alerting female cuckoos to both his presence and his potential.

The trill has a melancholy downward trend. But there I go again, using a word like “melancholy” where it rationally may not belong. When I consult bird references I find that I am not alone. They variously describe the call as “mournful”, “sad” or “plaintive”.

But does a cuckoo feel sorrow? Surely this usurper of other nests has no such feelings (or so the anthropomorphic argument might go). All I know is that I have always felt a tinge of sadness on hearing the first cuckoo in spring (to follow Frederick Delius). To add to this my own mother died one spring, and I strongly remember hearing cuckoos in the months that followed. Even as a man in my fifties, my own sad reflections included thoughts of being alone in the nest.

During that cuckoo spring, an increase in their population meant there was a great deal of competition. I assume that’s why one young cuckoo – I came to think of him as the apprentice cuckoo – trilled all through the night. Apparently they occasionally do this, but it’s the first time I’ve been fully awake to experience a bird calling right through the night. I found my own melancholy magnified by the L-plate trill of my apprentice cuckoo.

His voice would stumble, miss a few steps of the ladder, then break off half-way – so much like an adolescent boy that I smiled in amusement despite my troubled state. He kept up these faltering efforts all that night and much of the next. I covered my head with a pillow, but still found my amusement turned to grudging admiration. Had I known more at the time, I would have listened for the shorter “chiree” response call from the female birds. That might have signalled that his yearning persistence was paying off, winning him a mate. I will never know whether his departure signalled success, or simply that he had left for a greener tree beyond the reach of my ears.

I realise now that I always feel a frisson of sadness in response to certain bird calls. The tawny frogmouth’s eerie night-time booming; the spotted pardalote’s downward drooping, double-noted “pee-paw”; even the forest raven’s “lascivious” carking has a world-weary downward inflection. Part of the science here may be that downward trending music has – for humans – an inherent sadness, just as human crying and wailing usually have a downward inflection.

But do bird calls, like human accents, also in part reflect the environment in which they develop? Let’s face it, much of the Australian environment is far from the “green and pleasant land” of England, for instance. If this is true, then the equation becomes: a harsh land = harsh accents. If life is no walk in the park, should we expect sweet voices?

All of this may be a partial explanation – even some justification – for anthropomorphism. But I think there is something more going on here. Our major tool as human beings is our use of language. We use words to make sense of each other, to put order on our society and on the world around us. We even invented metaphor to enhance distinctions and draw comparisons. And at our most basic we simply tell stories – and always have.

Some of those stories will project a character on landscapes, birds and beasts. I have heard such stories from the Adnyamathanha people in the Flinders Ranges. Their tales are peopled by the animals they see all around them, and each animal carries a metaphorical as well as a biological cargo. So when an Adnyamathanha child sees a crow, for instance, there are several stories, with in-built moral lessons, that the child can “read” from the crow.

Granted this is not “scientific” knowledge of the corvus genus. But it is knowledge nonetheless, and it carries a truth that works. Because one result of such story-telling is a caring for crows, and an identification of ourselves with them as co-creatures in the world of nature.

Perhaps in my cuckoo spring, I was story-making in my own way: preferentially taking note of cuckoos rather than kookaburras. Hearing and identifying with the yearning and sadness in the call of the apprentice cuckoo. Sometimes you just don’t have ears to hear the kookaburra’s laugh.

Friday 11 December 2009

No Such Thing As Bad Weather

[photo: high in the Kepler Mountains, New Zealand]

[more thoughts on walking and weather]

My colleague and friend, Cathie, has waged a war of words with terms like “bad weather”. One of her favourite quotes is from Joseph Wood Krutch:

The good thing about the country is . . . that we don’t have any bad weather at all – only a number of different kinds of good.

And Cathie’s right. The wild parts of Tasmania, New Zealand, Alaska and places like them would not look as they do; would not have the same plants and animals; wouldn’t even have the same topography, were it not for the weather. Mountains, forests and fiords come at a climatological cost.

That’s not to say that we always want to be out in the wilds when it’s blowing a gale and sleeting or snowing. But we recognise that such weather in an inherent part of the wild country that is so attractive to walkers. We adapt to the weather, not the other way around. One way to do that is to have good all weather gear, and/or to develop a positive duck-like attitude. Another is to have the flexibility to walk when the weather is expected to be fine. In that regard long-range internet weather forecasts are a great thing. I use them all the time, and they have made a big difference to my walking. For a start they can give warning of extreme conditions that are best avoided, although some familiarity with meteorology and lots of experience of local conditions is still important.

My ideal scenario in Tasmania is to start a walk on the tail-end of a cold front, especially when it looks as though it will be followed by a large, slow-moving high pressure system. This will usually bring calmer conditions, cool nights, and clear days. So while you may start the walk in cloudy or rainy conditions, the promise is that the high will come to the rescue. If it does the result will be a few days of clear weather when you’re actually among the mountains. With the exception of masochists and wilderness photographers in search of “artist’s light”, this is bliss for a bushwalker. And occasionally it does work out that way, although the weather gods often have the last laugh, and a bushwalker’s best-laid plans go oft astray. In the end we have to accept that we don’t control the weather, and making the most of it bears more fruit than shaking a fist at it.

Four days on New Zealand’s Kepler Track, west of Te Anau in Fiordland National Park, proved a good example. In Fiordland you can wait a long time for a forecast indicating a spell of clear weather. This part of the world measures its annual rainfall in metres, not millimetres, and the roaring forties bite particularly hard around here. But in planning to walk the Kepler Track, I did have some flexibility with dates. So I sat on the long-range forecasts for days trying to pick a four day period that might translate into clear weather for at least the day spent in the alpine section, at around 1400m. As I read the forecasts, I prevaricated, planned, replanned, and prevaricated again. Yes, it was spring, but the procession of cold and/or wet weather systems seemed interminable. And not knowing how this would play out on local weather patterns made it hard to commit. I wanted to pay due respect to the potential for wild weather up in those mountains. But eventually taking both local advice and the plunge, I booked the walk. We chose to do the loop walk in the less usual clockwise direction. Forecasts indicated clearer weather for day 3, the alpine day. If we went in the other direction, we’d be up there on day 2, which looked dire.

It turned out my choice was both right and wrong. Wrong because it snowed on and off throughout our entire alpine day. And right because the day before did turn out to be a savage, wet and windy day. Walkers we met at the walk’s half-way point, the Iris Burn Hut, told us they’d been literally blown over by gale-force winds. Some had even lost equipment, blown off the mountain by the wind. And they’d seen almost nothing through the rain and flying cloud in the head-down hurry to get off the mountain. And our snowy day? Well that was the other part of being wrong. Had I been invited to walk for 8 hours through sleet and snow – more than half of it steeply up hill – I probably would have declined. Yet it turned out to be one of the most brilliant days of walking I’ll ever experience.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Why We Walk

[walking near Crescent Bay, Tasmania]

[some draft material from my walking book]

Why do we walk? And what is it that tempts some of us to walk long distances? Why bother with the sweat and strain of it when there are plenty of other things to do in life? If we must move from A to B, surely there are easier and quicker alternatives than walking. Didn’t our ancestors invent the wheel for that reason?

My granddaughter Sophy prompted me to ask a different question: How can we NOT walk? She had not quite learned to walk at the age of one. Around that time she and her family were staying with us for Easter. Previously a sweet-natured and laid-back child, Sophy seemed out of sorts, and spent quite a bit of the Easter week making an unholy racket for no apparent reason. From her high chair; from the car seat; from the standing, crawling or sitting position, she would squawk without warning a little too loudly for anybody’s comfort.

A month later she started walking, and a few weeks after that we visited her again. The audible difference was amazing. Our sweet Sophy was back. The reason? According to her mother it was simply that now she could walk. Her earlier frustration had arisen from her inability to move in the way most of us do.

We are made for walking.

We are bipeds, and we are physiologically designed to get around on two feet. It’s easy to take for granted, but very few other animals are bipedal. Even our near relatives, the chimpanzees, are essentially quadrupedal. They get around by knuckle-walking on all fours. While that’s more energy efficient than human running over short distances, human bipedal walking is far more energy efficient over longer distances.

In evolutionary terms bipedalism would have conferred an adaptive advantage on hominids, especially when food resources were scarce. Bipeds would have expended less energy moving from one food source to another. And standing upright would have added to that advantage by allowing them to spot food from further away.

As an Australian, in a hot, dry land of dispersed food resources, I can appreciate the need for energy efficient movement. In fact the bounding gait of some of our marsupial mammals is thought to be to an adaptation that allows greater energy efficiency over long distances. The large muscle-bound back legs of kangaroos and wallabies have been shown to use less effort per mile than “standard model” herbivorous mammals such as deer and cattle.

Despite all of that, I can’t see pogo sticks succeeding among the bushwalking fraternity. But it is fascinating to think about how we and other animals move. I once intently watched sea gulls flying. Their undulating and ragged progress reminded me of our walking. Instead of preventing falling by putting the next foot forward, the chubby birds stop an altogether more catastrophic surrender to gravity by the flapping of their wings. Each time the belly is hitched skyward, only to droop again towards the ground at the end of the upward stroke, before again being lifted higher by the downward movement of its wings. Presumably all this is done on a bellyfull of fish, and without any more conscious thought than our own walking.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The Stilled Soul

[an artful seat, Tulampanga/Alum Cliffs, Tasmania]

[a piece written for a catalogue of artwork produced by artists in residence in Tasmania's national parks - 1999]

The landscapes we inhabit, the places we live, are not the simple, fixed things we sometimes take them to be. So called solid rock might have its origins in a slow and capricious accumulation of fine sediment. It may have gone through aeons of dark depression; ages of lethargic uplift and tedious down-wearing. Only then might its brief era in the sunlit lands have come.

On another time-scale altogether, a cicada that sings its way through a summer's day might have spent 7 long years beneath the ground before reaching its final flighted form. And that form will last just a few days, given favourable weather and luck with predators.

In childhood my friends and I were sometimes predators unaware. We would seek out the shilling-sized cicada holes in our lawns and flood them to try and bring the insects out. We reasoned that all those years in the nymphal stage wouldn't be hurt by staging a bogus summer flood. And up they would come like spirits from the grave - scarcely in the same form as the creatures they would become. A stiff but sodden brown caul held them prisoner still.

Yet given time and careful handling some of them would dry out and gradually begin their amazing metamorphosis. We would never tire of this unveiling, fascinated as much by the metaphysics as the physics, even if unable to articulate it. When it was all over we took the empty shell as a talisman.

The hiddenness of the world around us can sometimes yield to science - even such blundering childhood science. Careful observation and judicious reading can peel back the layers of familiarity with which our world disguises its wonders. But science will never reveal all. When we think about the places we know and love, it is obvious that the sciences neither encompass nor describe them with anything like satisfaction. Time and again they slip out of the lasso of logic, running free in some parallel universe of their own.

Yet notice how we can be transported instantly back to such places by a sound - a bird call, a radio song; or by a scent - whether rare perfume or mere insect repellant. The world's hiddennness can be revealed in many such unexpected ways.

While science may sit uncomfortably with such revelations, the arts are quite at home. They can play a role in interpreting places that science can't. From the arts poetry may still flow when prose has dried up. By this I do not mean to imply that science is solely for the head and art purely for the heart. Both speak to the intellect. Still we might expect the arts to speak more to the emotional side of our intellect than the logical side.

In hosting the Dombrovskis Wilderness Residencies, the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service is recognising that we need to be aware of not only the science but also the art of place. These are different ways of seeing, but they can be complementary rather than conflicting. The arts in all their forms can help to give a more complete picture of the places that inspire us.

Although the tryst between artist and place is an ancient one, it is not necessarily well understood. Nor is it predestined to succeed. Special places can remain mute, and artists uninspired in the face of much-anticipated encounters.

In the 1940s E.H. Burgmann, Anglican Bishop of Canberra/Goulburn, reflected on the special places of his own upbringing. He likened a forest at dawn to a baby stirring out of sleep.

"Presently the babe is fully awake and all the dwellers of the bush loose their tongues. Bellbirds, whipbirds, and all sorts of birds enjoy their songs, and as they make high festival the lyrebird can mimic them all. Nature must be taken as a whole. It speaks through its birds, it lives in its animals; man can only join in on Nature's own terms. He can sit and listen and let his fancy run free. He will grow more reverent as his sensitiveness to the presence grows. He will feel privileged to have been admitted into the audience of Nature's moods. Birds and animals may even come to feel that he to some extent belongs to their exclusive world.

It is foolish for man to think of Nature as below him. If he lives in the bush long enough he will find that reverence is the only worthy attitude. But the bush will take its own time to do the work. It 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.
" (E.H. Burgmann, The Education of an Australian, Angus & Robertson, 1944)

The works represented in this exhibition are the result of hard labour. We should never so romanticise the arts that we imagine works dropping from the sky fully-formed and ready for display. But neither should we imagine that such works can be mined from the cosmos through sheer perspiration. If Bishop Burgmann is right, it may take a great deal of patience; a willingness to listen; a capacity to be still. Such openness is a kind of spiritual labour.

The places these artists have lived and worked in have demanded much of them. Some have found that there is more at stake in this stilling of the soul than the generation of mere amusements. The best of the works represented here are the beginnings of a great labour. It is a labour that wills to find a place for humans in relation to the natural world; and to see what of lasting significance can be attached to human existence.

It involves effort because wild places can overwhelm us by their seeming indifference to our existence. Every day that the cosmos confronts us with our insignificance; every morning that finds us trapped between earth and sky is a reminder of life’s paradox. We are of the earth, yet we are spirit; mortal yet longing for immortality; impossibly small yet aching for significance. Through art - among other things - we seek to explore this spiritual paradox. We look to somehow say “yes” to the cosmos; to make life significant.

Early in the Christian era saints withdrew to the desert wilderness to hear more clearly the voice of God. These hermits - the word derives from the Greek word for "desert" - often preserved a clearer view of what life was truly about than their sophisticated urban peers. In saying “no” they found their “yes”. We would do well to hear what answers these artists have brought back from the wilderness.