Sunday 27 May 2012

The Fellowship of the Foot

"There will be many footpaths in Utopia." - HG Wells 

[Walking and talking: profound yet simple] 

They are unlike the people you spend most of your life among: family, work mates, friends. The people you meet while out walking may not even have names - or names that you know. Some will meet your eye and greet you, others will keep their gaze steadfastly elsewhere, perhaps groundward, perhaps somewhere over your left shoulder.

Sometimes you’ll try to make a connection with the cautious ones. Just the other morning a woman was walking a dog whose gait and behaviour was so similar to my dog’s, that as I overtook her I had to ask if it was a Staffordshire terrier. I had to ask twice actually, because we were both wearing white earbuds, which can limit things. But eventually we had a 10 second dog conversation, the sort that confirms the dog's breed and gender, and its status as “spoiled”, but nothing much more.

The fellowship of the foot is sometimes that simple. Or simpler even, in the case of a nod or a muttered "Morning". Of course there are others who you get to know much better. Like Dave and Donna, a retired couple who share the backtrack with us. They walk their dog "Fred" there every day and knew our previous dog well enough for them to talk about “Angus” for years after his death.

Donna knows “Noo”, our current dog, well too: knows her nervous disposition, her barks and raised hackles when calm “Fred” is about. Donna carries treats, and rewards “Noo” for coming, and for calming. She gives us hope that our old dog may pick up new tricks.

[Noo enjoying the bush] 
We talk about other things too: the state of the bush, the weather, holidays, mountain bikers (Dave is not keen on them). But if there is one focus among the people along the track, it’s animals. Apart from walking their dogs, and occasionally riding their horses there, some neighbours have even made it a pet burial ground.

Some months back a brightly painted wooden cross appeared beside the track. It was inscribed to “Lucky”, with a few heart-felt words honouring their demised dog. Then a week ago we noticed another similar-styled cross next to the first. This time it was for “Flick”.

We paused beside the impromptu pet cemetery, reading the inscriptions and thinking. Half to herself Lynne said “Flick ‘n’ Lucky”. I couldn’t resist replying “Looks like they weren’t so flick’n lucky”, breaking the mood and sending us both down the track laughing like naughty children.

The backtrack isn’t just used by domestic animals. We see, hear and find evidence of many native birds, mammals and other animals on our walks. And they don’t only limit themselves to the bush.

One morning while on the footpath near the Cascade Brewery, I witnessed an unusual congregation of birds, a kind of avian cold war between sulphur-crested cockatoos and currawongs. It was as though I’d come across an animated “Spy vs Spy”: the cockatoos all white except for their crests, the currawongs all black but for their golden eyes and white tail markings.

[A Black Currawong plays the strong, silent type] 
The two species were sitting on top of open wooden apple bins inside the factory grounds. It was apple harvest time, and the birds knew there were plenty there for the pecking. I paused to watch, counting more than a dozen of each type of bird busy at the apple boxes, with more flying in and out from the tall water silos across the road.

I wondered how the two very different species might interact. The currawong all silent swoop and precision, the cockatoo raucous, unpredictable, manouverable: stealth fighter meets combat chopper.

[A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Photo by Lynne Grant] 
As I watched a cocky landed atop a box right next to a feeding currawong. The latter paused and looked up at the cockatoo, just a wingspan away. The cockatoo arched forward, unfurled its crest, and let out an ear-piercing “RAAARRRKK!”. It was too much for the currawong, which flapped off to find a vacant box.

Further down the footpath I came come across Tommy, who walks with the aid of a zimmer frame. We’ve chatted for many years, enough for me to know he’s a war veteran, that he lives in a retirement village, and that he has cancer. Walking is his one freedom. I sometimes slow and walk with him towards town, where he goes for breakfast and a change of scene.

Tommy knows a little of my life too, just snatches perhaps, about travel or grandchildren or walking. It’s enough that we can go a year or more without coming across each other, and then take up again like old friends. And it’s enough that my walks will be just that bit poorer when Tommy is no longer there.

Something as simple as walking side by side, sharing informally while your focus is elsewhere, walking and talking, can make connections whose impact is deeper than time. That’s the fellowship of the foot.

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