It is fresh outside in Melbourne today, and although we’re only at the end of January, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking that autumn is at the door. I'm hopeful that we are not quite there yet, but the Longer Light Series has indeed scaled the peak of summer, and with this, the seventh instalment of our series, we begin our downward arc toward the cooler months. Read more
The rivulets are in true turmoil; and it feels such a Tasmanian word, rivulet, as though the island's landscape requires a distinct vocabulary, a pastiche of nomenclature borrowed from the world: tier, sugarloaf, tarn, ben, quoin. And rivulet – on the early drive from my home slung on the side of a rural shed, I passed four or five rivulets springing from the soil, brown with muck and white with water, splitting the hills and leaping down through the gullies like wallabies.
Overnight we were soaked with nearly two months’ worth of rainfall; our roof leaked, the constant clattering downpour forcing entry and then dripping insistently where the bassinet would soon lie. When I parked the car in South Hobart and began my daily stroll beside the Hobart Rivulet, my gaze was dragged to the urgent stream commuting to the city, undulations thriving in the surge as ducks padded the swamped banks and leaning willows dipped their toes. The sense: wondrous and eventful and ultimately reminiscent of the barging rivers of the south-west thrusting paddlers into stoppers and rapids, immediate and threatening.
It was still raining, on and on. Water poured from streets and from drains, from new gouges in the gravel track, all the while building and blending with the flow. It was lovely to watch, deep and atmospheric, but at the same time, I wondered how this scrap of wild in the corner of the day might flood my morning more emphatically. Was it just a show, a brief entertainment that would dissipate as the credits rolled and the concrete swelled and I unlocked the sliding door at work and went inside?
Certainly I felt a little less tired as we made our way together, and my walking had perked up somewhat. Slow steps they had been through the week so far, for over Saturday and Sunday I had been chasing peaks in the Loddon Range – a scrubby obscurity between Lake St. Clair and Frenchmans Cap that bears the burden of few boots – and my body was still recovering from the effort and exertion.
We had dropped into the random scrub off the Lyell Highway to Queenstown, sliding down through a steep forest of ferns, and crossed the Surprise River, low from such a run of dry days, before climbing through open rainforest to the top of Mt. Ronald Cross, where we ate and watched the view. Taking off along the ridge line, pushing through the mess of scrub and rock, we pitched camp at a lonely tarn before walking on again at six in the evening, hurrying as the alchemy of light flushed gold, the sun slipping below the white quartzite ranges. We made Loddon Bluff and the day was all around us and we were tremendously present in that day; and then we turned, dropping off the high point and stumbling through the stretched light in which everything around us had been transformed and exalted; and then, as twilight inked the evening we were scrub-bashing off the ridge to our camp, head-torches shining, and calling out regular confirmations that eight, all eight of us were still bundled together in the darkness.
We were unzipping our tents just after 10 p.m. It had been a thirteen hour day, and as we changed into warmer clothes there was still enough wakeful time to pull rough dinners into line and eat together, sitting and then later, lying below the luminous swathe of stars as the cool air snuck beneath our jackets and the smell of the evening turned fresh.
These walks, all of these climbs to summits and bluffs and peaks provide so many different perspectives on the mountains and lakes and rivers that we grow to know more intimately. There is so much variation in the landscape, in the obstacles of cliffs and boulders and the scrub of bauera and tea-tree and hakea and mountain berries, in the less intrusive pencil pines and sassafras and coral ferns and pineapple grass, in the birdlife, the currawongs and honeyeaters and wedge-tailed eagles, in the sandstone and dolerite and granite and conglomerate and quartz; there is so much variety in the rain and the fog and the snow and the wind and the still mirrored sky, in the seasons and their spectrum of shifting colours; and yet on every journey, on every puffing ascent, in every stretch for a handhold in the rock, in every snooze on a clump of buttongrass, in every view from the crumpled cairn flagging a summit, there is something utterly and completely the same.
In the morning we woke to early sun and fog in the valleys. We were tired and we heaved ourselves back along the ridge, down the lead, across the river and up to the road, and our legs and our feet ached and there were leech bites on our shins and our shirts stank and particles of scrub itched our backs beneath our packs. And tired, we were tired, but we were utterly clear and happy.
There are better and worse days, there are moments of doubt and anxiety, of exhaustion and frustration, but in all of this we pursue the same simplicity and contentment and achieve it surprisingly often – a washing away and a cleansing. And in the more down-to-earth elements, the means to ends: there is the same careful packing on the day before, the same struggle to sleep, the early start, the weary drive, the conversations, the boots and gaiters finding our feet, the pack on our backs, the moment of ready anticipation and then the step and the step and the step and then the step as we enter a new, clear world, and the step and then the step for minutes and for hours and we are sweating and panting and the scoparia is slicing at our wrists and our knees and our one, simple goal is to get to where we are going; but the reward is constant in the small details of multi-coloured fungi and the wide, encompassing views that inform us, exactly, where we are.
The calm exhaustion hung across my steps along the Hobart Rivulet on Monday and on Tuesday, to and from work, and then on Wednesday; on Wednesday the rain came.
And the rain was something, but it was not the same.
The rain was a reminder and a promise, the rain was a flash of welcome, the rain suggested possibilities, but the conditions and the context of the walk were so different as I slumped off to town that it was hard to understand the implications for my day.
On a different walk late last year, as we pressed through the buttongrass plains after climbing The Thumbs – a magnificent shard in the southwest – I remember my friend Becca wondering how we could possibly come to experience the delight and stillness in our everyday, grinding week, that we feel when out walking in the Tasmanian wilderness. Is this the same preoccupation and problem that any spiritual devotee experiences when the retreat or prayer or ritual or communion are complete? Though I am not certain that walking is a spiritual exercise. Bruce Chatwin: “My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.” I feel the force of his point even if I can't agree exactly with the notion. And not all walking is created equal. The climbs to summits and the commute to work, the wandering across plateaus and the shopping around centres. There are different goals, terrains; there is the distance, the time, the company kept. There are incidental stresses and commitments.
Is it the scale of the task before us, or the sheer time, the hours consumed with our feet heart-beating out their meditative plod, or are we so dependent on the landscape itself rubbing at us, sanding back our worries as we press ourselves against it, that we can never find this satisfaction in the city, except on those rare occasions when it comes and visits us and knocks on our door with the vibrant wet weather we have been subject to this week? Will we always be decentered by competing claims and goals, the anxieties that subvert our attention, so that our regular walking in the wilderness is necessary for patches of stillness and peace?
On my usual walk along the rivulet I search for birds, for blackbirds and fantails to greet, and I enjoy splinters of the water and the trees filtering through my focus, but my mind is busy with the news on the radio, with the day ahead at work, with the tasks I will or won't accomplish, and the this and the very vital that. I often think about giving away writing in order to walk. I think of walking every day to work from wherever I happen to be living. I think of getting rid of my car that threatens marsupials and distances me from the grass, and simply structuring my day's tasks and responsibilities by what can be achieved at walking pace. I think of spending most of my time outside, and wonder if this is enough. We do not have a living room in this shed home of ours, we have a small deck, and edging out into the world this way seems a worthy place to begin, even as the Tasmanian autumn and then winter begins to bare its teeth and frighten off our careless and inconsistent summers.
On Thursday, I spent an hour on Knocklofty, the plump hill surrounded by suburbs and dog walkers on the edge of Hobart's centre, a hill that is so taken for granted as not to be privileged with the name “hill” – or tor, or crag, or rise. I ambled on and off the tracks as I felt the ground calling; there were frogs in a pond and there was a view where the powerlines separated the treelines and I stumbled on a pair of black-headed honeyeaters, a bird I had been hoping to meet for some time, and I enjoyed tripping down a steep section in my black work shoes and it was just an hour, but it was an hour; and there are many, many hills around Hobart.
MORE FROM THE LONGER LIGHT SERIES:
The Longer Light Series explores the idea that our personal rituals – from the mundane to the grand – tether us to special places and particular times. It investigates how our rituals are contingent on the places where we perform them, on the rhythm of the seasons, on the weather of any given day, on what we see and smell around us.
The 12 distinct works of the series detail, document or respond to some sort of ritual (as each contributor interprets that word) enacted during a week of summer days and nights. The works will be published in weekly instalments so that, in concert, they plot the arc of an Australian summer.
The Longer Light Series is supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.