Slow Art of Bushwalking
Extracts from a dawn walk and talk on the track in the Dorrigo World Heritage rainforest for the 2011 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival
On July 4, 1845, Henry Thoreau left Concord to live in a cabin he built on the edge of Walden Pond, on property his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson had bought to save from the woodchoppers. For two years he lived in the woods to ask questions we all have a need to ask – how do I build my house, my life and my work, sustainably and honestly? Thoreau lived at Walden to learn how to live free from habit, thoughtlessness and convention. He wrote Walden to wake people up to living, believing an enlarged natural aesthetic can alert people to their lives.
What would you need to live in an isolated cabin? I’d want pen, paper, camera, radio, music – Thoreau’s project at Walden was a performance of self-reliance. There is an absence of art in Walden. Thoreau made do with Homer and a flute to entice the mice out from their holes. He soon gave up on a garden, finding weeding an ethical dilemma, but paid attention to nature in an aesthetic and ecological way.
We know Thoreau best by his wanderings around Walden Pond, and his lecture ‘Walking’ a public lecture of 1851, which he refined over the years and prepared for publication in his final months. It became the seminal work of the environmental movement. The talk marked Thoreau’s shift, half-way through drafting Walden, from a poetic to a more empirical (or as he put it, ‘distinct and scientific’) way of depicting nature which influenced later natural history writing.
He warned, “I wish to make an extreme statement” and began the talk, “I WISH TO SPEAK a word for nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”
Thoreau knew there’s an art to walking: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.” He wore camouflage colours to help get him closer to animals and had deep pockets made for notebook, spyglass, and surveyor’s gear – that was his profession. Thoreau walked about everyday of his life, usually from 2.30 to 5.50 every afternoon.
He gave varied reasons during his lifetime, walking was ‘sanitive’ or ‘poetic’ or preserved one’s health and one’s spirits, even, was nothing more than exercise. But in this lecture he said, “But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise”, suggesting “you must walk like a camel” – he meant, “is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.”
In ‘Walking’, he criticised fellow citizens for lacking a relationship with nature, yes over a hundred and fifty years ago! What would he make of us now, when last year over half the world became urban, when children think meat is shrink wrapped factory product, not dead flesh (which is a factory product anyway). His essay is famous for the slogan, ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’. ‘Wildness’ note – not wilderness. The Gumbaynggirr would deny this is wilderness.
A walk celebrates the journey not a destination, experience and pleasure not an end. As he said, ‘Half the walk is but retracing our steps.’ Walking goes beyond the physical activity into an appreciation of nature and he ends his essay with “pure morning joy”, an acknowledgment of existence.
Leslie Stephen, who formed the Sunday Tramps, a group that met for semi-monthly excursions from about 1880 to 1895. Anne Wallace has discussed the ways in which early romantic walking inspired a “peripatetic” literary mode, which functioned as a “mimetic alternative to the increasingly unsatisfactory perception and representation of natural scenes as discrete ‘views.'”27 But Stephen, conversely, attributed the rise of romanticism to a revived interest in recreational walking. Walking is “primitive and simple . . . it brings us into contact with mother earth and unsophisticated nature; it requires no elaborate apparatus and no extraneous excitement,” he writes in “In Praise of Walking” (1901).
‘What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something out of the woods”,
Thoreau wrote in his journal, November 1850, that he sewed into his lecture. It’s not that easy to do.
There are modes of walking. Unlike flaneurs, Thoreau was prepared –he wore camouflage to get him closer to animals, and had specially made pockets for notebook, spyglass, foot rule and surveyor’s gear. Channing notes: “Before he set out on foot journey, he collected . . . information as to the routes and the place to which he was going, through the maps and guidebooks . . .” John Burroughs noted: ‘[N]ow and then he lay down the ruler on his map, draw a straight line to the point he proposed to visit, and followed that, going through the meadows and gardens and dooryards of the owners of the property in his line of march.’
Hazlitt records the different techniques Wordsworth and Coleridge used to meet their Muse and stimulate their art, ‘Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption.’
A favourite pleasure hath it been with me,
From time of earliest youth, to walk alone
Along the public Way . .. “ Wordsworth, Prelude, Book 4, 1805
But years later when Wordsworth had become a reactionary poet, he showed Emerson his gravel walk at Rydal Mount where he composed, much like Darwin’s oval walk at Down House.
To the Lough a walk in the centre of Ireland
The walk aims arrow-straight between impoverished fields
growing samples of iron and concrete, simple complications
in the coarse grass harvest, horses and fetid discharge.
Blackened circles mark a celebration of fire,
thanks to Prometheus we cleared the land for farming
and burnt water into steam to power the ongoing revolution.
A clutch of redpolls and robins sketch territorial cartography,
between round shadows, gorse cinders from bonfire night,
the hypnotic lure of dancing light liberating youthful
energy in short fiery acts of sublime vandalism.
A rail gleams beneath earth – old tracks!
Roman desire lines attended by thrushes venting
their beautiful inhuman voices; the soapy light finds
the breast of a bullfinch and rubs till it glows tile-red,
a reminder of flame robins back home.
Two excited spaniels walk a man by who says,
‘Go straight, you can’t miss.’ But we do, passing
the sand mine sump and timber yard, perspective
unrolling a flat architecture of bog burrowing deep
into darkness, the damp surface combed with lines
of glint, anti-pastoral plastic bags framed
by a roll of blue hills. Kestrel and Merlin are down
with no sense of hoards unearthed, precious torcs,
leathered men or bitter buttered sacrifice.
We intersect another railway line staking a worn out,
‘Do Not Park Here’. Weeds leverage over the rails,
once this was all forest, the island, the all of it.
As the sun gets capped, contagious cold rushes
to fill the vacuum, rain spits out the scent of Bondi
from a ripe crop of gorse-gold straddling the way.
Is it enough to make up for the dull pines denting
the sky and rusted lampposts sprouting wires,
the light lost long ago? Oh, and the first cuckoo of spring!