Keeping Track

You can’t get lost on a loop. One foot following another, the outcome resolved, the journey determined. One less problem to solve, my thinking went, as I set out for a late summer bushwalk to ease the chafe of anxiety. One less thought-hook for a frazzled mind to snag on.

I chose a walk that traced a ridge, a circuit draped along a sea-facing spine of sandstone cliffs.

The track begins on Dharawal Country, in wet sclerophyll forest, an almost closed canopy like a leafy blanket overhead, impressions of the sea beyond peeking occasionally through the close trunks. The ridge top perched above the horizon, descending to the sand where the line levels with your gaze – a relationship of constant recalibrating. I think of the boundary separating the two blues as a spirit level, its impersonal and elemental horizontality designed for steadying, for re-balancing

As you approach the coast the canopy lowers and the sky opens, views across the water presenting themselves as a kind of reward. Casuarinas cling to the cliffs, their brown seed heads fanned like well-worn paintbrushes, smudges of raw sienna against the startling blue. Low shrubs dot a rippling carpet of grasses. Fellow walkers visible now, emerging ahead, taller than the wind-pruned trees. In the open air you can hear the tinny sounds of a portable speaker blaring, the hum of a drone overhead, de-mystifying the cliffs.

The walk weaves its way through dunes backing a beach, reached by stone steps strewn through cabbage palms. Most people split here from the loop, crossing the sand towards the rocky headland hunting natural pools that appear deliberate. The loop’s second half continues mostly un-walked. Crossing rills named Robin and Wren, snaking its way back up to the ridgeline, its subtle charms unprized.

At the top, if you time it, the afternoon sun streaks across the path and makes the angophoras blush. Maybe a lyrebird will cycle through its catalogue of songs. Given this magic, the fact that fewer complete the loop than start it strikes me as strange, like leaving the majority of a meal untouched.

I’ve likely experienced anxiety since before I had a name for it. For a condition understood as arising in the mind, I’ve always found the lived reality body-bound. Chest tightening, pace quickening, breath unsteadying. The conscious mind the last affected by the wave of sensation, as though it was the shaking tension of the body that caused thoughts to dislodge, atomise. One acute episode caused my vision to occlude, a blurry curtain drawn between the world and me. Retreat inside yourself, my body seeming to say.

Contemporary descriptions seem to discard the dream and the wonder, informed not by poets but by the pseudo-speak of marketing, where time in nature is lauded for its ability to improve the self, as if we’re perfectible projects.

If this is going to stick around, I thought, I may as well find a way to absorb it. To weave an intelligible story, one with a character arc, resolution. So the effete, emotional boy becomes the sensitive walker, and the anxiety less a blight than romantic tic.

Why walking, though, and why in the wild? Why can’t the hum of a city street act like white noise – muting an anxious mind. The author John Fowles, in his book on the relationship between nature and creativity, The Tree, argues that nature offers a place to engage with what society censors, access to the ‘wild side’ of our character. A place where the interior world can be mirrored in the exterior.

Fowles’s nature is a place where the ‘irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable’ is welcomed. In return, fostering a relationship between nature’s characteristics and those we are encouraged to suppress. Fowles extends the comparison, presenting the need for engagement with ‘the green chaos, the deep forest’ as akin to the need for sleep, nature offering the conscious mind what sleep offers in its inverse, an essential release and repair – without which you’d go mad.

I’m usually averse to such binary thinking, suspicious that any dichotomy is likely to exclude all the fun. But there’s something in the concentration of contrasts that distils thought, revealing the armature of our approach to nature. The duality (of inside and outside, wild and urban, rational and irrational) creating a play of mirrors, of inverses and opposites.

The path then becomes a threshold between these states. The bush the site of a kind of emotional osmosis, where, unconstrained by the body, the unstoppable internal monologue externalises. Thought, feelings, able to slip through the barrier of the skin, to evaporate in the air, dry out in the sun. The blurry curtain pulled back, the unpruned mind at home in the untamed place.

Walking, in its slowness and reliance on the body, provides access to this place-state. Philosopher Frédéric Gros, in his book, A Philosophy of Walking, explains that ‘when you are walking, nothing really moves, it is rather that presence is slowly established in the body’. In his telling, a walk is not defined by what it approaches – its imagined aim drawing nearer with each tread – but gains its meaning by the state that it engenders, the rhythmic, slow nature of our steps enabling the landscape to be absorbed by the body. Conversely, as in the case of the pilgrim, the act of walking permits the walker to enter an interior dimension, to go inside in the outdoors.

These ways of being in the wild could be given any number of names or descriptions. They are not new ideas, but run as cultural undercurrents, unspoken notions that sound familiar once articulated. They are Thoreau’s hut on Walden Pond, Rousseau’s reveries, with all their insights and limitations.

The tree line lifts as the walk mounts the escarpment, palms suddenly tall, their canopy roof-like. Dead leaves skirt their trunks, and a wet weedy smell hangs trapped in the closeness. The crunch of dried fronds underfoot amplified in the hush. We’re above the pools now. There’s nothing particularly worth doing here, an experience that’s impossible to document or extract. Dependent on attendance, the feral appeal unsellable.

The track climbs, the sandstone boulders adjacent to the path becoming balconies. Standing smug above the cliffs, I judged those plodding along the sand below for what I took to be a vain pilgrimage. Their walk incomplete for efficiency’s sake, the camera-ready moment plucked and preserved. There was something about the idea that time in nature has a point, that there is an efficient way to engage, that disappointed me. To experience nature this way, as something useful, treats it as a resource, I kept thinking, with its value chained to its amenity, its worth to its beauty.

I considered the cameras, the drones, like unwanted alarms disturbing sleep – evidence of a breach in the line between the wild world I was there to enter and the workday world, a crack that lets machines steal in, devices for counting, measuring and recording.

It didn’t immediately register that I was entertaining the same idea, that the notion of a bushwalk as a personal salve equally cast nature as a resource. For this, Fowles doesn’t spare me. ‘I do not believe nature is to be reached by turning it into a therapy, a free clinic for admirers of their own sensitivity,’ he writes. I had unwittingly internalised the language of the wellness industry, intent on reshaping the world as a flattering backdrop, nature as a service provider. The bush offering leafy therapy, secular transcendence.

Tom Carment, Tree Trunk near Otford, 2013. Watercolour on paper. 19 x 13cm

Perhaps this is where the binary separating ‘the wild’ and ‘the world’ wears thin. In his book, Landscape and Memory, the English historian Simon Schama argues for the interdependency of worlds I’d prefer to keep separate. ‘The wilderness’ he writes, ‘does not locate itself, does not name itself … nor could the wilderness venerate itself.’ He argues that the roots of modern Western environmentalism, tracing back to Thoreau and Muir, suppose (in a mindset Australians should recognise for its colonialism) that the wilderness is something ‘out there’ – somewhere to be discovered and conserved as an antidote to society’s ills. ‘The “healing wilderness” is as much the product of culture’s caring and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden,’ he writes. ‘…the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product.’ In Australia’s case, we’re slowly awaking to the understanding that they always have been.

The loop crawls back along a fire trail, the sandstone bedrock visible beneath the brittle soil like stone vertebrae. Birds whose song I love but names I forget singing their vespers. It’s here I usually slow the most, when my heart rate matches the pace of my footsteps, and I’m reluctant to return – like a kid who’d rather play than do homework. My idling as much about avoidance as maintaining this rare equilibrium with my surroundings.

‘You are nobody to the hills,’ Gros writes. A freeing thought, to imagine the narratives we have about ourselves eroding in the face of nature’s benign indifference.

Status and stress dispersed by the wind. Towards the track’s close, counting the ways the dappled light amuses itself – the idea becomes something felt. Among the twisted limbs of the trees, taking the chance to be embodied, doing what a body does, eyes for seeing, nose for smelling, feet for carrying.

I don’t know what you call this state – the self pleasantly effaced, the senses free to play for their own sake, poetically Baudelaire’s correspondences, Mary Oliver’s earnest wonder. Contemporary descriptions seem to discard the dream and the wonder, informed not by poets but by the pseudo-speak of marketing, where time in nature is lauded for its ability to improve the self, as if we’re perfectible projects. The role of leisure to provide rest only to be more productive – fields unable to lie fallow. It’s a state I fear losing access to, a relationship tethered to place like a spider’s web, woven of strong attachments but brittle filaments.

My grumpy judgment of my fellow walkers was the outward symptom of a bigger fear, that the conservation of these cherished places is inextricably linked to a culture that favours economics as the primary means of determining their value, a mindset that simultaneously determines their worth and threatens their future. In Aldo Leopold’s classic essay, The Land Ethic, he cites this attitude in our conception of land as property, an economic relationship that affords privileges but lacks obligations. The critique still stings – I hear it when we calculate the devastation of bushfires in dollars, refer to rainforests as a carbon sink, blow up sacred sites for mines. It’s the fear that to advocate for the value of these places based on romantic notions is too feeble a defence in the face of neoliberalism. The revulsion at being described as a consumer.

I’m attracted to Gros’s statement because of the inversion of power it implies, human foibles shrinking against a timeless landscape. Yet the indifference of his hills precludes a relationship. I prefer Schama’s analogy, the idea that we lug our culture into wild places with us, like weight in a backpack ­– the idea additive rather than absolute, malleable rather than fixed.

Picking pebbles from my shoes, cataloguing the day’s impressions, it’s the nature of this relationship that comes to mind while my hands are occupied with the menial. I want to unpack that backpack, check what’s worth keeping, what’s missing. I’ve carried in old ideas, of looking inwards while shutting out the world; of the wild as the inverse of the urban, a green mirror reflecting the self in better lighting. A limited mode of engagement, born of both self-protection and perception. Forgetting to engage with the strange. Focused on the transactional like a lop-sided friendship.

Imaginary backpacks are infinite, able to accommodate new ways of being, to carry in old thoughts we’ve yet to entertain. Leopold believes that shifting from an economic to a more ethical mindset begins simply – in the act of caring. In our individual valuing of these spaces, no matter how intimate the reasoning. A position from which our sense of care extends outwards to encompass the world beyond us. It seems like a humble place to set out.

Post Cover image: Tom Carment, Gymea Lily and Angophoras near Otford, 2013. Watercolour on paper. 11.5 x 16cm