Sunday 24 April 2011


Climbing above Lake Rhona, SW Tasmania on a perfect day 

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings – John Muir

Mid last century, as a small child, I was entranced by transistor radios. Our family couldn’t afford one, so I acquired instead a cheap crystal set, a primitive radio without batteries or power. It picked up radio waves, but without power it couldn’t amplify the sound. To improve the signal, we ran a copper wire around the house’s exterior brickwork, and attached the crystal set to this aerial via an alligator clip.

Hunched and hushed in bed at night, earphone in one ear, I would pick up faint sounds through the tiny device; words and music that seemed magic to my young ears. Even then I had an outward urge, a desire to tap into what was happening out there.

And then there were mountains, faintly and tantalisingly visible from the same childhood home. Combine an outward urge and mountains with an adventurous father, and a love for exploring the bush was all but inevitable.

Still, during my apprentice walking years, I quickly understood that bushwalking has a perverse economy. Not only do you do without many of the necessities of life for large chunks of time, you also suffer numerous positive indignities. You experience body-wide aches, voluminous perspiration, and frequent exhaustion. You expose yourself to dire weather, restricted rations, drastic toilet arrangements and almost constant discomfort.

Is it any surprise that first-time walkers often ask a less polite variation of "this is fun!?" Totting up the apparent economic equation, you'd have to agree with those who call economics the dismal science.

And yet – and perhaps this is why I failed economics – I believe there might be an alternative economy at work here. Why is it that so many walkers, even some of those same first-timers, start planning their next walk even while they're going through the anguish of their current walk? Why do we keep banging our heads against this particular wall?

"Are we having fun yet?" Climbing Mt Pelion East in sleet 

One walking friend opts for the endorphin thesis, explaining repeated walking as simple addictive behaviour. Certainly studies show that exercise releases endorphins in the brain. This in turn leads to what is commonly known as runner’s high, which can become addictive.

As a very part-time jogger who has never experienced runner’s high – but can vouch for runner’s grump, runner’s grumble and runner’s unprintable-expletive-dumby-spit – I would have to say I remain unconvinced.

I will risk explaining it a different way. Do we actually keep going back because we experience, and somehow get beyond, a walker’s low? While it would be foolish to argue that hard walking is a true parallel to serious illness or significant loss, the despair and ennui that sometimes engulf me on the hardest of walks, smell and feel kin to these. The worst moments can be accompanied by a deep psychic innertia that feels as insurmountable as grief or despair. How do you go on?

I think of the Samuel Beckett character in The Unnamable. "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." Somehow body and soul move on, to the eventual strengthening of both. And that’s the point: that in getting up and carrying on despite the agonies, we grow. Our psyche expands in ways we wouldn't think possible when we're in the midst of the suffering. (Just don't call it character-building!)

Another part of the explanation for our recidivist behaviour might be sought outside of ourselves. Many of us sense that there is something out there that calls to us. Scotsman David Craig, in his fine climbing book, Native Stones, plays with the notion that mountains are somehow alive. “How else to convey the sense that they are beings, whose company I need as much as people’s”.

This creates the tantalising thought that we might somehow have a relationship with these places. If so it would seem no ordinary reciprocal relationship, for how could a mountain need us?

Certainly on my side, the desire to be in the company of wild places is very real. Sometimes it feels like a form of occupation, a kind of reclaimation, even an expression of belonging. It is certainly no claim of ownership. Rather presence becomes a counterweight for absence. We have stories of gain to counter those of loss; return that stands against exile; fellowship in place of brutality; a tentative re-inhabiting that witnesses against genocide and extinction.

By the very ordinary act of being there, we also witness the passing of many things both ordinary and extraordinary. Our attachment grows, despite the wilderness’s seeming indifference to our presence. It continues as it always has. Yet by being there we can somehow tap into, and be fed by, that continuity. We begin to feel that we somehow belong.

If this were a reciprocal relationship, we would have to ask what the wild places receive in return? Is it possible that they gain a form of protection - albeit a tenuous form - from being loved by us? After all, aren't we humans known for protecting that which we love? Beyond waiting for us to go the way of the thylacine, the wilderness seems to have no other choice.

Meandering through alpine herbfields on a perfect south-west day 
Tonight is a clear autumn night. I am camped on an alpine beach beside Lake Rhona. The next day will be as close to perfection as a walker could wish. We will sweat up the steep slopes to the rocky plateau; we'll meander through the alpine herbfields; we'll scramble to the top of Reeds Peak and take in views that defeat superlatives. We'll then return to a calm and sun-filled beach, and soak our sweat-stained bodies in the icy lake.

But that's tomorrow. Tonight, 50 years after that crystal set, I lie hunched and hushed in my tent, listening still. There are no more than faint and hopeful whisperings from the mountain, but I sense I will not be disappointed.

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