Centre for Stories interview

Hello,

Please make yourself a cup of tea and/or coffee and listen to an interview between Robbie Wood and I at the Centre for Stories on the 11th of May 2017.

This interview is the most comprehensive I have been part of to date; discussing walking, poetry, environment, music, ecology and death.

Link here: https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/groups/Aust-Po/Centre-for-Stories/Quinton-James_Poetry-in-Conversation_Perth_5-11-2017.mp3

Cheers

 

Strip Mining Song

Which key should we sing in?

They’re not listening, John,

no one wants to hear us sing,

the alternative register strategy

hasn’t worked, has fallen on deaf ears,

swooned as the wandoos timbered

and the stage lights were flicked off.

 

By headtorch I sing to you, John

pushing thighs and knees

through xanthorea and zamia leaves,

they’re groping, ears pricked

this pragmatism those billions seem to have,

but not us, no one is listening

the low rumble above the echoing frogs

that’s the tune the piper plays,

the reversing excavator tooting

in the glow of ALCOA’s Huntly operation,

snotty-gobble and dryandra

glow white in the headlamp halation

as I make out, barely, a trail,

a darkened, flattened track

in the controlled burn forest

where no animals live anymore

and I can sing as-out-of-key-as-I-wish

and no one is there to ask:

which register are you coming from?

 

Pellucid stars, please, please

chart some kind of direction,

Canning Hut to White Horse Hills Hut,

walking seventy six k’s, sixteen hours

for John, whose soul is lashing out,

the feet discoloured, bleed:

nature is a language can’t you read?

 

 

 

The One

I was on Queen Street, Walyalup, eavesdropping philosophers

with their gyrating index fingers, their circle of life gestures

when the time had come, was as overdue as I was hesitant,

to witness the damage, to see what The One had done.

 

All my friends remained, protecting Beeliar wetlands

while I took my backpack and vanished, cross-crossing

Te Araroa rivers and mountains, as The One tore Tuarts into tiny pieces,

and ‘the other one’ fell to the ballot box.

 

From overseas, I knew the areas being bulldozed,

I’d seen the footage, the photos, and I read the reports

of southern bandicoots skulls being crushed

beyond the vets skill; I knew polysituated distress.

 

My friends were being pepper sprayed, pinned down and cuffed,

threatened with tasers, arms twisted behind their backs

laughed at for their views, subjected to background checks,

while the police took glee in their repression.

 

Ropable, strapped to a mind mast, violent fantasies

played out through my feet, and streams teased out my rancour,

as I was traumatised by my own indignation; the violence

kept cropping up, kept pace with The Ones deathly indifference:

 

The One comes, as two tawny frogmouths take to the air.

In all cases The One and I face off, in a clearing

the bucket’s jagged bottom lip thuds into my chest

then drags my bloodied body in the dust.

 

I ignore the hits and pretend they do not hurt. I smile even.

When The One tries to attack again— I stand my ground

and give The One an ultimatum, I say: you have two choices,

you either doze off, and we move on, forgiven,

 

or you try to rip out that casuarina and you will burn

from the inside, sweet sugar in your tank as the green rises

like a rash on your yellow paint. You, The One, hear me,

you have no idea of my rage, of my burning flesh about to explode.

 

 

As I walked on Stock Road I was thinking of still borns

and saw the footbridge where banners were dropped

the odd seven hundred year old balga shaking the breeze

near the temporary fences orange ballasts, nuytsia floribunda-flower coloured

 

Their plastic presence a different kind of parasite

sucking the emptiness into the whirlpool, dotting the boundary

like medical sensors, this land, comatose,

on life support, defying the philosophers gestures.

 

Do you really think she’ll pull through? I hear the singer ask.

The repairs appear plausible

where you can rationalise, where a linearity exists; topographic

as piles of pulp snake up the aperture

 

burning the grey sand, our leached soil

where Mainroads contractors do donuts

across The Ones ribbed prints

where I wish the finger deep chevrons to pointed to a conclusion

 

and the baby cycads unfurling like hand puppets

represent actors in a non-apocalyptic script—

where there are no borders,

where there’s interconnectedness, where the water runs clear.

 

Beside Forrest Road, tribute to our Premier’s legacy,

What’s left are the remnants of that planners doodle

road after road, doubling up traffic hallways

the duplicates, as if building roads was like stamp collecting,

 

Triples, quadruples, off-ramps, cars and trucks

Bumper to bumper to bumper to bumper

Taking us to witness the natural disaster we’ve created

To see the snow before our fumes melt our brains.

 

I was walking on the footpath that leads to Provincial Mews

Where there’s a sign that says keep fence up to protect regrowth,

when something metaphysical, an in my bones feeling

cropped up, a thought from ‘who knows where’:

 

This is where they were really tested,

where the kings men had their doubts, this place marks a time

when they knew they had lost, that The One,

had become self-referential, powerless and obsolete.

 

Then I saw the raven’s ice age eyes, the sky is not as blue,

and a hair comb lying in the dirt, and I expected to be yelled at

I expected the police state, with their uniforms

to be here, protecting the The One from the protectors,

 

I expected to see Uncle Ben giving a hoi to supportive drivers,

fist pumping the air, I expected the intolerable heat burning

our disillusioned faces, I expected tears, but not that many,

as the force of the struggle started to drift, departed without saying goodbye.

 

On the western end of Malvolio where so many were arrested

And the poems were read to the police, and the guards shat in the bush

where Neville and I handed out the asbestos fliers, I ran into Colin,

who’s court trial is coming up, going for a spin on his pushy,

 

‘MainRoads have been in there today’, he said, ‘doing burn-outs’,

Bogged, no traction, the contours now exposed,

the tyres half submerged, and the gum nuts

bitten by parrots, and the banksia husks sucked dry by bull ants.

 

This is where?—what? What? Where is this?

This craziness summarised in adjectives—

after seeing the blue tarp over the lame horse

someone says it’s not that bad, the native wisteria lurching mulch-pile-ward

 

Bungle Bungle-like, the brown cones hang from invisible wires

This is where we had to deceive the guards,

and run through to assess the damage

This is where the fence is tessellated with cotton string,

 

the paper love hearts long gone.

This is where the woody pears flowered for their last time,

As if they knew it was their last time.

This is where we used to walk freely, before the fences went up

 

and now, after The One smote the thin wedge of bush, smote us,

we can walk freely once more and find the place unrecognisable,

alien, like someone who went missing, and returned decades later

and only someone like Sally had never forgotten.

 

This is where eleven hundred of us smashed down the fence

and took the power back for an hour— Yes, we were a headache.

Yes. And then the peons marched single file up the runway

to listen to Jesse and Ewan sing Ro-oe Eight, Whi-ite El-le-phant.

 

This is where the attack dogs forced us back, while Jacinta

climbed a giant marginata, and I wish we carried the dying trees

to the perimeter, where the contractors felt the fallen

had no use, and the mulcher could not reach their bark.

 

This is where Shona got too big for her own boots

and they arrested her by deception, and she learnt the art of deception.

This is where John read The Bulldozer Poem

and Piers made videos and dust entered their lungs, and they lost their voices.

 

This is where Liz came to see what the fuss was about,

to be puzzled by Steve, and Doug and my apparent emotionlessness,

at our drought stricken tear ducts, as The One

gasped when in reverse then ripped out banksia after banksia.

 

This is where the razor wire and generators were set up

and the floodlights were pointed at Diedre and she told

everyone enough was enough, for the tenth time.

This is where Kate and Kim chatted while Ted was up a tree.

 

This is where the wattle birds’ chook-like guffaw rattles

and MainRoads were a presumptuous—

laying a limestone driveway so The One could enter and exit

where a magpie squadron, untouchable now, pick at the track.

 

This is where Wazza was given a move on notice,

After he asserted his right to protect his culture

With the spirit of his ancestors Wazza spoke from his heart

And with the spirit of his ancestors Wazza spoke from his heart.

 

This is where The One smote the feet of Emma’s friend,

before she striped and held them off with her nakedness.

This is where Chris was carted off horizontal

His arms gripped by the cops, his resolve never tested.

 

This is where the Police State threatened to knee cap me

and now my revenge phantoms return, and The One

and I face off once more, but the skirmish is interrupted

by half a dozen red tail black cockatoos taken on the breeze.

 

This is where black hessian used to trap animals flaps freely

and the balga rise rhizomatic—

their resilience tested again, as if this were just another day,

just another mimicry for us to take cues from.

 

This is where Pheobe, the candlestick banksia carrier,

held the torch, clipboard under her arm, gave me her number,

and told me to call her if The One arrived, and as

as she paced up the rust-red pathway, I lost that number.

 

This where Dodgy Steve was arrested as I hugged Caroline,

in the high yellow weeds, and said goodbye, and she yelled

over my shoulder at The One, at the uniforms: we don’t own this land,

we’re looking after it until the real owners return.

 

I run into Colin again, he says three days after the election

there were people wandering around everywhere, now there’s hardly a soul.

Yet when I close my eyes, I can see the footprints,

the cautious steps of those readjusting,

 

letting the monitors and snakes slither across their feet,

letting the sub-soil pulse up through their ankles,

mycelium shapes throbbing in their skin. I cannot see The One.

I once thought I was attracted to nature because it had no opinion of me,

 

Yet this is the place, this is where I was on trial, and the land spoke.

I do not belong here, I will never be able to call this country home.

But I do have the authority to stop those who seek to destroy.

This is where The One’s finger deep chevrons direct me now.

 

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Featured image and above image by Colin Leonhardt: http://www.BirdseyeViewPhotography.com.au

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring

A pearl has no meaning to the pig, says South Korean director and writer Kim Ki Duk. His 2002 film Spring Summer Autumn Winter …and Spring is an anecdotal portrayal of time. Phrases, movements, events and conflicts circle back on themselves. People are shown as unwitting participants in a world with its own logic. Buddhist and mystic symbolism underpin and overlay the action. We learn about the characters through their actions, not what they say. The film requires little dialogue to convey its meaning.

In the opening sequence a young boy teases a frog, a snake and fish by tying a rock to them. The little creatures struggle. His grandfather – we can only assume they’re related – watches the kid torture the animals. That night while the kid is asleep the grandfather ties a rock to the boy. When he wakes up he’s distressed and is told the rock can be removed once he has seen to it that the rock is removed from the frog, snake and fish. If, by this time, any of the creatures have died then the boy will live with this burden. The boy drags the rock around the great lagoon where they live. The frog is alive. The Fish is alive. The snake has died overnight. The boy is distraught. The boy has a heavy heart.

If the grandfather had not disciplined the boy then we can assume he would have continued on in life thinking torturing animals was okay. We have seen already that it is in the boys nature to be cruel. Discipline is a way of altering that nature.

Later on in the film, the grandfather paints the heart sutra on the deck of the house that floats on the lagoon. The young boy, now a man, has returned, a fugitive after having fled the home with a girl who was visiting. Viewers do not witness this, but the young man murdered the woman one night when she sleeps with another man. The boy returns home and when detectives find him the grandfather requests that before he leaves the boy carve out the heart sutra with a knife.

The rationale of the film dictates the Buddhists wishes are respected and the detectives wait all day until the boy has finished carving. Only then can the boy begin healing his heavy heart, that began with the murder of the snake, some fifteen years before the murder of the woman. The return of the heart motif shows that the master played a small part in the boys downfall. As Phillip Larkin wrote: Your parents, they fuck you up, even if they don’t mean to, they do.

Larapinta 

Ken lay awake, content in his sleeping bag, and thought about how this short journey was beginning to end. He imagined boarding the plane tomorrow and how the inflight procedures were identical to the ones he witnessed on his way out here, but would now feel in reverse, as if all that had been built, the friendships made and landforms experienced, were being unravelled. He would arrive at the airport early, he thought, putting on his beanie, and sit at a bench and try to summarise his last twelve days on paper. He knew this trip was not about details. Twelve days was not long enough to get a feel for the subtleties of Alice Springs, the West Macdonnell Ranges and Uluru. It was too late to learn even a single word of the Arrente language, he told himself, but he’d be better prepared next time, if there was a next time. In less than twenty four hours the plane would taxi to the take off position and a baby would be screaming and the professionals would be reading, and he’d remember a critical comment a hiker made that allowed him to realise that when you spend most of your time traveling you rarely spend long enough with anyone to see the nasty side of their character. Lying on his back on the inflatable mattress that had developed a slow leak, Ken looked up at the stars and the tops of the ghost gums and the outline of the gorge falling to the sandy riverbank where he lay, and he thought to himself that we allow ourselves to roam where nothing is sacred, that we’re afraid of going to sacred places for fear of spoiling them with our presence and that it’s better to have been to a sacred place without knowing it is sacred, that the landform is merely a landform where no rituals and stories had taken place. That way you avoid being culpable of destroying the magic of the place. The rituals we do hear about, Ken repeated to himself, tell an ancient story of ownership through having lived there, and you cannot know the stories that make these places unless you live there for a long time.

A kind of interloper, Ken concluded he did not have knowledge enough of these stories to respect the places as they should be respected. He longed to be given the truth of the situation, instead of having to determine that truth for himself, for then he felt he could understand clearly what was the admirable way to behave and the best possible way to look after the land. As he lay out in the open this ambiguity kept him awake and he knew that he never fell asleep on his back and that he might sleep for an hour or so on tomorrow’s flight home.

Ken’s thoughts, as always, were about the next day, the next passage that awaited him and as he watched the flight path of a plane overhead he imagined himself the next day reading the inflight magazine with the grey kangaroo on the front and he would read through from cover to cover the mining advertisements and the articles about miners and then he would look out the scratched window overlooking Alice Springs and know he’d been down there somewhere and that when he was there he could not see the shape of the river as it cascaded between the ridges and conglomerates and he could not know, as he later read, that no water had flowed there for hundreds of centuries when the entire region was submerged in salt water. Now when the rains fell only puddles formed on the surface of the riverbed and a subterranean stream may trickle slowly on top of the cap rock. Ken pulled his sleeping bag upwards to allow his body enough space to rotate so he could lay on his side and the mattress made a crinkling sound and then he sensed movement under him and he sat up and saw in the depression he had dug where his canister stove sat, the sand turning to a darker colour. He knew water was rising all around him and at first he thought of collecting his belongings and moving to higher ground, the liquid now filling the spaces between the ridges of his mattress, yet he could still feel the ground firm underneath him. He unzipped the sleeping bag and pulled his legs up to his chest to remove his feet and he threw the sleeping bag on top of a large boulder nearby, and at first he was scared but he soon realised the water was not flowing downstream but coming straight up out of the earth and now the mattress was holding his weight and keeping him just below the surface of the rising water. Leaves and twigs circled around him and his empty water bottle, shoes and headlight floated nearby. With his legs in the water and his lower half now soaked Ken grabbed the headlight and pressed the on button and looked below as his feet could no longer touch the ground he could see the groundsheet held down with rocks. In the opening of his backpack he shone the torchlight on his notebooks and at first he was sad to see that they were now ruined, saturated with clouds of blue ink spiraling to the surface. He knew the notes for his stories were now ruined, and a condensed sense of the effort he put into compiling them now struck him, and he winced and shook his head in disappointment, and from the surface of the water he collected his small lighter and put it in the fold of his beanie to dry. A whining from a dingo could be heard and Ken made no hissing noises to stop her.

The Battle of Northlake Road

“If we don’t take action now, we settle for nothing later” Zack de La Rocha

Your Mum swims with polar bears before heading to Beeliar
she has a square blue patch pinned to her blouse
she joins us watching an Empire collapse
our leaders with their misfiring synapse
nothing makes sense, their actions don’t add up,
this bulldozer inside bush in Coolbellup.
The protectors are more compliant, more attentive
to the rules than the State is,
good luck keeping keeping them to their word, kid.

But this is the Premier’s hamartia
after the E.P.A. failed us in the boardroom
the frontline is now the courtroom
the camera pans, a human dolly
as locals clang the fence in rage at this folly
and colonial cogs churn out arrests,
after you’ve lost patience to peacefully protest
the cops will knee cap you, threaten violence
as the bulldozer rips apart animals silent.
Dust correlates to root depth, the drive-belt gravity,
the trunk incision, upper management depravity,
with each frame the forty metre tree falls.
Slow. Gargantuan. De-metabolic.
Who knew Barnett’s buddies were this shambolic?
A thousand media views to each frame,
hundreds of shares, likes and vitriolic blame
into the night and to the next day you truncheon nasty trolls
while on Malvolio dried blue tongue lizard skin rolls,
the now empty vision your friends see on their computer screen
oh echo chamber, oh deaf ear collective, listen to this:

your xmas presents won’t capture the war
the trees have with the bulldozers, blades score
the soil until the top is too light, the muscian’s play,
you pause the video, Earth-Shattering,
cockatoo scattering, drowning in mounds of dead balga trees,
the smell of lost oxygen, the fronds that no longer flap
these fallen stakeholders, you call this democracy,
the precondition to being human is hypocrisy
they say ‘the road will be built, you’re wasting your time’,
but I’ve seen the monk doused in petrol
so we’re here to document the fall
and after the machines have left we go in with stitches,
every surgery a lesson to future witches
you don’t need gas to have tears in your eyes
when your friend John is too shocked to cry
too confused to take notes or offer sacrifice,
too bewildered to even think, we know we’re born
of a broken Environmental Protection Authority
who can’t even follow their own policy.

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Malvolio Road

In Marginata shade, with the depleted ozone
at Malvolio Road, the sandy verge is compacted
by sandals and sneakers, citizens sing
get up stand up, stand up for your rights
and a mum tells her son off for breaking black boy fronds,
and the patrolling police ask us to stay off the street
and the Federal Member for Fremantle stands with us, getting grey sand in his shoes
with his Ray Bans in his back pocket.  Meanwhile architects
and planners present their proposals to Barnett government
ministers their most important work, the Roe8
Highway Extension. The images projected on the screen
are so realistic you might think the project is already built,
the families in the photos appear so happy,
the cockatoos in the sky plentiful, the cars few
and freewheeling and the diagrams so convincing:
arrows show traffic flow and hydrology flow
and mitigation movements and meanwhile in Coolbellup
Janet works at the IGA to pay her rent, cutting open
cardboard boxes and stacking shelves. Janet knows
where every single item in the entire store goes.
On the eighth of December 2016 the temporary fence
went up across the road from her house,
and on that day, for the first time in twenty years
the family of bandicoots Janet has fed and watered and loved
stopped visiting. Two years earlier, on Kings Park Road
The Premier Colin Barnett had an idea, at the meeting table
The Premier Colin Barnett had an idea,
his idea and his alone, out of his own head Colin had an idea
where the idea came from no one present knew where,
but they heard him out, Colin was so moved by his idea
he had to borrow the architects’ notebook and make sketches;
if the people of East Fremantle don’t want Roe highway
straight through their suburb, we’ll build a tunnel,
a five kilometre tunnel underneath White Gum Valley,
that’ll show ’em, said Colin. The Premier himself was so impressed
with his ingenuity he had a sip of water from the small tumbler
in front of him. The idea was so spontaneous that those present
at the polished jarrah table didn’t know what to say,
a junior engineer was sent to draw up some plans.
That day, at Coolbellup IGA, Janet helped her neighbour
Kate find some polenta in aisle three and got a special
treat for the bandicoots’ breakfast.

 

J. P. Quinton – Malvolio Road 12th Dec 2016

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A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – review

Bryson is popular. His writing style allows for fast, readily digested prose. There appears to be no subject he is unable to broach. His narratives are simple and erudite. His messages are a mixture of learning and experience. In A Walk in the Woods (AWITW) Bryson attempts to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in America. His attempt is unsuccessful, for Bryson is someone who writes books, and decides to go for a hike, rather than the other way around. Bryson is more comfortable at home surrounded by books. The majority of A Walk in the Woods is Bryson relaying information from other books, sharing his experiences of hotels/motels/bunkhouses off the trail, and at one point a monologue about how he’d given up walking to reconnaissance the Appalachian Trail by car. A Walk in the Woods is not a book for me, even though I found it easy to read.

For such a well known author, little is written about Bryson’s style and technique in academic journals. Actually, most journals ignore him completely. Mostly it’s glowing reviews in online newspapers. One serious article ‘Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods’ takes Bryson to task for his depiction of hicks and hillbillies.
Stefano Calzati argues in ‘Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing: Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy’ “that travelling and writing are two “practices of knowledge” which promote per se the marking of differences. In this regard, travel writing, as the novelistic genre that derives from such practices, cannot help but reproduce the epistemological distance between the self and the world.” And this is the overwhelming feeling that I take from Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – his account re-enforces, through his armchair approach, rather than eliminates, the distance between the self and the world.

Bryson’s phenomenology is filtered through his project, his style and his constant attempts to shock the reader to keep reading.
Bryson is more serious about writing a book than walking the Appalachian. There are three main elements that comprise AWITW. The elements do not always hang together well, but the writer is able, through his prose, to weave them together. The first element is his commission by his publisher to write a book. The second element, is the Don Quixote set up. The third aspect that pads the book out are the lectures. When Bryson gets bored with one element he falls back on the other.

The first, why would Bryson disclose to his readers that his publisher had commissioned him another book? What purpose does this give to readers? Bryson is attempting to build himself and his reputation up reminding us ‘these books don’t exist in a vacuum’. Also, Bryson, the man, is the main character in his books. He realises that the success of his career hinges on continuity across his works.

The second, the Katz/Bryson play off reminds me of Don Quixote and Sancho, except Bryson isn’t deluded beyond not knowing why he’s walking the trail. Bryson is deluded in thinking he can walk the trail in one season. After walking for a few weeks, Bryson and Katz are killing time in an outfitters which leads to him looking at an overview map of the AT. He figures out that that the trail is long, much longer than he anticipated and instead of resolving to finish the trail, as Don Quixote would, both Katz and Bryson are put off and dejected. The most interesting struggle in the book is Katz’s attempt to quit drinking, but it comes very late in the piece.
Thirdly, unlike Don Quixote, Bryson, the character, can not be too out there, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to enter into armchair lectures on the history and value of a range of subjects consisting of: how dangerous animals are, the history and design of the Appalachian Trail, how Americans use cars too often, underground fires in Centralia, murder, climate change, geology, diseases, how stupid and fat people can be, especially ones who look like they’re from the movie Deliverance, forestry, the rise and fall of townships, hikers preoccupations with gear, botany, misdirected government spending, meteorology, hypothermia, ludditeness, war, ecological destruction, and so on. After a while, the trail becomes a backdrop for these fireside lectures Bryson, one can assume, wrote before or after being on the trail. In this sense the book is about Bryson’s ability to take cues from the trail and weave them into his research. Where he gets this knowledge from we don’t know, there are no references.
There is a morality to his lectures – but his attitude is incongruous to the way he has set himself up to interact with his characters. Bryson wants to give his readers guidance on the one hand, and then ask them to suspend their disbelief in the name of humour. So, for example, when he discusses how the AT avoids towns and is cocooned in green corridors (in contrast to the apparently more advanced designs of English/European trails), Bryson concludes: “doubtless it is all to do with its historic impulse to tame and exploit the wilderness, but America’s attitude to nature is, from all sides, very strange if you ask me.” p258 This is symptomatic of the manner in which Bryson presents his lectures. His information is to serve an agenda and his research concludes at the point where the agenda has been satisfied. The agenda appears to be primarily to provoke people to keep reading. Surely he must know that not all Americans wish to tame the wilderness and that some Americans share his views.
So when we turn to the people Bryson meets on, and (more often) off, the trail we gain more of a reflection of Bryson, than of the people themselves. Again, the agenda is provocation. Here is his telephone interaction when attempting to find a taxi in Gatlinburg:

“‘How much would it be to take two of us to Ernestville?’ I enquired.
‘Dunno’ came the reply.
This threw me slightly. ‘Well how much do you think it would be?’
‘Dunno.’
‘But it’s just down the road.’
There was considerable silence and then the voice said: ‘Yup.’
‘Haven’t you ever taken anybody there before?’
’Nope.’
‘Well, it looks to me on my map like it’s about twenty miles. Would you say that’s about right?’
Another pause. ‘Might be.’
‘And how much would it be to take us twenty miles?’
‘Dunno.’
I looked at the receiver. ‘Excuse me, but I just have to say this. You are more stupid than a paramecium.’
Then I hung up.”

Bryson’s characters are there to make him look smart and to support the preconceived worldview he wishes to push. It is because of this that the subjects of his lectures do not become integrated and he doesn’t appear to recognise the ecology and interconnectedness of the world in which he inhabits. A more enlightening approach would be to manufacture or even seek out an intelligent person who may be more helpful and illuminating. He could work all of his home reading into the voice of his characters.
Because of this provocative style, Bryson leaves himself open to hypocrisy and inconsistency. At the end of the taxi driver episode (in which he and his Sancho (Katz) buddy decide on a whim to give up the idea of walking the entire trail), they find themselves back in the dearth of commercial America, amongst shopping malls and carparks, the opposite of the woodlands they had been walking through:

“But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, as we did now, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop – familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, Wal-Marts, K-marts, Dunkin’ Donuts, Blockbuster videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.”
While it is not the role of a writer to be morally consistent, it is their role, especially in the context of non-fiction, to research thoroughly and to show their readers an interconnectedness. Instead, when recounting the phase of American history where demand for new world seeds and botanical interest was high, Bryson speaks with celebratory glee, apparently unaware of the relationship between that unregulated process and forestry the ugliness he describes above:

“The first people to venture deep into the woods from the east (the Indians [sic], of course had got there perhaps as much as 20,000 years before them) weren’t looking for prehistoric creatures or passages to the west or new lands to settle. They were looking for plants. America’s botanical possibilities excited Europeans inordinately, and there was both glory and money to be made in the woods. The eastern woods teemed with flora unknown to the old world and there was a huge eagerness, from scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike, to get a piece of it…These and hundreds more were collected in the American woods, shipped across the ocean to England and France and Russia and received with greedy keenness and trembling fingers.”

Contrast the above attitude to the one in this passage:

“In 1987, it [the Forest Service] casually announced that it would allow private timber interests to remove hundreds of acres of wood a year from the venerable and verdant Pisgah National Forest, next door to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that 80 per cent of that would be through what it calls ‘scientific forestry’ – clear cutting – which is not only a brutal visual affront to any landscape, but brings huge, reckless washoffs that gully the soil, robbing it of nutrients and disrupting ecologies further downstream, sometimes for miles. This isn’t science. It’s rape.”

And then this one:

“And there was a more compelling reason to go. The Appalachians are the home of one of the world’s great hardwood forests– the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified
sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world–and that forest is in trouble. If the global temperature rises by 4°C over the next fifty years, as is evidently possible, the whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. Already trees are dying in frightening numbers. The elms and chestnuts are long gone, the stately hemlocks and flowery dogwoods are going, and the red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain ashes, and sugar maples may be about to follow. Clearly, if ever there was a time to experience this singular wilderness, it was now.”

Bryson does not draw any comparisons between the seed collectors, the forestry service ‘rape’ and climate change. The author seems intent on shocking the reader into further reading without considering an overall scheme. People starting and finishing Bryson’s work appears to be a more important criteria to him than jettisoning contradictory elements in his prose. An argument could be made that being in the same book, and written by the same author would constitute the correlations being drawn, but my opinion is that the structure, the schism between the elementsof the book, prevent such a reading.
When Don Quixote lectures, (Cervantes’ Don Quixote) he is so clearly out of touch with both the other characters in Cervantes story, and to us the readers, that we all humour him. Within Don Quixote’s absurd lectures, however, are some incredible conclusions, some of which we tend to agree with. But the Don Quixote, the character of Bryson, in A Walk Walk in the Woods never strays into the absurd. Often his observations are blatant and his treatment of others’ is cruel. One has to ask that perhaps if we didn’t treat each other the way Bryson treats people in his book, whether the planet would be in the state that it is.

Of course, Bryson and his fans might rebut my above points by claiming ‘lighten up it’s just a bit of fun’, or, present the book as a gateway to more serious studies of wilderness, ecology and nature. It’s creative non-fiction after all, so don’t take the deliberate littering seriously. There are light moments and Bryson does indeed reflect on the wonderful aspects of bushwalking or hiking. These appreciative moments are added and sprinkled throughout as if to remind us that that he’s not a negative bastard. There are some arresting moments that lift the reader up from the negativity I seem to keep returning to. Here’s a moment, on day one of their hike:

“When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the tell-tale world of truly high ground, where chilled air smells of pine gap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind-bent, and push through to the mountain’s open pinnacle, you are, alas, past caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting in distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen, not in fact looked this closely at anything in the natural world since you were four years old and had your first magnifying glass.” p53

At the end of the book Bryson wryly states the trail did not change his life: “but I certainly gained an appreciation and respect for the woods and wilderness and the colossal scale of America” p350. Perhaps, if he did complete the trail from one end to the other, if he allowed the experience to become more than an exercise for his publishers, he might have let go of the preconceptions that inhibit transformative processes. It is somewhat troubling that a writer takes on a major project lasting a period of years to finally say to his readers, ‘don’t bother, my book is all you need’. Perhaps he is attempting to provide counterbalance to the apparently naive rights of passage accounts that pervade nature and walking writing? Overall however, Bryson’s work is an intellectual, rather than phenomenological one.

 

References:

Bryson, Bill. 1998, A Walk In the Woods, Black Swan, London, England.

Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods
Herzog, Mary Jean Ronan, Journal of Appalachian Studies, 1 April 1999, Vol.5(1), pp.123-128 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

Stefano Calzati (2015) Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing:
Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy, Journal of Postcolonial Writing,
51:4, 422-435

Gearing up for the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT)

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If you click on this link you’ll be taken to the lighterpack website that shows a run down of the gear list I’m taking for the Australia Alps Walking Track.

I’ll be flying to Canberra on the 15th of Feb to start a end to end north to south hike. I’m going to get beat up. You’ll notice an over supply of electronics equipment in the gear list – I’m going to write my PHD on a iphone with a bluetooth keyboard.


Let me quote the great John Chapman to introduce the AAWT to those who have never heard of it before:

“Formerly called ‘The Alpine Walking Track’, the ‘Australian Alps Walking Track’ is a long route that passes through the mountains of Victoria and New South Wales. It is primarily a wilderness style walk as it passes through natural landscapes and there are no major facilities.

The track essentially follows the crest of the alpine range (the alps) from southern Victoria through to the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). On the way it crosses all the highest mountain regions from the Baw Baw Plateau, the Mt Howitt area, the Bogong High Plains, the Cobberras then the Kosciuszko National Park and finally into the Namadgi National Park near Canberra.

In many ways, it is the grandest and most difficult of all the long distance tracks in Australia. It is not the longest but with over 27,000 metres of climbing and descending it is indeed a tough walk (equivalent to more than 3 ascents and descents of Mt Everest!). This equates to between 550m and 800m of climbing and descending each day – definitely not a flat walk! It also crosses a lot of Australia’s best alpine scenery making it a very scenic varied walk.

The official length is 650 km but most follow the route described in the guide book which in the latest edition is 659.6 km. A fair bit of planning is needed, as while there are plenty of minor roads crossing the alps, there are no towns or re-supply points along the track (see itineraries below). There are several ski resorts close to the track, which can provide a rest with a bed and a hot shower, but there are few other facilities. Most end-to-enders spend about 3 days driving and pre-placing food caches before starting the walk.”

 

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What I’ve been reading

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This fortnight I have focused on two texts – Austerlitz by Sebald and On Creaturely Life by Eric Santer. A pdf of the latter is available online.

It was my first time reading Austerlitz and I had the usual experience of all Sebald texts of drifting from pure fascination to having read a few pages and not comprehending a single word of what my eyes had passed over – only to note that they were fine words and then to retrace where I had last understood what was going on and start again. I’m not sure Austerlitz will have as great an impact on me as Rings of Saturn – but only time will tell. I don’t really have any worthwhile conclusions about Austerlitz without reading it again, and I’m sure other people have already made such points and you’ve read a lot about it already.

One thing I was looking for as I read – a point made by Sebald in an interview – is that he is constantly reminding the reader that the author, and the characters – had given their preoccupations considerable thought. This is kind of reflexive, as they wouldn’t be preoccupations unless they demanded ones attention, but I suppose the interesting thing to note is the way Sebald handles this in the text – and how these become clues to the greater questions asked in the book. Here are a few examples:

“From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” p14

“Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrating over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.” p31

“Though I really gave up my architectural studies long ago, he said, I sometimes relapse into my old habits, even if I don’t make notes and sketches any more, but simply marvel at the strange edifices we construct.” p57

“He would always emerge from his study in the evening in a state of deep despondency, only to disappear into it again next morning. But on Sunday, when he stood up in the chapel in front of his congregation and often addressed them for a full hour, he was a changed man; he spoke with a moving eloquence which I still feel I can hear, conjuring up before the eyes of his flock the Last Judgement awaiting them all, the lurid fires of purgatory, the torments of damnation and then, with the most wonderful stellar and celestial imagery, the entry of the righteous into eternal bliss.” p64

These prompts, I think, are an interesting technique in giving the story and the characters sub-text. An issue that occupies someones thoughts doesn’t just explain events of their past but reveals, in a clever way, why they are where they are and what might motivate them into the future. This also echoes one of Stanley Kubrick’s axiom: concept as subtext.

On Creaturely Life: I thought this book might be a good segue between thinking about walking tracks and nature and the notion of Natural History in Sebald’s work. Maybe I’m stupid but the book lacks a coherent overall thread. For example, in the final chapter Santer begins discussing the references to animals in Sebald’s work – but it only lasts a few pages before switching to discussing humour and then Sebald’s use of photography. Maybe I’ll have to read the book again to gain an overall perspective but at the moment I’m seeing it all piecemeal. The piecemeal take away ideas I have identified follow.

One of the things I do when I go ‘out bush’ is think about animals and what their thinking capacity is. Seeing wild animals is what makes the wilderness wilderness, I suppose. Landscapes and their vegetation are managed, and wildlife populations are managed too, but the nature of animals and how we relate to them remains separate. Santer doesn’t discuss this in relation to wild places but some of the conversation is still relevant:

“For the animal, beings are open, but not accessible; that is to say, they are open in an inaccessibility and an opacity – that is, in some way, in a non-relation. This openness without disconcealment distinguishes the animals poverty in the world from the man forming which characterises man.” p9 from Agamben.

Santer wants to use the contrast between the way animals think and the way man thinks to develop a picture of natural history and how that plays out in various literature. To be in a natural state is to be bored. This is certainly true when you’ve been sitting in a camp somewhere for more than six hours. Boredom, Santer states, is to be in a state that obstinately refuses itself. This may explain why bushwalking is simultaneously exhilarating and utterly boring. The thrill of starting a long walk is quickly tempered by the mundanity of the act.

Somewhere in the relationship between man and animal is the notion of the creaturely, the space between real and symbolic death. Natural history tries to make sense of these forces:

“Natural history is born out of the dual possibilities that life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms that give it meaning and that symbolic forms can persist beyond the death of the form of life that gave that human vitality.”

In the context of Natural history the universe doesn’t end when you die. The modes of understanding that make us human also exist and persist outside of us and continue on in a collective sense. The idea that “life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms” leads to a fascination with violence and war and the decay of human orders in order to give structure to the narration of natural history. All of this leads to allegory which is a signifier of temporality. In allegory, Santer argues, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history. (p18) The most extreme example as represented in the skull. A ruin, for example, is irresistible decay. Therefore, in allegory, as a expression of temporality, mans subjection to nature is most obvious.

When we look at the works of Sebald and some of the take away messages of Natural History – simply being there – the thereness – and grasping the changing face of history; the impact of the observation of death and decay, is experienced as trauma. For the characters is Sebalds work, observation is not a beholding, but recollecting traces of past lives and lost possibilities. They become a medium and photographic apparatus for communion with the dead. (p.53) Hence why we get the feeling history has a strangle-hold on these people to find out what they can.
Finally, past suffering has been absorbed into the substance of lived space, into the setting of human history. Basically, natural history is all around us, a kind of morphic resonance that lies beyond the books, but is present if you know how to read the landscape and people.

All this seems a bit dark and dreary, especially when thinking about wilderness walks and their apparent healing processes, but each track will have a story to tell, and having a sense of the natural history of a track will make the story I will try to tell more informative. Pilgrimages are predicated on the movement of people and automatically trigger within us the notion of the past and salvation. Songlines bring to us the past and carry with them the stories of the past. The Bibbulmun track, for example, has aboriginal, colonial, forestry, mining histories embedded in the landscapes that it passes through. Apparently the Wilson Inlet in Walpole is the oldest inlet in the world. The track itself has its own history and the way it developed and changes.

Bill Bryson spends a bit of time discussing the history of the Appalachian trail before the character in A Walk in the Woods sets foot on the trail. I’ll be reading that book over the next week or two to see how popular walking stories work.

 

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