This interview is the most comprehensive I have been part of to date; discussing walking, poetry, environment, music, ecology and death.
This interview is the most comprehensive I have been part of to date; discussing walking, poetry, environment, music, ecology and death.
There were three of them sitting around a table at a diner. Don Quixote, Sancho and Pockets were sitting around a table in a diner that served good ice-cream, they had discovered; but not strawberry ice-cream they had discovered, to their disappointment. Pockets, which was not her real name, had no sense of humour and even when she ate nearly all of her ice-cream cone and the ice-cream exploded out the bottom of the cone and went all over her face and blouse and table she didn’t laugh, even though Don Quixote and Sancho were laughing at her she didn’t laugh along, instead she went to the bathroom and cleaned herself up. When she was in the bathroom cleaning herself up, Sancho looked at Don Quixote and Don Quixote looked at Sancho. They both knew what their looks meant and Sancho asked Don Quixote why, on a Friday night, they were eating ice-cream instead of drinking at a bar somewhere. Don Quixote replied by saying that all Sancho ever thought about was drinking beer, and eating, and that perhaps he might need his strength for the trail and the adventures they would encounter. Sancho said that sugar is bad for you, just as bad as alcohol and that people eat sugar all the time, they’re addicted to sugar and they don’t even realise they can’t go a day or two without a sugar hit.
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.
Tucked quietly away on the zpacks website is the Duplex tarp. That’s the Duplex tent minus the groundsheet and bug netting. Or maybe the duplex tent is the tarp plus the groundsheet and bug netting?
Why I am I being facetious? The way the Duplex tarp is presented, or should I say not presented, one could come to conclude that the tent came before the tarp. Or the tent is so vastly superior to the tarp that the tarp isn’t even worth considering. There’s not even a picture of the Duplex tarp on the zpacks website. There’s just an option to buy the tarp, sight unseen. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s not a single photo of a Duplex tarp on the web, to my knowledge.
With some long walks on my horizon I wanted a shelter that could do it all. I’m already a flat tarp user and while I love having a flat tarp it usually takes me about an hour altogether to get set up perfect. The time it takes from site selection to locking the bug net down can seem like a eternity.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this process. Having a flat tarp means every shelter is customised to your selected site. I enjoy this on walks less than two weeks long but any longer than that and I want a shelter that can be put up quickly and assuredly.
Coming from the perspective of a flat tarp user, I wanted a shelter that could give me the versatility of a flat tarp and the convenience of a freestanding tent. Oh yeah, and it needed to be light. Ultralight. What about bomb proof? What about with massive floorspace? Sound impossible?
So do I take a gamble on the Duplex tent without the groundsheet and bug netting? I’m thinking well, you’re a bit over walking poles. You have been using a zpacks staff for a few years. I love the staff but they’re not the best shelter support unless the peak is the same height as the staff (you have to take the staff apart and then the height is not micro-adjustable).
Also, I said to myself, I want to be able to write while I’m walking. Furthermore, I like picking my nose a lot, and walking poles and nose picking do not go hand in hand.
That was the limit of my thought processes.
I picked the woodland/camo because it’s a bit thicker and a bit darker inside.
Enter the ‘Flex’ freestanding poles. These are some carbon fiber poles that zpacks get from Easton. They weight 280 grams. When the ‘Flex’ freestanding poles were released by zpacks some of the critics over at the Backpackinglight forums chucked in their two cents. Here are some of the objections:
“This flex design seems to me more a case of trying to make the flexible poles fit the design of the Duplex rather than making the most of the poles by having 2 longer continuous poles that cross on each side of the shelter and redesigning the shelter to suit the poles.”
“The idea of using a Duplex without trekking poles sounds cool, except of course the addition of 12oz poles eats a lot of the weight savings that makes the Duplex so great.”
“Hmm… agreed… just looking at it, intuitively I don’t see how it can withstand a substantial wind load without collapsing, let alone a good dump of snow. Can that ridge line really support as much tension as one pitched with trekking poles? Looks as if Joe had a pretty good test venue there… Scotland?
But even if it does work, I too cannot see carrying around an extra 11 ounces when I’ve got two perfectly good trekking poles weighing 7.2 oz total.”
The overall consensus was that the ‘Flex’ poles were superfluous ‘if you walk with trekking poles’. A lot of the comments also said that they had never had a situation where a non-freestanding tent was difficult to pitch easily. Having had some experience with non-freestanding tents, I find this statement hard to believe. I like a drum tight pitch and will spend ages re-positioning stakes and tightening guylines until it works the way I like. Some people I’ve seen can set their non-freestanding tent up and not care.
For me however I don’t want to carry walking poles and I prefer to have a floor-less shelter. The more I thought about a Duplex tarp combined with the freestanding poles, the more the combination started to make sense. Since I’m limiting my options to not having walking poles, for this comparison I presume you would be carrying the carbon fiber poles with the Duplex tent (not the freestanding poles) that zpacks sells that go into the peaks.
For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m banging on about, this is the Duplex tent:
You’ll notice the groundsheet and the netting is sewn to the tarp. You’ll also notice that there are two poles keeping the tent up, one in the middle of each door. These are the dedicated carbon poles zpacks sells. Many hikers use their walking poles to keep the tent up instead of the carbon poles pictured.
I’m comparing the above to this:
In this photo the netting and the groundsheet are connected but they are separable. There are a variety of groundsheets and nets you can use instead of the ones shown. The netting creates an inner (second) cocoon for the sleeper, this is called a double walled tent. The poles keeping the tent up are on the outside of the canopy and do not require stakes to keep it up.
Some astute readers might point out that the comparison isn’t fair – a non-freestanding single wall Duplex versus a freestanding double walled modular Duplex? Apples and oranges, as the saying goes. Yes, but I’ll give the non-freestanding a head start.
Now, the all important weight numbers.
From the zpacks website, the Duplex full tent numbers are:
– The Duplex Tarp with taped seams and sewn in linelocs weighs 9.5 ounces (269 grams)
– The included guy lines and door clips weigh about 1.2 ounces (34 grams)
– The sewn in Cuben Fiber bathtub floor and bug screen weighs 10.0 ounces (284 grams)
– The included medium-plus 7″ x 13″ stuff sack adds .3 ounces (8 grams)
– The total weight for the packed tent is 21.0 ounces (595 grams).
– If you’re carrying the dedicated carbon poles they’re 60 grams each, so + 120 grams
Total = 715g.
On the other hand, the freestanding Duplex tarp combination comes in at:
– The duplex tarp alone is 9.5 ounces or 269 grams.
– The flex pole set and hardware is 10 oz or 282g.
– Add your own groundsheet (MLD DUO 60g, or zpacks solo bathtub 91g)
– Bug net = Sea to Summit solo nano = 80 grams.
– Guylines = 34 grams
Total = 725g.
Starting to get interesting?
Both weights do not include stakes. Arguably you’ll need less stakes for the freestanding tent than the non-freestanding tent. You could argue you don’t need any stakes, just like Joe does in his set up video.
Zpacks says the non-freestanding tent requires a minimum of 8 stakes, so at 6 grams a piece (for some shepherd hooks and carbon stake combo) = 48 grams, bringing the total to 763 grams.
From my limited experience with the freestanding Duplex tarp (in windy conditions) you’ll need 6 stakes as a minimum; so 12 grams less, bringing the total to 761 grams.
EXACTLY the same weight. A double walled tent at the same weight as a single walled tent? I’m in.
You could use a bivy instead of the groundsheet/net combo as well, saving weight but sacrificing sleeping space.
I saved up and watched the poor AUD/USD exchange rate put the object a few more weeks out of reach and then placed my order and waited eight weeks.
Okay here’s some photos:
Above: Duplex Flex tarp with shortened x-therm max. Note no bug net.
The interior space is huge. With all the doors closed there’s 2.2m to roll around in.
Above: with the DUO Sea to Summit bug net. I’ve since figured out the corners of the bug net are better off being hooked to where the tarp poles meet the ground.
Above: There are two mid panel tie outs. I’ve read in various places the panels can flap around a lot in high winds. Maybe having two tie outs will help? With the mid-panel toggle connecting the freestanding poles to the tarp there is more head room in the center of the tarp by default.
Not having used a Duplex tent, here are my imagined advantages and disadvantages of the Duplex freestanding tarp over the non-freestanding Duplex tent (integrated floor and bug netting). Some of these comparisons apply to all modular floor-less tarps to integrated tents.
When you factor in the price of the carbon poles the Duplex tent is $600 (USD) plus $60. If you had a freestanding full Duplex tent, you’re looking at $750 USD.
The Duplex tarp is $375 USD plus $150 for the Flex poles totaling $525. You then have to factor in the bug net and groundsheet price; S2S bug net ($40USD) and tyvek or polycryo ($10).
Next, set up.
One advantage of the integrated full Duplex tent is that there would be a little bit less stuffing around. Maybe ‘stuffing around’ is the wrong phrase – perhaps, ‘less initial set up time’ is more accurate. I’ve spent a few hours cutting bungee cords and getting the inner net working.
The apparent convenience of the integrated tent comes at the cost of versatility.
As said, for me, I value versatility and ‘modularity’ over maximum convenience. In the context of the freestanding duplex tarp against the non-freestanding duplex tent the convenience is subjective. The floor-less freestanding tarp is more convenient if you’re ‘cowboy camping’ and it starts raining in the middle of the night. In this video I have a waterproof shelter erected in less than 3 minutes. Keep in mind this is probably the fourth time I have set the tarp up. (The first night I set the tarp up was a day before this in the dark and drizzling rain.)
One of the coolest things for me is that you can plonk the tarp over the top of your sleeping bag, mattress and groundsheet. You can’t do that with an integrated tent.
Other advantages of the modular Duplex tarp over the non-freestanding Duplex tent:
I can unhook the inner and use the inner with the freestanding poles and have a freestanding net tent to use in bug infested areas on clear nights or during the day when the flies are out.
When decamping I can lift the tarp up and move it away from the contents inside. No crouching and crawling in and out of the tent as I pack my backpack. Bonus.
I can then make the walls vertical of the freestanding tarp and let it dry while I finish packing up. Bonus.
Did I say there are no poles in the doorway?
What if it’s blowing a gale? I can set the tent up with both the inner poles/walking poles and the freestanding poles together. You can grab a stick or two in bad weather to support the ‘Flex’ mode. Bombproof.
Shepherd hooks are actually useful in the corner tie-outs where the poles meet the ground. The tension in the carbon poles pulls the stake loop taught meaning the shepherd hooks won’t rotate and flip out. In fact, in these corners shepherd hooks work better than larger stakes because they are easier to fit in.
You can set it up with the walls vertical or with the walls more horizontal depending on the site size.
Even in a light wind you need at least two stakes to keep the tarp down.
You can carry it around one handed. If I set up on an ants nest, moving is quick.
Finding a flat site is not as critical with a floor-less tarp. The corners of the freestanding tarp can be staked down if one pole hangs in the air. There is no sagging of the bathtub floor if you’re on a uneven site, as discussed at Willis Wall.
With the bug netting set up this is a double walled tent. I already owned a Sea to Summit nano solo and double net-tent from my flat-tarp days. These work well in my opinion. The double wall will collect condensation that gets dislodged when the tarp shakes in wind or by large drops from a tree.
A few companies make inners that would be appropriate for the Duplex tarp. zpacks once made one, but do not offer them for unknown reasons.
They do offer a single door hexamid. I was wrong, they don’t.
Above: the elusive zpacks Duplex inner. Maybe this year zpacks will offer the inners?
Above: Tarptent make a few that might work?
Above: Six Moon Designs make a Haven net tent. The ridge line is off centre though, so I’m not sure if it’ll work.
Can you think of any others? Please share. (If you have a good condition second hand one of these inner nets, please message me)
I might try one of these one day but for the moment I’m happy having the bug net and groundsheet separate. If I have the full double walled tarp and bug net set up I can leave the groundsheet and contents where they are on the ground and pull the upper way out of the way. Alternatively I can set up the groundsheet and mattress etc as I need them and add the bug net or tarp later. Usually at lunch or at the end of the day you just want to throw your groundsheet and mattress down and not have to think about how everything is going to work.
Some people like having a seamless groundsheet and bug net, which I can understand. You can get the Sea to Summit bug net and groundsheet pretty tight, especially with oversized tyvek or the polycryo. It won’t be a ‘perfect’ seal though.
Speaking of groundsheets, with this set up they are interchangeable as they wear out.
If there is a downpour in the middle of the day, I do not mind setting the tarp up to sit out the worst of it. When I owned a non-freestanding tent even if I was walking in four foot of water I couldn’t be bothered setting the tent up at lunch-time. Lunch didn’t occur on those days.
This for me defines the beauty of the Duplex ‘Flex’ Tarp – its simplicity. For long hikes I want a shelter I want to use, not a compromise for weight savings. Psychologically I know it’s easy and I know it works. I want to put it up, even when it’s not raining, because it’s so easy.
Shout out to John Abela for talking through the options with me before making this purchase.
Lastly, here is an example of a summer gear list with the MLD Core pack pictured above.
This story appeared in Rumble Strip.
Sorcha told me that whenever she walks in the wind blown streets of Fremantle, she always tends to think of the place underwater. She said she doesn’t know exactly how the buildings will change, but some will have a permanent watermark and their basements and ground floor will become fish tanks. The warming air is warming the oceans and melting icesheets and sea levels are predicted to rise as much as one point one metres over the coming decades and if the seas rise a salt water triangle beginning at the northern end of Packenham street, to Bathers beach, to Little Creatures and then up to South Terrace will all be inundated, the waters rising and falling with the tide each day. The skatepark that runs south-east along the line of the train tracks within the grounds of the Esplanade park will have water rising half way up the half pipes and filling the bowls. This, she said, as if she had been pondering the image for some time, will be an unexpected reversal, as swimming pools are usually drained to make bowls for skateboarding.
Sorcha said you can feel the planet getting hotter and nowadays nobody goes out during the middle of the day and just last night, the temperature rose two point five degrees from 11pm to 1am and has continued to rise all morning until only the brave or those with air-conditioning venture out. The heat, especially standing in direct sunlight, is hot enough to burn the dash board of cars and many arguments have erupted about the apparent ownership of shaded parking bays closest to the markets or to the Woolstores shopping centre. These violent outbursts directed at complete strangers occur daily and onlookers are seen filming the incidents on their mobile phones to upload on social media. I too, began Sorcha, witnessed one of these outbursts, when a woman with black hair and black clothing had been attempting to reverse into a parking bay and a man snuck into her spot near a paperbark tree. When the passengers of the mans car opened their doors they were ambushed by the woman, speaking in Cantonese, which they understood, except for the driver who instructed the woman to get lost, before making his way through the steaming vehicles to the food court. The irate woman who missed her spot left her car stationary in the middle of the car park causing a traffic jam and all kinds of honking from other drivers. As the passengers were following the man to the food court they spotted another car leaving and stood at the entrance of the bay until the angry woman was able to slowly reverse her late model Mercedes into the spot and hastily throw her foil sun protection screen inside the windscreen and secured it with the visors. I often wonder, said Sorcha, if people suddenly find themselves at a breaking point and lose their shit one day or live their lives going from one confrontation to another without realising.
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?’
‘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?’
‘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?’
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.
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,
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.”
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.
Here’s a list of the walks I plan to do over the next couple of years:
and the Bibbulmun track.
After all that I hope to have a crack at the Bibbulmun track fastest self-supported time. The fastest known supported time as at Dec 2015 is 15 days held by Bernadette Benson.
Keep a look out on this blog for posts about each of these walks.